Doukhobor Immigration: The Potato Dilemma

by Victor O. Buyniak

In the months prior to the Doukhobors’ arrival in Canada in 1898-1899, the Immigration Branch of the Department of the Interior worked ceaselessly to coordinate the necessary arrangements for their settlement.  The following article by Victor O. Buyniak, reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (38, 1985, No. 2) deals with one aspect of the settlement arrangements: the exigency of providing foodstuffs, namely potatoes, for the vegetarian settlers arriving in large numbers on the Prairies in winter.  It documents the many tasks in which immigration officials were engaged as they worked with Doukhobor organizers and the need for cooperative effort over very long distances.  It also reflects the inner workings of a government department which played a pivotal role in the opening of the West.

The 1890’s was a decade of accelerated settlement of the Canadian North-West by new immigrants arriving in groups or on an individual basis. Many came from Eastern Europe. The mass migration of the Doukhobors occurred at the very end of the decade. Plans to transport and settle some 7,500 Doukhobors on the Prairies were finalized in 1898. The very first train carrying Doukhobor settlers was expected in Winnipeg late in 1898 or early in 1899. In preparation for their arrival, provisions had to be purchased and stored. Since the Doukhobors were vegetarians, most of the provisions were from field, garden and orchard produce. A very sizeable amount of potatoes had to be obtained and stored to last the new immigrants over the first winter and spring, including reserves for spring planting.

This paper deals with the problems encountered by Canadian officials on various levels and in various localities whose duty it was to buy potatoes beforehand at the lowest price and to arrange for their transport to future central points of Doukhobor settlement. They were also responsible for safe storage of the potatoes during the winter of 1898-99. In those years the process of obtaining, transporting and storing vegetables was much more complicated than it is now. An additional factor made the whole procedure even more difficult to carry out: the officials did not yet know for sure in which regions of the North-West Territories the Doukhobors would eventually settle. Yet sufficient stocks of provisions, situated in places easily accessible to the new immigrants, meant the physical well-being, if not the very survival, of the settlers during their first winter on the prairies. The story is reconstructed in chronological order from correspondence in the records of the Immigration Branch of the Department of the Interior of Canada, (Volume 183, file 65101, part 1, 1898) available on microfilm at the Saskatchewan Archives.

As early as 5 October, 1898, Aylmer Maude, an English Tolstoyan and friend of the Doukhobors, who headed a Doukhobor delegation during the preceding summer
and fall to visit and select the localities for their future settlement in Canada, raised the matter of food supplies in a letter to the Honourable Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior.

May I further request you to give instructions to the Immigration Department, as soon as the location for the Doukhobors is definitely settled, to buy such a stock of potatoes, other vegetables & rye flour as will be required to feed 2000 people through the winter. We will pay for these things but we have neither the organization nor the information to enable us to procure them in good time and at the lowest prices.

Doukhobor group in Russia, just before emigrating. British Columbia Archives D-01139.

James A. Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior wrote William F. McCreary, the Commissioner of Immigration, who was then located in Winnipeg, on 8 October, 1898, regarding the expected arrival of the Doukhobors and the purchasing of food supplies.

Some time ago you wrote me with reference to the purchase of vegetables in view of the likelihood of the Doukhobors emigrating to Canada before the winter, and in answer to this I advised you to purchase in the meantime a considerable quantity, leaving the quantity to your judgment.

I now have to say that since arrangements have been made with Mr. Maude he has written me asking that the Department should arrange for a stock of vegetables and rye flour to be purchased, such a quantity as would feed say 2,000 people during the winter. Mr. Maude agrees to pay whatever this supply costs, but I am very anxious that you should purchase the potatoes, as well as other supplies required, at the very lowest possible price, as I promised Mr. Maude we would assist him in this matter. It may be possible that you can purchase some of these at Brandon and also at Regina and other points where they should be stored in the meantime, but I think it well to at once arrange as these supplies will certainly be needed. As I have already intimated to you some 2,200 of these people are likely to leave Batoum, on the Black Sea, for Winnipeg in a few days so that we may expect them to arrive about the middle of November. It will therefore be necessary to arrange about the vegetables at once, but as to the rye flour I think they can arrange that themselves just as well later on.

In the meantime there arose a likelihood of a second transport of some 2,000 Doukhobors arriving in the west that same winter. In addition to making the necessary travel accommodation and settlement arrangements for this group, Smart and his officials were responsible for supplying them with food provisions. Regarding this second transport, Smart wrote Maude on 11 October, 1898:

It appears to me to be very important that you should be fully advised before leaving as to whether sufficient quantities of vegetables have been purchased to meet the requirements of these people. I do not know whether it is your intention to return to Winnipeg or not… I have sent full instructions to Mr. McCreary in consequence of your request that the officers of the Department should proceed to purchase supplies, so that purchases will be made in this connection at Winnipeg, Brandon and Regina.

On 14 October, 1898, McCreary notified Smart from Winnipeg with regard to the arrangements being made in view of the possible arrival of this additional group of Doukhobors:

Some time ago potatoes could have been secured more cheaply but owing to the very heavy rains a great many of them have been lost, and difficulty is going to be experienced in getting the others out of the ground as the ground is so wet and it is costing from four to six cents a bushel to dig them and put them on the ground. I also believe as there is quite a scarcity, potatoes will be dear later on, and especially so next spring, so that these people ought to secure sufficient vegetables now and have them stored to last them as food till next July, and sufficient for seed next spring.

There is further correspondence regarding the matter of purchasing potatoes for the Doukhobors as McCreary wrote to Smart on 21 October, 1898:

I made strong endeavours to purchase potatoes here: secured one load at 32 ½ and one at 30 cents, but there was so much mud attached to them and they were so wet that I felt that they would not keep. Then again, the price commenced to run up, and this morning I cannot buy at less than 45. Quite a large quantity of potatoes here will never be taken out of the ground – in fact, one man who had agreed to let me have a thousand bushels at 35, but on going to his field found five inches of water over his potatoes—so he gave them up.

However, I have now made arrangements with two men, one James Flanaghan to purchase me potatoes at Portage la Prairie and McGregor at 30 cents, and another, Pace, to purchase them at that point at 28.1 have got half rate on these from the C.P.R. from these points to Winnipeg, and will make arrangements here for storing them, so that they can be shipped to any point, if necessary. I shall probably get five cars, about three thousand bushels, from these two sources.

I wrote Braun to try and purchase two or three thousand bushels at Brandon. He says they can be got there for 25 cents, but I rather imagine the quantity is limited. However, I intend running up there next week to look over the shed and the accommodations for cooking and will discuss the purchase of vegetables with him at that time. In the meantime, his instructions are to go on and purchase two or three thousand bushels at 25 cents, if he can get them, and put them in the Post Office cellar, and any other place he can get.

There is no money lost in purchasing potatoes at this price, as I am quite willing, if the Government will allow me, to take them off their hands at these figures, in fact, I could turn them over today and make money. The great point to be considered however is to get them in such places as they will keep till next spring, because there is no doubt that potatoes will then reach to $1 to $1.50 per bushel, and other vegetables in proportion.

What quantity of potatoes do you think should be purchased for food for these people till, say, next August, with sufficient for seed for the entire colony? … I was thinking it would require about ten thousand bushels for food and about six hundred to a thousand for seed. The latter would have to be kept in some cool place till next June.

Doukhobor women baking bread in outdoor ovens. British Columbia Archives E-07248.

Commissioner McCreary informed his superior Frank Pedley, