The B.C. government was all set to offer a promised apology Tuesday for removing Doukhobor children from their families 70 years ago and confining them, but decided at the last minute to delay.
Invitations went out Monday to community members to watch Premier David Eby deliver the long-awaited apology at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the legislature.
But before proceedings began, word came that the government had changed course and now plans to apologize at an event in January in the West Kootenays, where many of the survivors live. A formal apology in the legislature will come after it resumes sitting in February.
“I would sure like to be there when the apology is given,” said Betty Kabatoff, now 78 years old. “I was very, very disappointed when I heard they were going to do it without us. That was pretty low.”
Taken as a child from her family in Gilpin near Grand Forks, Kabatoff was one of more than 200 children the province apprehended and confined at a former tuberculosis sanatorium in New Denver between 1953 and 1959.
They were apprehended because their parents — Sons of Freedom Doukhobors who opposed government policies and regulations — either were in jail or refused to send them to school.
In July Attorney General Niki Sharma promised that an apology for how the government treated the Doukhobor children was coming soon. In a July 14 letter responding to a report from Ombudsperson Jay Chalke’s office, Sharma wrote, “Government is prepared to issue an apology this fall and we are preparing a formal recognition package.”
In recent weeks Sharma had said the government was on track to follow through on the commitment. “Yes, it will be happening,” she told The Tyee on Nov. 8. “We’re working on it right now.”
But asked Tuesday about the missed deadline, Sharma referred questions to Eby’s office. A spokesperson for the premier said an explanation was coming, but it didn’t arrive by publication time.
Chalke said that while it’s important the government get the apology right, it has had plenty of time to work on it.
“I’m disappointed that government didn’t take the time earlier in the fall to get this done properly this session,” Chalke said Tuesday. “My concern is really how long this has taken. The survivors, those that remain alive, are quite elderly and they don’t really have the luxury of time to see justice be done.”
Since the government announced the delay Tuesday morning, his office has been receiving calls from Doukhobor community members who feel upset and disrespected once again, he said.
Chalke’s July report “Time to Right the Wrong: Monitoring Government’s Implementation of Recommendations Related to the Confinement of Doukhobor Children” provided an update on recommendations his office made 24 years ago.
In 1999 the ombudsperson’s office investigated and found what had happened to those children, who by then were adults, was “unjust and oppressive” and called on the government to apologize and compensate them.
“That report, 24 years ago, outlined vivid details and first-hand accounts of physical and emotional maltreatment including the fact that the children were forced to build the chain-link fence through which they were permitted only limited visits with their parents,” Chalke said in his progress report.
The report quoted survivors, including some describing physical, mental and sexual abuse.
In 2004 the then BC Liberal government made a “statement of regret” in the legislature that “stopped short of apologizing, apparently fearing the risk of incurring legal liability.”
Kabatoff was held at the sanatorium for four and a half years. She remembers being kept from her parents and strapped for speaking Russian instead of English. “They didn’t have any business mistreating a child,” she said, adding that while she was not sexually abused, she knew others who were. “It was all a horrible, horrible experience.”
She wants to hear a promise from the government, she said, that they will never treat another child the way they treated her and the others confined at New Denver.
She’s still waiting.