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mass nudity and arson

April 18, 2012

One of the communities taking part in the emergency preparedness workshop I was near

last weekend was Piers Island, which dots the “i” of the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria.

Piers has a strange claim to fame: in the 1930’s, it housed members of a fringe Christian

group who had been in the biggest nude protest in Canadian history.


The Sons of Freedom had splintered off from the Doukhobor movement after 7400 of its

adherents had emigrated to Canada in 1899.  The larger group fled Russia due to religious

persecution.  Members rejected military conscription, secular government, clergy, rituals,

the divinity of Jesus and the notion the Bible was the supreme source of divine revelation.


They took their name from Doukhobortsy, which means “spirit wrestlers” in Russian.  It was

originally a derisive term.


The 7400 ended up in four major settlements in what would soon be Saskatchewan Province.

The young nation was so welcoming to newcomers that it exempted Doukhobors from military

service and offered any able-bodied man 160 acres of land for $10.  The harsh prairie winters

and poor soil, however, prompted most of them to move to southeastern British Columbia, on

the warm side of the Rockies.


By 1912, there were 8000 Doukhobors in B.C., flourishing as orchardists and fruit merchants.

The Sons of Freedom developed in protest of government interventions like land seizure and

compulsory education.  The Doukhobor leader, Peter V. Verigin, was killed in a train bombing

in 1924, a case that has yet to be solved.  The Sons (and Daughters) responded with “mass

nudity and arson”, according to Wikipedia.


I’ll give you a few minutes to process all the vivid images that combination brings to mind.











I know.  It took me awhile, too.  I had to play out several Wile E. Coyote-type scenarios.


Anyway, in May of 1932, Doukhobor protestors started baring it all in the village of Thrums,

B.C.  They were joined by others as they were taken to nearby Nelson.  A total of 546 were

arrested.  They were in violation of a new Canadian law banning public nudity.  The law was

passed specifically to discourage this rudimentary form of civil disobedience.  One woman

explained that she really wasn’t naked, she was married to Christ and had worn her bridal



Problem was, the federal government had no place to put the peaceful folks.  Piers Island was

chosen for its proximity to the mainland.  When the family who owned it could not agree on a

selling price, the government simply expropriated it.  A penitentiary was built and the adults

started serving their three-year terms.  Nearly all of them were released early due to the

tightening budgets of the Depression.


Second problem was, the mass conviction temporarily orphaned about 200 children.  They

were placed in institutions and foster homes.  Some went to an internment centre, where

allegations of abuse arose.  The B.C. government issued a Statement of Regret.  The federal

government has never apologized.


The Doukhobors are still around.  The 2001 Canadian census lists 3800 self-identified;

broader estimates stretch upward to 40,000.  In 1961, the Sons of Freedom bombed a

railway bridge in Nelson.  Presumably they were naked, but I hope they at least wore

sensible footwear.


ADDENDUM: The Sons may be more active than I thought.  Check out this story about a

traveler who stripped down last night at the Portland airport to protest TSA screenings.

  1. Gordon permalink
    April 18, 2012 7:14 am

    I keep picturing a Monty Python segment of the “Knights Who Bare All”. But where does the fire come in? I heard of a stripper once in New Orleans who set fire to tassels she wore on her….but that’s another story.

    • April 18, 2012 3:25 pm

      How about “The Knights Who Show Nips”? My exhaustive research (skimming Wikipedia) did not reveal the connection between the nudity and the flames, but I’ve noticed that religious fanaticism is often illogical.

  2. April 18, 2012 7:34 am

    Yeah, it would be a shame to set a bridge on fire, only to step on a rusty nail or something… stub one’s toe..

    • April 18, 2012 3:27 pm

      … and sometimes there’s broken glass along the track.

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