B.C. Premier David Eby apologized Wednesday for his office “screwing up” the planned government apology for removing Doukhobor children from their families 70 years ago and confining them.
“I’ll take responsibility,” Eby said. “This is an initiative out of the premier’s office and it should have been done, and it wasn’t done, and for anyone that that caused difficulty for, I want to apologize to them.”
Eby has talked about the need for the apology since at least 2018 when he was attorney general. In July, responding to a report from Ombudsperson Jay Chalke’s office, Eby’s successor as attorney general, Niki Sharma, said then that “Government is prepared to issue an apology this fall and we are preparing a formal recognition package.”
On Monday the government sent invitations to survivors, family members, Chalke and others for an apology to be offered in the legislature at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. But shortly before proceedings were to begin in the legislature, word came that the government had cancelled the plan and is delaying offering the apology.
Eby said Wednesday it had become clear to him there was a need to wait until survivors and family members — many of whom are elderly and live in the Kootenays in southeastern B.C. — could be present or involved.
“I understand people’s disappointment,” he said, adding there’s “a commitment that we’re going to do this right, and sometimes that means recognizing when we’re screwing up, and this is one of those occasions.”
Between 1953 and 1959 the province apprehended more than 200 Doukhobor children and confined them at a former tuberculosis sanatorium in New Denver. They were apprehended because their parents — Sons of Freedom Doukhobors who opposed government policies and regulations — were either in jail or refused to send them to school.
A B.C. ombudsperson’s office report from 1999 found that what happened to those children, who were permitted only limited visits with their parents, had been “unjust and oppressive.” The report quoted survivors, including some describing physical, mental and sexual abuse. It called on the government to apologize and compensate them.
In July Chalke released a followup report: “Time to Right the Wrong: Monitoring Government’s Implementation of Recommendations Related to the Confinement of Doukhobor Children.”
He repeated the call for an apology and compensation, and the government responded that it would act on it this fall.
“I’m disappointed that government didn’t take the time earlier in the fall to get this done properly this session,” Chalke said after the government balked on delivering the apology 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.”
The government was aware that if it didn’t offer the apology right, there was risk it would deepen the harm rather than beginning the work of building trust, Eby said.
It’s important that people be given time to be present for the apology if they would like and are able, he said, or to gather and observe in local communities such as Grand Forks or Castlegar.
“This is an example of government [with] all good intentions, wanting to get work done, wanting to move forward, and losing track of making sure that it is done right,” he said.
“I made the decision that we would take the time to make sure the community could be physically here, they could be part of the recognition of their own mistreatment by the provincial government, knowing that some people had expectations that it would happen this week and that they may be disappointed.”
The government is now planning to offer a formal apology in the legislature after it resumes sitting in February, as well as at an event in the Kootenays.