THE NEW DENVER SURVIVORS
Personal Stories and Photos

WALTER SWETLISHOFF

 

Walter Swetlishoff retired (not by his choice) from teaching in June 2003. He won the 2002-2003 Prime Minister's Teaching Excellence Award in his last teaching year,  primarily for his work in teaching and learning with the "heart" element. (Google search: walter swetlishoff).  Walter wrote the following account of his New Denver experience in 1994 as part of his requirements to complete his Masters Degree in Curriculum Development and Implementation. What he experienced when he came back to teach in his childhood community and the treatment he received from his colleagues and administrators is so painful and bizarre that it warrants the writing of a further story. Perhaps in the future we can convince him to do so.....

To Prove A Commitment May Be Life Itself

     When I was very young and wanted to go to school, my parents would say "We are sorry but education is all evil to mankind. It was designed and created by man and not God. Therefore it must serve man's purpose and not God's. How can we trust this man-made education when the man himself cannot be trusted? Man has proven to all that anything he touches turns into destruction and wars. Man is the product of sin, lust, deceit and hatred and his main motive in life is profit. Then in all true respect, this man's education must teach all evil and nothing but evil. The children who attend schools do not live with their parents anymore and do not respect their wishes. In true fact, schooling is strictly geared to train young people for warfare and senseless killing.  Activities such as singing the national anthem,  marching in physical education classes and raising of the flag proclaims only kings and queens and not our God. We have been the chosen ones. God selected us as his missionaries to go through all the lands and proclaim His Holiness. God is our soul and therefore we must obey and honour only Him. We must point out to the rest of mankind their ways of evil and guide them onto a path of simple life, guided by God's laws".

     Doukhobor religion was based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and obeyed only the laws of the Ten Commandments. This simplistic life required only the basic necessities for survival. Any amenities were considered sinful luxuries. It was also believed that a true Holy person must experience struggle and suffering in his life time. This belief was thought to establish a connection by reliving the life of Jesus Christ. Because the Bible was written by common man and not by God, Doukhobors refused to accept its validity. Instead, the Doukhobors lived the Book of Life and practiced their prayer on the Living Word. This meant that all praise to God must be recited by word of mouth from memory. Songs were easier to remember than long speeches. Thus singing at prayer meetings became a Doukhobor tradition. Therefore from the Doukhobor's point of view, the only education their children should honour would be God's education and that required memorization of Psalms and learning the traditional songs. The objective was very simple and the outcome was clear.

     In a lot of ways the Doukhobors were right to condemn the Canadian educational curriculum. It was obvious that the moment they entered the country, they were labelled as illiterate peasants with genetic learning disabilities. Canadian education at the turn of the century was business driven, focusing on strict obedience to government and monarchies. A British subject in Canada was considered a superior citizen to any other race and was given full authority to establish Canadian curriculum for schools. The Russian immigrant who suffered persecution in his homeland found the new land of little comfort. The freedom of religion and freedom from corrupt governments did not materialize as initially promised. The Doukhobors were forced to swear allegiance to the monarchy. This undermined their core belief that allegiance could only be given to God. The government's hard handed decisions created chaos among all Doukhobors. The main group that immigrated from Russia divided itself into a number of splinter groups. The conservative group tried to minimize their losses and therefore gave in to the laws of the land that were demanded by the Canadian government. They were forcefully persuaded to accept private ownership, serve in the military and have their children attend Canadian schools. The radical groups took the losses and refused all three demands on the principle of their religious beliefs. They felt that the Canadian government was treating them with greater harshness than Russia itself. This was the beginning of the long struggle with numerous demonstrations and self sacrifice for this group of pacifists who were misunderstood.

     It was an early morning before daybreak in mid January, when I was startled by the confusion of screaming voices and flashing lights. To my surprise, the home I was living in with my parents was raided by a large party of uniformed men with dogs and clubs. At the time I was seven years old, too young to rationalize what was going on, but my primitive part of the brain flashed "danger"and the need to survive. I escaped the commotion through the back door passing the two half-drunk rent-a-cops on the way out and thrashed through the deep snow bare footed with only my underwear on. With sheer luck, I found a dog hole leading into the dirt under our home. I crawled in and moved under the log beams to the furthest corner. It was only later in my life that I was able to understand that this was my first protest against the Canadian schools.

