Tragic events are unfortunately all too common in history. Take the time Canada set out to assimilate Indigenous kids into the country’s dominant culture. To do that, Canadian authorities literally kidnapped thousands of children and sent them to mandatory boarding schools, where they were housed in horrible conditions, and were subjected to neglect and various cruelties and abuses. Thousands of innocent kids died as a result. Following are thirty things about that and other tragic historic events.
30. The Tragic Fates of Indigenous Children in Canada’s Mandatory Boarding Schools
In the nineteenth century, Canada established a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous children, funded by the government and administered by Christian churches. Known as the Indian Residential School System, it sought to assimilate Indigenous kids into mainstream white Canadian culture. In theory, the assimilationist intentions were benign. At least compared to what took place to Canada’s south in the nineteenth century, where American authorities did not even bother with a pretense of an attempt to assimilate the Natives. Indeed, the one time that Natives voluntarily settled down in the US, established towns, and emulated Europeans, their reward was expulsion from their lands and the tragic Trail of Tears.
Most of the time, US officialdom oscillated between attempts to push the Natives into impoverished reservations at the milder end of things or genocidal attempts to outright exterminate them at the more extreme end. In all scenarios, both in the US and Canada, the results were varying degrees of tragic and horrific for the Natives. In Canada, the Residential School System kidnapped Indigenous children from their families and placed them in boarding schools where they were often subjected to neglect, sundry abuses, and cruel treatment. As seen below, thousands died as a result, and their bodies were dumped in unmarked graves on school grounds.
29. Indigenous Children Were Deliberately Cut Off From Their Families
For about a century and a half, from 1863 to 1998, over 130 Indian Residential Schools were funded by the Canadian government, and until 1969, many of them were run by Christian churches. In 1894, attendance at day schools where available, or boarding schools where day schools were unavailable, was made mandatory for Indigenous children. The remote nature of many Indigenous communities meant that boarding schools were the only option for their children. If families refused to part with their kids, the authorities went ahead and forcibly seized them, and placed them in boarding schools.
There, the kids were often cut off from contact with their families. Both because of the long distances involved and because their parents needed passes to leave the Indigenous reservations – passes that the authorities often refused to grant. In the meantime, their children were often abused by teachers and administrators, both physically and sexually. The Indigenous kids in the boarding schools were poorly fed – and sometimes not fed for days on end – and frequently suffered from malnutrition. They were frequently subjected to harsh discipline, including severe corporal punishment, that would not have been tolerated in white Canadian schools.
28. Thousands of Indigenous Children Died From Neglect and Abuse in Canada’s Mandatory Boarding Schools
In addition to cruel treatment, Indigenous kids in the mandatory boarding schools were often housed in overcrowded dormitories, with poor sanitation, unclean water, no or inadequate sewage, and insufficient heating to cope with Canada’s harsh winters. Between that and an absence of medical care, diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis were rife. Because the amount of federal funding depended on enrollment figures, schools enrolled sick children to boost their numbers. In one school, student death rates reached 69 percent. About 150,000 Indigenous kids were placed in mandatory schools. Because of poor record-keeping, the number of school deaths is unknown, but estimates range from a low of 3,200 to highs of more than 30,000.
Perhaps the final tragic twist in a tale already full of the tragic is that the end result of the Indigenous kids’ education was often adults unable to fit back into their original communities. After years of speaking only English or French in boarding schools, many had forgotten their Indigenous languages by the time they graduated, and were no longer able to communicate with their relatives. However, they were still Indigenous, and despite the Residential School System’s professed assimilationist intent, they were denied assimilation because of the racist and exclusionary attitudes of mainstream white Canadian society.
27. The Nazis’ Tragic Indoctrination of German Children in the Ways of Hate and Horridness
Nazi Germany committed many atrocities, and one of the most tragic is how it went about the mass indoctrination of innocent children, to turn them into obedient and hate-filled cogs in their monstrous machine. However, not all German kids were eager to accept the fare fed them by the Nazis, and some of them adamantly refused to go along. In a mixture of youthful courage and the instinctive teenage desire to express their individuality, some German youngsters, who came to be known as the “Edelweiss Pirates”, bucked the system and defined themselves in opposition to the Nazis.
The Nazis’ perversion of the young began before they assumed power. In 1922, they established a youth arm to recruit, indoctrinate, and train members for their paramilitary arm, the Storm Troopers, or Brown Shirts. As the party became more numerous and powerful, so did the size of its youth arm, which was renamed the Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”) in 1926. When the Nazis gained power in 1933, they made their youth arm Germany’s sole official youth organization, and took over and folded preexisting youth organizations into their own. Hitler appointed a Reich Youth Leader to oversee the takeover.
The Nazis divided their youth organization into the Hitler Youth proper for boys aged fourteen to eighteen, plus a junior branch for boys aged ten to fourteen. Girls from ages ten to eighteen had a parallel organization, the League of German Girls. Youngsters were taught Nazi doctrine, and were encouraged to snitch on those who criticized Hitler or the Party. There were tragic situations in which children turned in their own parents for statements or acts deemed disloyal to the Fuhrer. Nazi propaganda praised and lionized such youngsters.
German children were also taught to link those designated as enemies by the state – such as Jews – with societal decline, and with Germany’s defeat in World War I. Membership in the Hitler Youth was voluntary in the Third Reich’s early years, but it eventually became obligatory. The parents of children who had not signed up fell under suspicion, and were often brought in for questioning or otherwise harassed by the authorities. Children not enrolled were subjected to peer pressure and ostracism from their schoolmates and teachers.
25. The Nazis Eventually Conscripted Children Into Their Organizations, Regardless of Their Parents’ Consent
Nazi efforts to expand the numbers of children enrolled in their organizations worked. At the end of 1932, the Hitler Youth had 108,000 members. By the end of 1933, the Nazis’ first year in power, that number had shot up to 2,300,000, and by December 1936, there were more than five million Hitler Youth. That month, membership was made mandatory for all Aryan youth, and in March 1939, they were conscripted en masse into the organization, regardless of their parents’ objections.
One year after World War II began, the Hitler Youth were reorganized into an auxiliary force to perform war duties. Chapters became active in local fire brigades and in recovery efforts after Allied bombing raids, helped deliver the mail, and assisted the military, such as with service alongside antiaircraft gun batteries. As the war dragged on and German losses mounted, the Third Reich faced a growing military manpower shortage. So in 1943, the Hitler Youth was tapped as a manpower reserve, and the tragic sight of Nazi-indoctrinated children on the front lines increasingly common as the war progressed.
24. In a Tragic Twist, the Nazis Transformed Hitherto Innocent Children Into Fanatics, Monsters, and War Criminals
To put German children on the war’s front lines, a plan was approved in 1943 for the formation of an SS division comprised of Hitler Youth – the 12th SS Panzer Hitlerjugend. The Hitler Youth division fought in Normandy in 1944, where it gained a reputation for ferocious fanaticism. The Nazified kids committed their first atrocity of note before they had even seen combat, when they massacred 86 civilians in Ascq, France, on April 1, 1944. A few months later, in the Normandy Campaign, the Hitler Youth division added to its infamy when it massacred Canadian prisoners of war in what became known as the Ardenne Abbey Massacre.
As the situation grew even more dire for Germany, the Nazis increasingly turned to their youth organization, and by 1945, Volkssturm units – the Nazi militias – routinely drafted Hitler Youth members as young as twelve-years-old into their ranks. As the curtain fell on the Third Reich, Hitler Youth units played a conspicuous role in the last days of the Battle of Berlin. In a tragic last stand, they fought so ferociously for their namesake that only two members of a children’s unit that manned the Nazis’ last line of defense survived.
23. Nazis Encouraged Underage Boys and Girls to Mate, and Officials Molested Girls Enrolled in Nazi Organizations
While the Third Reich indoctrinated Hitler Youth boys to become good Nazis and prepared them to become soldiers, its League of German Girls trained girls to become good Nazi wives and mothers. Leaders of the female branch were even directed to recruit girls of good genetic stock, to breed with SS and Nazi officials in accordance with a selective breeding program known as Lebensborn. The girls were matched with breeding partners, impregnated, and the program afforded them facilities in which to give birth and receive prenatal and postnatal care. Because the Hitlerjugend and the League of German Girls were deemed Aryan organizations, premarital sex between their members was often encouraged, in a bid to increase the stock of Aryan babies.
