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