Sons of Freedom Doukhobors sent to a New Denver boarding school in the 1950s turned down a $2 million government offer

$2 million offer was rebuffed, Tribunal hears

Doukhobor children taken to a New Denver residential school turned down a multi-million dollar government offer, a tribunal was told today.

The provincial government offered $2 million for a research project for Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children taken to a New Denver residential school in the 1950s, a witness told a BC Human Rights Tribunal hearing in Nelson on Tuesday.

Joe Sherstobitoff, among those now grown children, said the offer was made at a meeting in 2000 in the wake of an ombudsman’s report that suggested they were owed an apology and compensation.

They were given 10 days to accept, he added.

The research project would have seen Sherstobitoff’s group appoint someone to work with the provincial archivist to unearth documents related to their seizure and learn more about what precipitated it.

However, he testified that with one exception, those at the meeting rejected the offer, because it was against their religious beliefs. In his view, it would amount to “phony research.”

Government lawyer Rob Horricks didn’t challenge the $2 million figure during cross-examination.

Sherstobitoff also testified that despite his group’s insistence that the ombudsman’s recommendations be adopted in whole, the government seemed to be looking for ways around them.

He felt officials used a “divide and conquer strategy” by meeting with small numbers of them at a time, rather than en masse.

He said his group, who call themselves the New Denver Survivors, wanted a wide-ranging public inquiry “so everything would be aired out,” and an official apology in the legislature — as opposed to the “statement of regret” they received in 2004.

Sherstobitoff testified he met face-to-face with then-Attorney General Geoff Plant and asked why an apology wasn’t forthcoming.

He said Plant replied “I can’t because it’s going to cost too much money.”

Horricks, however, suggested Plant more likely said an apology would leave the government open to legal liability, and he would rather spend money on something else to promote reconciliation.

Sherstobitoff also testified to his ongoing distrust of government, partly over other things like taxes and insurance.

“People could say I’m paranoid … I’m concerned they were harassing me from Day 1. I’ve got no rights. The government is sneaky, underhanded, and never dealt with my honestly.”

Sherstobitoff was the first witness to testify Tuesday when the Tribunal resumed after the group’s lawyer resigned for undisclosed reasons.

Complainant Walter Swetlishoff is now conducting the case himself.

The tribunal is examining allegations of discrimination by government in dealing with the New Denver Survivors in the wake of the 1999 ombudsman’s report.

Part of the case centers around an aborted monument in New Denver the complainants considered an affront.

GOVERNMENT OUTLINES ARGUMENT

Swetlishoff declined to make an opening statement, but Horricks outlined the government’s position.

He said their evidence would show the government had “legitimate concerns” about the ombudsman’s report, which held the province responsible for the confinement of children at the New Denver boarding school, but did not speak with those who worked there at the time.

And while those children were “caught in a conflict that was no fault of their own,” endured “pain and suffering” and were “deprived of love and support” of their families, Horricks said public servants worked hard to promote reconciliation.

“I anticipate the evidence will show the report raised expectations of apology and compensation, and led to a belief by some that if government did not act on the recommendations, it was not fulfilling its legal duty,” he said.

Horricks said he plans to call seven witnesses once the respondent’s case begins on January 30 at the Tribunal offices in Vancouver.

They include Linda Neville, a senior policy analyst with the Attorney General’s ministry and the lead public servant on the file, who attended public meetings to address matters raised by the ombudsman’s report.

“She will tell of challenges arising from a diversity of opinions and testify that government was consistent that individual compensation must be determined by the courts, but welcomed suggestions to promote healing and reconciliation,” Horricks said.

Also to be called is Greg Cran, a university professor who formerly worked for the Attorney General’s ministry on the file, due to his expertise on Doukhobor issues and conflict management; and two Doukhobors taken to New Denver who don’t share the same perspective as the Survivors’ collective.

Horricks suggested the monument idea met a mixed reaction, but was embraced by some, and was created by an artist who lived in the New Denver institution.

He also plans to call a senior manager with the former BC Buildings Corp. involved in early plans for the monument, as well as a landscape architect, to testify to meetings with residents and elements of the proposed site.

Geoff Plant will testify about statements he made in the legislature and on CBC Radio that the complainants allege were discriminatory.

“At the conclusion, we will argue there was no discrimination,” Horricks said. “The fact some were not satisfied speaks to other issues: high expectations from the ombudsman’s report, mistrust of government, and painful childhood experiences in New Denver.”

One other witness testified Tuesday: Elsie Eriksen, who spent about five years in New Denver as a child, said the proposed monument “did something to my inner self … That hurt me and I did not want it.”

Horricks suggested a phone poll found 72 per cent of survivors supported the idea, but Eriksen denied any knowledge of it.

Walter Swetlishoff said he expects to call one other witness besides himself this week, but both sides agreed the complainant’s case would wrap up by Friday, well ahead of schedule. Initially two weeks were set aside for this portion of the hearing.

Tribunal chair Enid Marion is hearing the case alone.

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