Mixed-gender gatherings of the youth organizations, such as the Nuremberg Rallies, often produced bumper crops of teen pregnancies. The most famous of those, the 1936 Nuremberg Rally, led to an estimated 900 pregnancies. It is unclear how many of those pregnancies were the result of consensual sex between Nazi teens, and how many the result of molestation by adult Nazis, but the number of pregnancies dismayed many. Traditional conservative elements still held some sway in the Nazi party at the time, and the Lebensborn crowd had not yet gained an ascendancy, so a temporary stir and kerfuffle ensued. To add a layer of tragedy to the icky, many of the pregnancies were terminated by abortions, on orders from the Party.
22. The Tragic German Children Who Resisted Nazi Overtures
Not all German youngsters were eager recipients of Nazi propaganda, and some refused to get on board with the official program. To resist the pressure to join the Hitlerjugend was difficult and often hazardous, but some brave youths nonetheless refused to simply go along. Best known among them were the so-called Edelweiss Pirates, a loose association of youth movements in western Germany that developed in opposition to the regimentation of the Hitler Youth. They took their name from the edelweiss – a hardy white mountain flower that grows in high altitudes.
As with many youth cultures across the ages, the Edelweiss Pirates set themselves apart with a distinctive style of dress that became common among their members. They did not all use the title Edelweiss Pirates – the Cologne branch, for example, referred to themselves as “Navajos” – but they shared some common traits. Foremost among them was that they encouraged free thought, and eschewed the strict gender segregation of the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls, in favor of co-ed activities. Their fates were often tragic.
Hitler’s power may lay us low, And keep us locked in chains, But we will smash the chains one day, We’ll be free again We’ve got fists and we can fight, We’ve got knives and we’ll get them out We want freedom, don’t we boys? We’re the fighting Navajos!
– Song of the Navajos, a subset of the Edelweiss Pirates
21. German Youth Had to Head Out to the Sticks to Be Able to Freely Express Themselves
Members of the Edelweiss Pirates often engaged in outdoor activities, and organized camping and hiking trips. During those times, they often had the freedom, while temporarily away from snoops and snitches, to partake in prohibited activities such as to sing, dance, and listen to music deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis, like jazz and the blues. Few things are more illustrative of the darkness that descended upon Germany during the Third Reich than the fact that kids had to go out into the wilderness just to be able to engage in such innocent activities.
Out in the sticks, the Edelweiss Pirates were also able to express themselves, and openly discuss topics and voice opinions that would have gotten them in trouble with the authorities had they been overheard by informants back home. A common theme was their opposition to what they viewed as the excessively paramilitary nature of the Hitler Youth. The authorities initially dismissed the Edelweiss Pirates as minor irritants and teenage delinquents going through a phase, but attitudes hardened once WWII began.
20. The Nazis Began to Target Subversive Youths During WWII
During WWII, the Edelweiss Pirates were increasingly targeted by the Nazis. In the conflict’s early years, they were blamed for collecting anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets dropped by British bombers, and stuffing them into mailboxes. That was viewed as subversion during wartime and treason. In 1941, a Nazi official wrote about a subset known as the Kittelbach Pirates: “Every child knows who the Kittelbach Pirates are. They are everywhere; there are more of them than there are Hitler Youth… They beat up the patrols… They never take no for an answer“.
In 1943, authorities in Dusseldorf complained to the Gestapo that the local Edelweiss “gang” was a bad influence on other youth, as well as on young soldiers, who hung out with them while on leave. The report noted: “These adolescents, aged between 12 and 17, hang around late in the evening with musical instruments and young females. Since this riff-raff is in large part outside the Hitler Youth and adopts a hostile attitude towards the organization, they represent a danger to other young people.”
19. Things Got Tragic For the Edelweiss Pirates Once They Attracted Himmler’s Attention
Although the Nazis began to target the Edelweiss Pirates, local authorities were nonetheless relatively lenient with them compared to how they dealt with adult subversives. For example, penalties for the “delinquents”, who often kept their hair long and their appearance bohemian to set themselves apart from the militarized regimentation all around them, were often limited to a stern warning, after which their heads were shaved. That was not enough for Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS. He wanted an example made of youths who failed to show complete loyalty, and deemed any half measures to be unacceptable.
