Four weeks have been set aside in Nelson beginning this month for a BC Human Rights Tribunal hearing concerning Sons of Freedom Doukhobors removed from their families in the 1950s.
Walter Swetlishoff, one of about 200 children placed in a New Denver residential school, says the complaint isn’t directly related to their seizure, but rather the government’s response to a report that recommended they receive an apology and compensation.
Members of the group, calling themselves the New Denver survivors, allege discrimination by the Attorney General and ministry responsible for multiculturalism during negotiations.
“Now maybe things will be resolved,” Swetlishoff says. “This is not a lawsuit. We have been violated and the Tribunal accepted our complaint. This is where we provide our side of the story, the government has to defend itself, and we have to figure out what transpired.”
The children were seized because their parents refused to send them to school — but also because the government of the day wanted them removed from what it considered negative influences. Many former New Denver dormitory residents say they suffered psychological trauma after being apprehended and then mistreated.
A 1999 BC ombudsman’s report validated their views and led to discussions with government, but no resolution. Consequently, the human rights complaint was filed eight years ago.
The Tribunal issued a preliminary ruling in 2008 that accepted the complaint but declined to answer a series of legal questions. The province then sought a judicial review, arguing the Tribunal should not only have answered the questions, but dismissed the case.
In 2010, the BC Supreme Court rejected that request, clearing the way for the hearing, which starts January 16 at 9:30 a.m. at the Nelson courthouse, and continues daily until February 10. Swetlishoff anticipates witnesses will include members of his group, as well as former attorney general Geoff Plant.
He says other discrimination victims have received official apologies in recent years, so he doesn’t understand the government’s reluctance to give them one.
One conciliatory gesture — a picnic table memorial in New Denver, completed but never dedicated — only offended the group, as Swetlishoff says it was done without consulting them and wasn’t in keeping with Doukhobor tradition.
“They were trying to build a monument or form of commemoration, but it was done unilaterally. The government went on its own and actually purchased the property,” he says.
“I’m not sure why they decided to stop, but my suspicion is by that time we had filed the human rights complaint. Obviously it had something to do with them backing off.”
Swetlishoff, a retired teacher from Crescent Valley, adds their biggest concern is that government misled the ombudsman by saying it was implementing her recommendations, when it wasn’t.
“They backed out and said ‘We are no longer going to negotiate because we cannot satisfy every New Denver survivor.’”
A Tribunal representative said hearings can be held before panels or individual adjudicators, but that has yet to been determined in this case.
She said the time set aside for the hearing is longer than usual — they are typically only a few days — but not out of the ordinary.
The Tribunal uses an administrative justice process, with opening and closing statements, direct evidence and cross-examination, but has more flexibility than the courts.
If the complaint is found justified, the Human Rights Code sets out remedies, including compensation for damage to dignity or self-respect.
The hearing is open to the public.