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Negotiating Buck Naked: Doukhobors, Public Policy, and Conflict Resolution

By Gregory J. Cran

Review By Larry Hannant

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 153 Spring 2007  | p. 121-3

No one knows better than Gregory Cran the sometimes baffling intricacies of the relationship among the various groups of Doukhobors and between them and the mainstream community in British Columbia. Between 1979 and 1987, he was the attorney general’s appointed representative among the Doukhobors. His specific task was to guide the Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations (KCIR), which, from 1982 to 1987, was the Expanded Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations (EKCIR). Its goal was to help resolve violence by bringing Doukhobors and non-Doukhobors into a wide-ranging series of public discussions.

Cran’s purpose in Negotiating Buck Naked is to explain why the seventy-year- long pattern of violence that had marked the internal relations among the Doukhobors and the relations between some Doukhobors and the mainstream community mostly (although not completely) ended in the late 1980s.

He takes a conflict resolution approach, arguing that, “after many years of turmoil, competing narratives [among the Doukhobors] were eventually negotiated into a new story structure that laid the foundation for bringing an end to violence” (4). In his view, the EKCIR brought together competing Doukhobor groups and allowed them to construct a “common narrative” (5) that allowed them to see one another not as enemies but as fellows with whom they shared experience.In effect, they agreed to disagree but also to recognize that the disagreements were woven into an integrated Doukhobor experience.

This sounds promising. Yet Cran never identifies what caused the trail of violence that tore apart the Doukhobor community from 1903 to the 1980s and that also spilled over into criminal actions by some Doukhobors against non-Doukhobors.

Cran’s historical overview is regrettably brief. He sets out to inform the reader about an almost incomprehensibly tangled eighty-year story that included mutual misunderstandings between Doukhobors and other Canadians, state action that alternated between heavy-handedness and baffled neglect, and vicious battles among Doukhobors themselves that were to a great extent founded on internal economic, educational, and social disparities among the different Doukhobor factions. Royal commissions, judges, academics, police, journalists, and philanthropic social reformers, among many others, have made Doukhobors one of the most studied ethnic subcultures in Canada. Cran lays out all of that – or, rather, glides past it – in just eleven pages. Indeed, to his way of thinking, historical facts are really not that important to understanding the EKCIR and its workings: “My approach to the Doukhobor situation was to search not for the truth but, rather, to examine the reasons their stories were told. What were the underlying constructions of meaning from which the narrators drew?” (24).

So there is no “truth,” only stories. To Cran it doesn’t matter whether the “meaning” that each of the three main Doukhobor groups have constructed is a pack of self-deceiving lies. What counts is only that they came out of the process recognizing that their tangled stories, however contradictory, are part of a whole. This might be good conflict resolution (although doubts about that are raised below), but it could be less than useful for outsiders who are seeking to understand what was seen in the 1950s and 1960s as an unmitigated campaign of terrorism.

One of Cran’s real contributions is to paint a portrait of key participants from various Doukhobor factions. Three are men from competing groups: Fred Makortoff and Steve Lapshinoff were influential in the Reformed Brotherhood, a Sons of Freedom splinter section that, by the 1970s, had ostensibly forsaken violence; Jim Popoff was from the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC), the main Doukhobor group, against whom a substantial part of the violence of the 1950s to 1970s was committed.

Cran also focuses on another key Doukhobor leader of the past three decades, John J. Verigin, honorary chairman of the USCC. Much lauded in official political circles from Canada to the Soviet Union, Verigin has been seen by others – including Crown prosecutors and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in British Columbia – as the instigator of violence against his own section of Doukhobors. Cran hints at what must be Verigin’s internal demons merely by reporting on his drunkenly belligerent behaviour and utterances in certain EKCIR sessions. Reading Negotiating Buck Naked, some readers might come to the conclusion that the key to resolving the violence was just pressure on Verigin and concessions by him – such as the public declaration that “I will not instruct or counsel anybody to commit criminal acts, such as Arson and Bombings” (quoted inaccurately on p. 87).

If this is a reader’s conclusion, it would be an erroneous one. For while Verigin is seen by some as a villain in Doukhobor affairs, he was eclipsed by many other villains who never get their due in Negotiating Buck Naked.

So much that could be valuable to historians is left unstated in Negotiating Buck Naked. For example, the origins of the EKCIR process, which Cran dispenses with in a sentence. Until 1979, “the Doukhobor situation had been considered a policing operation; however, for some reason the Ministry of the Attorney General was looking for a new approach to the conflict” (37). What was the reason for this fundamental shift in policy? Cran doesn’t elaborate.

Another gaping hole involves the participation of Robin Bourne, who in 1982 became head of an “expanded” KCIR and served as chair until 1985. Cran sees the Bourne period as the moment when the process achieved success (45). But who was Bourne and what did he bring to a process that, according to Cran, centred on “recognizing differences that must be co-managed by those involved” (140)? We must probe beyond Cran to learn that Bourne was no mediator. He was a former career Canadian army officer and a key figure in the security intelligence establishment in Canada. As deputy solicitor general for Canada from 1972 to 1979, he served as liaison between the cabinet of Pierre Trudeau and the RCMP. The dates of his service as Canada’s top civilian security intelligence official are significant. They followed the security intelligence crisis of October 1970 that witnessed kidnapping and murder by the Front de Libération du Québec and the imposition of the War Measures Act by the Trudeau government. After 1970, the Canadian government gave the RCMP free rein to identify and immobilize domestic dissent, including not just terrorists but also democratic Quebec nationalists and the left in general throughout Canada. In the Bourne years, the RCMP pursued this campaign using illegal means that became a public scandal, leading it to be stripped of responsibility for security intelligence in 1984. How did Bourne the career army officer, Bourne the civilian security intelligence specialist, Bourne the anti-communist come to head the EKCIR? Why did the BC provincial government appoint him rather than any number of prominent individuals who might have brought genuine conflict resolution skills to the EKCIR table? What specific methods did Bourne employ to work out this resolution? Cran stays mum.

Since he was so centrally involved in the process, it is understandable that Cran is tempted to concentrate on the role of the EKCIR in resolving the conflict. But he appears not to have considered alternative explanations. Perhaps, in fact, the violent impulse had already passed by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the EKCIR process unfolded. A glance at Cran’s Appendix A, a chronology of bombings and arsons in the Kootenay region from 1940 to 1983, suggests that this explanation ought to have been explored. Compared to years from the 1940s to the early 1960s, the late 1970s and early 1980s were very calm. For 1947, for instance, the chronology records 49 violent incidents; for 1962, 39; yet 1977 had two, while 1978, 1979, and 1980 each had four incidents. Carrying the chronology past 1983 would have revealed that a small number of violent incidents continued right to the end of the twentieth century. Could it be that other factors had a much greater role in suppressing the violence used by some Doukhobors? What about police action, land privatization, intermarriage, compulsory education, and the advancing age of the terrorists, among other things? For that, we’ll need to look beyond Negotiating Buck Naked.