Once they got on Himmler’s radar, things were bound to get tragic for the anti-Nazi youths. In 1942, Himmler wrote to his deputy Reinhard Heydrich that he wanted the Edelweiss Pirates to do two or three-year stints in concentration camps: “There the youth should first be given thrashings and then put through the severest drill and set to work. It must be made clear that they will never be allowed to go back to their studies. We must investigate how much encouragement they have had from their parents. If they have encouraged them, then they should also be put into a concentration camp and (have) their property confiscated”.
18. In a Tragic Development, Many of the Edelweiss Pirates Morphed Into Reactionaries After WWII
In 1944, Himmler ordered a brutal crackdown on youngsters who failed to toe the Nazi line. That November, thirteen youths were hanged in public in Cologne, many of them active or former Edelweiss Pirates. The repression failed to break the youth coalition, however. It continued as a deviant subculture that rejected the norms of Nazi society until the “Thousand Year Reich” went down to defeat after a mere twelve years. After the war, some factions of the Edelweiss Pirates attempted to work with the Allied occupation authorities and were welcomed, particularly by the communists in the Soviet-occupied zone.
However, most of them, true to their ethos, turned their backs on the attempt to politicize their movement. They had risked their lives to evade the regimentation of the Nazis, and were not eager to embrace regimentation under the communists. In a tragic development, those in what became communist East Germany ended up as dissidents and social outcasts, and many did long stints in prison as a result. In West Germany, in yet another tragic twist to an already tragic tale, many Edelweiss Pirates ended up as reactionaries, even less reconciled to defeat than the Nazis. They became notorious for their attacks on Germans – particularly women – who were friendly or intimate with occupation soldiers.
17. When the Germans Tried to Economize on the Manpower Necessary to Guard the Belgian-Dutch Border in World War I
In World War II, Germany invaded both the Netherlands and adjacent Belgium in order to get at France from the northeast. However, in the First World War, the Germans invaded only Belgium, and the Netherlands remained neutral. That left a lengthy border between the two countries, through which smugglers, spies, and saboteurs, slipped back and forth, and prisoners of war escaped to freedom. By the end of 1914, over a million Belgians had crossed into the Netherlands as refugees. The task of guarding the porous border tied down many German soldiers. Soldiers who were desperately needed elsewhere.
When the war began in August 1914, it was greeted with great enthusiasm by millions, who expected that it would last for only a few weeks or months at most, and would be over by Christmas. Instead, the conflict turned into a horrific bloodbath. It was stalemated in attritional combat in the trenches of the Western Front, which stretched for hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea. So the Germans wracked their brains to come up with ways to economize on the manpower necessary to guard the Belgian-Dutch border. The results were tragic for many.
Early in 1915, the Germans erected an electric fence along a stretch of the Swiss border in order to isolate some Alsatian villages from Switzerland, and it proved effective. So they decided to replicate it on a grander scale, along the border between German-occupied Belgium, and the neutral Netherlands. Construction commenced in the spring of 1915 of an electric fence that stood five to ten feet high and covered over 125 miles of the Belgian-Dutch border from the Scheldt River to Aix-la-Chappelle. It was charged with 2,000 to 6,000 volt wires that ran through it.
Those caught within 100 to 550 yards of the fence who could not explain their presence were summarily shot. By war’s end, about 3,000 people had been killed along what came to be known as “The Wire of Death”, and newspapers in the southern Netherlands carried almost daily reports of unfortunates who had been “lightninged to death“. Nonetheless, while the fence reduced border crossings, it did not eliminate them. Many managed to cross the border with creative methods such as tunnels beneath the fence, the use of extra high ladders, pole vaulting over it, or tying porcelain plates to their shoes in order to insulate them.
The Great War, or World War I as it became known after it was followed by an even greater just two decades later, was a tragic, horrific and brutalizing experience for the millions of soldiers who found themselves stuck fighting in it. For those engaged in the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, in Flanders, “stuck” took on a literal meaning when unusually wet weather conditions morphed much of the region into a sea of mud deep enough to swallow soldiers, and even horses.
Flanders is a low-lying coastal region along the North Sea in Belgium, where the water table is seldom far below the ground. The area is naturally prone to muddiness, but 1917 saw relentless rains that enhanced its already muddy norms. Artillery barrages churned the ground and made it even muddier. Thousands of horses and mules died from exhaustion as they tried to drag gun carriages and wagon loads through the mire, and sometimes it took over six hours to move an artillery piece a mere 250 yards.