     I became a fugitive for the next four years, always escaping from occasional raids. In an instant, my secure world was torn apart. My older brother was apprehended and taken away to a quasi-prison set up in New Denver specifically for those children whose parents refused to allow their children to attend Canadian schools. I lived in constant fear and often had to find refuge in abandoned buildings to avoid incarceration. During these long isolated periods of time, I started to think of solutions to my persecution. As years went by with no relief in sight, I started to lose all hope in a compassionate humanity. I lost all confidence in my parents and the security of my friends and relatives. After four years of nomadic life, I was finally captured and placed in the detained environment. This was my first experience in attending a Canadian school. At first I felt very bitter toward authority. I refused to participate in any activities that may have any form of influence of Canadian inculturation. I felt that I had betrayed my religion, my culture and my parents. Then also, in that moment, I regained my composure, assessed my alternatives, and recognized my hopeless situation. The first words that came to my mind were "If you can't beat them, then join them". I determined that from this moment on I would prove beyond any doubt that I am not inferior, ignorant or illiterate but a person capable oflearning and thinking. I placed myself in the position where I could only accept what was good and refused to take what was bad. With strong determination, I was able to complete my elementary and high school graduation in the period of only five years. I finished my undergraduate degree in Physics, Math and Industrial Education with a first class average. I was hired to teach Physics at the College level, where I taught for twenty years. Now I look back at my educational career with some amazement and wonder at how many disadvantages I had to overcome to achieve my educational excellence. I can only say that the commitment to prove something to oneself may be a more powerful motivator than life itself.

 

'This kind of opportunity for probing does not come

easily to a person flowing within the mainstream.

It comes more readily to one who lives at the margin

- to one who lives in a tension situation. It is, I believe,

a condition that makes possible deeper understanding

of human acts that can transform both self and world,

not in instrumental way, but in a human way.'

 

(T.Aoki. "Experiencing Ethnicity in B.C.", 1979).

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Tears From New Denver

 

Torrential creeks echoing rush in the valley

As the beaches of the lakes are consumed

Selkirk mountainsstand up to high Heaven

Preserving white glaciers like clouds

 

Like persistent death that hounds life

All things on Earth have pattern ordained

Just as the icy white glaciers weep

Forming SlocanLakeat its base

 

On the beachof New Denverstands a symbol of gaol

A government building confining sick souls

And now the children kidnapped from religious parents

Are confined as prisoners for their parents beliefs

 

The fog like the grey smog of the city

Like the dark night in the daytime, bring horror and fear

My thoughts, my young infant thoughts

Are scrambling and fighting to capture the arms of my Mom

 

Push the fog aside, to the left, to the right, move straight

I am running away from this longing and fear

To the place of my birth and my creed

To where love and affection has no bounds

 

I remember, but can I believe it, is it a nightmare?

That some day will come to rejoice, or awaken from sleep

And find myself comfortable in the loving arms of my family

That nurtured and cared since my birth

 

Just for a brief moment I would love to cling to my Mommy and Daddy

And to give my fear and confusion a rest

And if possible make it eternal

So the horror and anxiety leave

 

The adults around us are like zombies, bellowing insults and hate

Their cold hands and hearts resemble the glaciers above

Their torturous actions abusing children so cruel

I need sanity, love, and some hope

 

Oh my Dear God! Who are these people, and where did they come from?

Are they aliens from outer space who need us for their experiment?

Am I a half dead frog stretched out on the dissecting board?

Please, give me life or give me death, I have neither in this crate

 

Just a minute, I hear a bellowing, harsh words, “To bed!

Hurry, rush, we are tired of you, we need to go home to our children!”

“But, but, please Miss Sinclair, I miss and need my Mommy

It is time that she come to my bed.”

 

The look on her face was so monstrous, and I knew my request was in vain

So I wrap myself in the blanket and hope my worries away

My worries grew big as an elephant and nothing could move it away

I can’t sleep, my eyes are wide open to space

 

I hear other children moaning and sobbing calling, for Mothers or God

Night guards on duty keep walking around, pretending to care from their heart

I am frightened of their slithering presence, yet tears would not come in my eyes

I feel the cool air of their bodies brushing my bed on their rounds

 

I placed my body in a fetal position, forcing sleep on myself

I closed my eyes as tight as I could, hoping that morning would come

And the morning did come with mind full of fog

Were tears my dream and fear my companion?

 

I looked, it is light, but I can’t feel if it’s warm or not

My body is shivering uncontrollably, I think it’s from thought

Help me, God, I am in Hell, no other place

All I smell is horrid body waste

 

Did I sleep at all last night? Did I doze off?  I can’t remember

My bed is all wet, is it my tears or is it from fright?

How do I cover such embarrassment, will I be punished if they know?

I must hide the wetness the best I can, and make sure no one will know

 

My head starts pounding, I need some fresh air

My stomach is cramping and needing escape

I ran to the lakeshore as fast as I could, and fell on my knees, and water felt good

I started to heave, uncontrollably heave, my Dear God, what brought me here?

 

The lake, so innocent, and water so blessing, do I need Baptism to rid my sins?

No! No! No! It isn’t my sins that brought me here

Innocent, interned children suffered our fate

Their tears and ours will blend on the shores, and give rise to the lake for all to know

 

Evil people on Earth forcing innocents to obey

Regardless of beliefs, religion or faith

Obey or be punished, obey or be banished, you live by the rules of the strong

Our religion is Christian and faith based on God, yet our country Canadarequires salute to the King

 

It is sad that such measures were taken

And infants are tortured to tears

The sins of the country will never recover

As the cold lake from tears never warmed

 

by Walter Swetlishoff, ©2010

 


  

The following poems were written by Naida Hamoline (Saprikin), a very gifted poet.

She is a multi-talented woman with a wise and gentle heart. Blest are those who call her friend.

 

ROWS UPON ROWS

 

 Rows upon rows of beds

On which we lay our tiny heads

Sobbing ourselves into a restless sleep

Praying to God our souls to keep

 

Solemn faces all around

Hoping and waiting to be found

Children's pure hearts trampled and shattered

Placed in rows like we never mattered

 

Longing and wishing for family and home

A simple caress from a human form

Starched white uniform swooshing by

Makes my hair bristle with fear, and I cry

 

Maybe today we will get to go home

And forever leave this hated dorm

The day slips by and dusk is here

And back into our rows we disappear

 


 Threshold of Happiness

 

 I am looking through the doorway of my life

At my love and child playing without a hint of strife

Why can't I enter and partake in the play

I seem to be stuck and don't know the way

I'm feeling like I'm always left out in the cold

Afraid of repeating the hurtful mold

 

Thinking of happy times of long ago

Not a care in the world and life was aglow

My youthful days were filled with love

I thanked God for these gifts from above

 

With one swift move my life completely changed

Our family and happiness was rearranged

I was ripped out of my mother's arm and heart

We were forced to live our lives apart

I can still remember the pain that day

When I was told I would be taken away

 

Now I am standing on the threshold

Not knowing if I should enter or I should go away

If I enter and begin to partake in the play

My family may eventually be ripped away

I could not repeat the horror and pain

Of losing my family again

So on this threshold I remain.


The following was submitted by a New Denver Survivor who prefers to remain anonymous.

 

"My Lost Childhood:  Five Years at New Denver"

by M.V.

 

What did I do?

I am seven years old.

I am alone, I have no one to turn to.

What dark place is this where I have no toys, no pets, no birthdays?

I experience no laughter, no joy.

Most importantly there is no love here.

I am not allowed to speak Russian, when I do I am punished.

I do not know English. How do I communicate?

I hear a lot of crying during the day, I hear more crying at night.

I rarely see my parents, when I do the fence prevents me from hugging them.

My name sounds different, it has a number.

Someone controls every moment of my day, why can't I play?

My parents tell me I am a Doukhobor, the matrons tell me I am an English Canadian.

Who am I?

Why am I here?

 


The following poems were written by Shirley Sherstobitoff (Lawrenoff) in 1991 when she was attending counselling.  Shirley writes in a deeply moving, powerful way, her feelings at that time.

 

Small World

Despair and loneliness dominate my life

I wear a mask for my disguise

Don't talk, or feel you have survived

Too sensitive they laugh and taunt

I pretend to be tough and strong

Don't look back on the past they say

Don't mourn or cry, let the secrets fester

Till you lose your will to live and die.

 


 

Mourning Soul

My soul cries out this desolate night

It aches and mourns to be set free

To learn and grow in this our life

To love and be loved laugh and to cry

To have happiness and freedom inside

The raging battle we create within

Hurts repressed from long ago

Will appear and be known

Wisdom and knowledge will relieve our pain

To learn to detach and let it go

Will bring peace and soothe our soul.

 


 

Child

Don't fret my child I'll not let go

I'm here to nurture and see you grow

The days of terror lie in the past

Time has released their painful grasp

Don't be frightened come hold my hand

You and I will restore our trust in man.

 


PHOTOS

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