When Pavel and Nina, 2 of 200 Russian Doukhobors children torn from their families in New Denver, are placed into a residential facility within B.C.'s Koutenay region, they are left struggling to maintain their sense of culture. B.A. Thomas-Peter's The Kissing Fence (Caitlin Press)juxtaposes this emotional story set in the 1950's with one set in Vancouver 2018, which follows William, an older man of Doukhobors heritage as he struggles to build a prosperous life only to watch it crumble. Thomas-Peter joins us to share more about the centrality of place in telling the Doukhobors immigration story within Canada.
The road north from Castlegar, from where the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers merge, takes you along the Slocan River valley to New Denver. It is a most Canadian journey, not just because it takes longer than anticipated, like so many Canadian drives, but the road rolls and turns like a gentle voice among the trees. Green fields and grazing cows suggest all is in harmony. From time to time a stretch of flat, dark and peaceful water comes into view, calming the spirit to near sleep.
For the watchful, there are signs of Russian immigration everywhere. The area of Ootischenia on which the airport now stands, is bordered by a road of the same name; a legacy of ownership and reminder of the land being taken from Russian owners a hundred years before. Over the bridge on Highway 3A is Verigin’s Memorial Park where five members of Doukhobor leader Peter Verigin’s family are interred, and the historic Brilliant suspension bridge built with the donated labour of Russian immigrants. Every few miles towards New Denver, a road name conjures a Russian memory—Kabatoff, Lazeroff, Doukhobor, Udill, Konkin, Krestova—Russian blood and bone is in the soil.
Just off the road to New Denver is a place known as Perry Siding where blood spilled in 1953. Except that it had once been a railway siding and claims a bridge, the path of a river, there is nothing to explain why it has a name at all. In 1953 a tent village was there and Doukhobor occupants celebrated in hymn. When the RCMP raided the encampment, arresting all the adults, the children ran for their lives. Those who were caught went north to New Denver, the parents went south to prison. So begins the story of The Kissing Fence, with children separated from their family and community and placed in the New Denver Dormitory. There, the children must speak English, observe Canadian customs and religious practices, and attend Canadian school. The children hated it, and for good reason.
In truth, the turmoil for the Doukhobors began earlier, at the turn of the nineteenth century when, in 1899, 7500 Doukhobors arrived in Canada, fleeing persecution in Russia. They first settled in Saskatchewan until the Federal Government rescinded the conditions of their immigration. It divided the community and about 5000 Doukhobors made their way to the Kootenay region of BC, abandoning farms and settlements, brick factories and mills. Migration of one kind or another was not new to this community. Before arriving in Canada, they had been variously exiled, relocated, moved on, or slaughtered for the previous two hundred years, in their effort to achieve days of toil and a peaceful life, in accordance with their customs and religious beliefs. Just as moving on was nothing new, suffering and sacrifice was standard fayre.
Back on the highway, as New Denver approaches, Slocan Lake appears to the west, inviting you to look up to the mountain on its far edge. On a sunny summer’s day children shout while swimming and parents watch from the shore. It is beautiful, tranquil, and idyllic. This is British Columbia. This is Canada, as portrayed in holiday brochures, but for some there is darkness that cannot be made light by sunny days. It is hard for those travelling the road to New Denver and camping by the lake to imagine the turmoil and harm done here, much less understand that those events of seventy years ago continue to rumble through time like the winter storms sweeping down the Slocan Valley.
William, a successful businessman in modern day Vancouver, hardly understands the connection between the events of New Denver and his life, except that he prefers not to understand that all he has become is directly arising from them. He is successful, affluent and lost without knowing it, until something happens while cycling in Stanley Park. He is sent flying into chaos, in which he must understand those events in New Denver if he is to become all he was destined to be.
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B.A. Thomas-Peter is Canadian but lived in the UK as a teenager and eventually trained there as a Clinical Psychologist. His work focussed on providing help to children, adults with mental health difficulties and the families of the elderly in need of care, before moving into the field of forensic psychiatry. He spent eleven years as Honorary Professor of Psychology at Birmingham University before moving to Oxford as Director of the Regional Forensic Psychiatry service. In 2010 he returned to Canada as Provincial Executive Director of Forensic Psychiatry for BC.Thomas-Peter has published in many anthologies and peer-reviewed journals. He has been a regular contributor to international academic conferences and has contributed to the development of the Forensic Psychology profession in Australia and the UK. He currently lives on an island on the west coast of Canada, runs a small consultancy and spends most of his time writing.
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A special thank you to Caitlin Press and to B.A. Thomas-Peter for joining us for another Where in Canada!
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