14. Mud Made the Already Tragic and Miserable Conditions of WWI Trenches Even More Miserable and Tragic
Stuck in the mud of Flanders amidst the Battle of Passchendaele, it often took six men to stretcher a single casualty over the muck. Men stumbled through glue-like mud that sucked the boots from their feet, and that was often as deep as their waists or deeper. Soldiers no longer thought of those in different uniforms as the enemy: that honor, or dishonor, went to the deep and all-devouring mud. Wounded men often faced a tragic end when they were swallowed up by the slime, and hale men were frequently buried when sodden trench walls collapsed around them.
Soldiers came to fear the mud even more than they feared their opponents’ shells, bullets, and bayonets. As a British officer described his men’s suffering: “Covered with mud, wet to the skin, bitterly cold, stiff and benumbed with exposure, cowed and deadened by the monotony of 48 hours in extreme danger and by the constant casualties among their mates, they hung on to existence by a thin thread of discipline rather than by any spark of life. Some of the feebler and more highly strung deliberately ended their lives.”
13. When French Settlers in Algeria Were Angered by the Natives’ Celebration of the End of WWII
WWII in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, with Germany’s surrender. It was a day of celebration in the victor nations, but the celebrations took a tragic turn in the French colony of Algeria. In the eastern Algerian town of Setif, thousands of native Algerian men, women, and children, held a parade to commemorate the victory. Over 200,000 Algerians had been conscripted by their French colonial overlords during the war, and the marchers planned to lay a wreath at a monument erected in honor of Algerians killed in the conflict.
However, the parade, whose numbers included many Algerian veterans recently returned from the front lines, angered French settlers and French police. The French feared both the march’s undertones of Algerian nationalism, and the assertion of a right to equality with French settlers. Algeria was considered a part of metropolitan France, but it was governed with a form of apartheid in which French white settlers were privileged above native Algerians. Any attempt by the natives to seek equality with French settlers was bound to upset the latter, and when that happened in Setif, things took a horrific turn.
Roughly 5,000 native Algerians marched in Setif to celebrate the end of WWII, and some of them carried placards that stated “We Want Equality“, and “End the Occupation“. Others called for the release of Algerian political prisoners held by the colonial authorities. When the marchers with placards refused to get rid of them, French settlers and police opened fire on the unarmed crowds. The result was an outbreak of riots, followed by attacks on French settlers throughout the region, in which about 100 were killed.
The head of the French government in Metropolitan France, General Charles De Gaulle, ordered the colonial authorities in Algeria to restore order by all means possible. The French military responded to the unrest in Setif with a campaign of collective punishment that entailed the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons of war against Algerian civilians. From the sea, French battleships and cruisers opened fire on native Algerian neighborhoods in Setif and its surrounding environs. From the air, French dive bombers struck and flattened over 40 Algerian villages.
11. The French Indulged in Violent Reprisals at Setif
After the unrest was suppressed in the Setif region and order was restored, French authorities carried out brutal reprisals against native Algerians. French soldiers performed a ratissage, or “raking over” of Algerian rural communities suspected of involvement in the unrest, in which thousands were shot in summary executions. Simultaneously, French settlers went on a vigilante rampage in which they lynched Algerians seized from local jails, randomly shot natives out of hand, tortured them to death, or doused them in fuel and set them on fire.
Humiliation routinely accompanied the repression. Algerian men were frequently forced to kneel in front of a French flag, then made to shout “We are dogs” before they were led away, never to be seen again. By the time the violence finally came to an end weeks later, thousands of Algerian natives had perished. The exact numbers are unknown, but most historians put the death toll of the tragic events at Setif within a range of 6,000 to 20,000, while some contemporary news sources put the figure as high as 45,000.
10. The Tragic Fate of the Congo Under King Leopold II
King Leopold II of Belgium is not one of the first names most people associate with massive atrocities. However, his name belongs in the same league as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao: from 1885 to 1908, Leopold ran a colonial empire so vile and cruel that it rivals or exceeds the worst of most twentieth-century monsters. The Belgian king’s colonial victims numbered in the millions, with ten million dead the most commonly cited figure, although some scholarly estimates go as high as fifteen million.
