A retired senior government official is refuting the notion a multi-million dollar offer was ever made to Sons of Freedom Doukhobors removed from their families in the 1950s.
During testimony today before a BC Human Rights Tribunal, Linda Neville, formerly a senior policy analyst, was asked about a $5 million fund supposedly proposed to administer an oral history project. The amount was cited in a 2000 letter to government from some of the now-grown children, who call themselves the New Denver Survivors.
“I have no idea where that number comes from,” Neville said.
Earlier this month, Joe Sherstobitoff, a contact person for the group, testified they rejected a $2 million offer for a research project that would have seen them work with the provincial archivist to uncover documents related to their seizure and confinement to a New Denver residential school.
Neville said two projects were under consideration — the one Sherstobitoff described, as well as an effort to record the survivors’ stories — but neither had a firm price tag.
“If an oral history project were to be undertaken, there would be a cost associated with it, but we weren’t to the point of agreement whether an oral history project would transpire,” she said.
Approximately 200 children were removed from their homes and taken to New Denver between 1953 and 1959 after their parents refused to send them to school. In 1999, a BC ombudsman’s report suggested they were owed an apology and compensation.
However, Neville, who worked closely on the file, said while senior bureaucrats were committed to acting on many of the report’s recommendations, the government’s position, was consistently that individual compensation would have to be determined by the courts.
In 2004, then-Attorney General Geoff Plant issued a “statement of regret” in the legislature, which the survivors’ group said fell well short of the apology they were seeking.
They subsequently filed a human rights complaint, alleging discrimination in how they were treated during negotiations. The hearing finally began this month in Nelson with the complainants’ case, and shifted Monday to Vancouver for the province’s side of the story.
Asked by government lawyer Rob Horricks whether a $2 million proposal was ever made to Sherstobitoff or anyone else, Neville replied: “To the best of my understanding, it was not made by anyone in government. I have no awareness of it.”
Neville said she had never heard that figure prior to Sherstobitoff’s testimony.
She also disagreed with Sherstobitoff’s suggestion that a deadline was placed on the research project: “It wasn’t really a proposal so I don’t think it was possible to put a deadline on it. I don’t know where this information came from, but it was not part of our discussion.”
Neville further denied that she and other officials deliberately met with small groups of survivors in an attempt to “divide and conquer.” She said they met with anywhere from a dozen to 150 people at a time, depending on how many lived in a given area of the province and wished to attend.
Neville’s direct evidence is expected to wrap up today, followed by cross-examination Tuesday by Walter Swetlishoff of the survivors’ group, who is conducting their case after their lawyer resigned.
Horricks indicated he will call two witnesses on Wednesday who themselves were taken to New Denver as children, followed on Thursday by an artist and landscape architect involved with an aborted monument at New Denver. On Friday, he plans to call university professor Greg Cran, and on Monday, Geoff Plant, the former attorney general.
Swetlishoff is present at the hearing while other members of his group are listening via conference call.