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A well-known Penticton man who was raised Doukhobor is feeling passive about the $10 million settlement that was reached between the BC government and the Sons of Freedom.
Doukhobors are white minorities who immigrated to Canada from Russia in the late 1800s. They arrived in the Boundary and Kootenay regions a few years later, and then splintered into factions shortly after.
Jon Lee Kootnekoff, now 88, was born in BC to first-generation Doukhobors. Dad’s side was from the orthodox Doukhobors, which meant no dancing, smoking, eating meat or playing musical instruments. Grandma, from the orthodox side, would make disparaging comments about how his mom – part of the independent Doukhobors – probably cooks with Campbell’s Soup.
Orthodox Grandma took her Christian beliefs very seriously. She warned Kootnekoff that kissing out of wedlock will cause chapped lips, and kissing before 10 pm is indecent because God can see.
While most Canadian Doukhobors live in the Kootenays and Boundary, Kootnekoff was raised in Mission. He speaks Russian as a first language and remembers getting bullied at school, but the prejudice against Doukhobors wasn’t apparent to him until the 1950s, when he arrived in Penticton to make some money picking fruit.
Kootnekoff quickly learned that if he wanted to get hired anywhere, he’d have to drop his last name and use an alias.
That was around the same time when the Sons of Freedom – another faction of the Doukhobors – found themselves in the crosshairs of the Province after a few acts of civil disobedience. They had their children rounded up and interned starting in 1953. The RCMP scooped up around 200 of their youngsters, ages 7 to 15, and had them locked up at a residential school in New Denver. Operation Snatch it was called, and it was a violation of human rights.
Justice moved at a slow pace. Kootnekoff was a teacher in New Denver 40 years after the internment and only learned about it during his third year there.
Kootnekoff, who now lives in Penticton, considers himself to be a “contentious resilient” Doukhobor.
In 2004 the province issued a statement of regret.
It was just last week when a formal apology was issued.
“After many years of unrest and troubled relations, the Province forcibly removed children from their homes and communities, leaving parents to visit kids through chain link fences,” Premier David Eby said in a media release.
“We know this apology and recognition of past actions is long overdue,” Attorney General Niki Sharma said in the release.
Kootnekoff later went on to land a U.S. basketball scholarship and represented Canada at the Olympics.
He was head coach of the first men’s basketball team at Simon Fraser University and guided the Clan through its first 10 seasons (1965-1975), compiling a 167-116 record.
Kootnekoff later worked at the Okanagan Hockey Academy and later ran motivational seminars in Penticton.