It began in 1885 when Leopold painted himself as a humanitarian philanthropist and convinced other European powers then gathered at the Berlin Conference to award him a large state in central Africa. So they gave him what is today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was tragic for the locals. Leopold named the new colony the Congo Free State. It did not belong to Belgium but was Leopold’s private property, and he squeezed the locals hard to enrich himself. He did not uplift the natives and develop the region as he had promised. Instead, he transformed his African possession into a living nightmare that claimed millions of lives in widespread atrocities that came to be known as the “Congo Horrors“.
9. Leopold II Promised to End Slavery in the Congo, Then Allied Himself With its Biggest Slaver
King Leopold II consolidated his power in the Congo River basin through an expedient alliance with a powerful Arab slave trader named Tippu Tip. That was awkward, given that the Belgian monarch had convinced the Berlin Conference to award him the Congo with a promise that he would combat its endemic slave trade. Leopold made Tippu a provincial governor in the eastern Congo and gave him a free hand in exchange for the slaver’s promise not to compete with the king in the western Congo.
Unsurprisingly, Tippu ramped up his slaving activities in his province, until Leopold, under pressure from European public opinion, turned on his slaver ally. He double-crossed Tippu, and raised a mercenary force that expelled him from the Congo. Leopold then reorganized his mercenaries into an occupation army named the Force Publique, and turned it loose to visit a reign of terror and horrors upon the natives. The result was the transformation of the Congo into a massive dystopian plantation and the Congolese into Leopold’s de facto slaves.
Under the rule of King Leopold II, Congolese natives were given quotas of rubber, ivory, diamonds, or other goods, to produce. Men who fell short of their quotas were mutilated by having their hands or feet amputated. If a man escaped, or it was deemed necessary that he keep his limbs in order that he continue to produce for the Belgian king, Leopold’s goons would mutilate his family instead, and amputate the hands of his wife and children. Millions ended up mutilated for failure to meet production quotas.
Millions more were murdered, starved, worked to death, or perished from various forms of mistreatment and misgovernment. Numerous villages were wiped out when they dared to protest the colonial tyranny, with all their inhabitants massacred. When the Belgian monarch was awarded the Congo in 1885, it contained an estimated twenty million people. When a census was conducted in 1924, that figure had fallen to ten million. The exact number of victims is unknown and likely unknowable, but with estimates going as high as fifteen million deaths, Leopold II qualifies as one of history’s worst monsters.
7. The Residential School Scandal Was Not the Only Tragic Event That Involved Canadian Authorities and Children
The indigenous residential school scandal was not the only tragic event visited upon Canadian children by the authorities. In the twentieth century, in a bid to curb an admittedly problematic religious sect, Canadian officials forcibly seized its members’ children, separated them from their families, and raised them in foster care or state institutions. Their targets were the Doukhobors, or “Spirit Warriors”, a pacifist and anti-materialist Russian Christian sect that formed in the seventeenth century. Their belief that a divine spirit resides in everybody raised eyebrows in Russia.
What got them in serious trouble, however, was their penchant for nudity to emulate Adam and Eve, a tendency to swap wives, plus a notion that nobody has any right to worldly goods. The result was centuries of persecution. Officials especially detested the Doukhobors’ pacifism, which led them to refuse conscription into the Russian military. The persecution’s intensity waxed and waned over the years, and ranged from beatings to imprisonment to exile to death. In the nineteenth century, the Doukhobors won Leo Tolstoy over as a patron, but his patronage was not enough to shield them. So they headed to Canada.
6. The Start of the Tragic Chain of Events That Got the Spirit Warriors In Trouble in Canada
Early in the twentieth century, the Doukhobors emigrated to Canada in search of religious freedom. Things began well, but misunderstandings soon set in motion a tragic chain of events. The end result was that the Spirit Warriors morphed in Canada from an odd sect and into a dangerous one, famous for mass nudist protests, and infamous for arsons on a massive scale. The Doukhobors first arrived in Saskatchewan in 1902, their emigration facilitated by Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends, or Quakers.
At first, the Canadians saw the industrious Spirit Warriors as ideal settlers. At the time, the Canadian government granted 160 acres of land for a nominal fee of $10 to any male homesteader, provided he established a farm within three years. However, because of their religious beliefs, the new arrivals could not swear allegiance to the Crown. That disqualified them for the land grants, which they viewed as a breach of promises made by the authorities. Embittered, they trekked to British Columbia, where they established drab little communal villages.
The Spirit Warriors’ leader, a charismatic figure named Peter Verigin, maintained a semblance of control over his nudist followers by flogging them with brambles. Then some Doukhobors blew him up with dynamite in 1924. With their leader’s demise, the Spirit Warriors fractured into rival factions, and things swiftly spun into a downward spiral of crazy. After Verigin’s assassination, a radical splinter broke off from the Doukhobors. This radical splinter of what was already a radical splinter of the Russian Orthodox Church eschewed the modern world.
More accurately, they eschewed what little there was of the modern world in the Canadian sticks, where they dwelt. They encouraged their brethren to avoid the trappings of modern society in everything, from the exploitation of animals to the use of electricity. In a tragic twist, their “encouragement” went beyond the adoption of a simple life for themselves. Like a deranged Quaker Al Qaeda in Canada’s back of beyond, they paraded nude to emulate the simple lives of Adam and Eve, and terrorized, burned the homes, and destroyed the material goods of other Doukhobors who dared partake of modernity.
4. In a Tragic Twist, Spirit Warriors Began to Persecute Other Spirit Warriors
The Canadian authorities had their hands full trying to deal with the radical Russian religious migrants. Mass nude parades would probably raise eyebrows today. Back in the early twentieth century, the Doukhobor splinter faction – who eventually named themselves The Freedomites – shocked sensibilities when they conducted mass protests in the buff. In one nudist epidemic, police sprinkled itching powder on the protesters. In 1932, the Canadian Parliament criminalized public nudity, and the courts began to penalize the Spirit Warriors’ naked protests with prison sentences of about three years per offense.
When yet another mass nude march scandalized British Columbia in 1932, over 600 Doukhobor men and women were banished to serve prison terms in Piers Island, BC. In a way, the naked protesters’ passive resistance exasperated Canadian authorities like Gandhi’s passive resistance exasperated the British in India at the time. More worrisome and tragic, however, was when the Freedomites went from passive protest and began to actively persecute other Doukhobors. Specifically, those whom they judged to have become too worldly, and to have abandoned the simple life appropriate for Spirit Warriors.
3. To Curb the Radical Spirit Warriors, Canadian Authorities Seized Their Children
Time after time, Freedomites raided the villages of other Doukhobors to burn their homes and dynamite their factories to punish them for straying from the simple life. For decades, the Freedomites waged a virtual guerrilla war in British Columbia against the modern world, and especially against other Spirit Warriors, they viewed as backsliders. From 1923 to 1962, the Freedomites were responsible for over 1,100 bomb and arson attacks. The authorities fought back with harsh sentences of up to three years imprisonment for nude protesters, and seized the sect’s children, separated them from their families, and sent them to be raised in foster care or at state institutions.
The violence continued, however and culminated in a series of 259 bombings in 1962 in just one region of British Columbia. Targets included ferries, railways, power lines and stations, hotels, courthouses, and the destruction of entire villages. The authorities finally decapitated the sect in March, 1962, with the arrest of sixty of its leaders, whom they charged with conspiracy to intimidate the Canadian Parliament and the Legislature of British Columbia. With their leaders locked up, the rest of the Spirit Warriors rapidly assimilated into Canadian society. Relative peace has reigned since, and Canadian Doukhobor numbers dwindled from a peak of 40,000 in the twentieth century to about 2,200 in 2011.
2. The Tragic Fate of Quebecois Orphans in the Care of the Catholic Church
Tragic as the Canadian authorities’ handling of Indigenous and Doukhobor children was, for sheer venality, those episodes are eclipsed by the authorities’ handling of what came to be known as the Duplessis Orphans. Until the mid-twentieth century, the Catholic Church held significantly, and sometimes pernicious, sway over Quebec. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic, became premier of Quebec. He immediately proceeded to place the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders.
He then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces. The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the construction of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. So Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church decided to transform $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients.
1. When the Church and a Dirty Politician Conspired to Ruin the Lives of Orphans for Money
In order to exploit the Canadian federal government’s subsidy program, Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn orphans into psychiatric patients. To implement their idea and siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers, they set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly transformed Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals.
It took decades before the tragic and scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality. Once misdiagnosed as “mentally deficient”, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the children were often subjected by nuns and lay monitors to physical, mental, and sexual abuse.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading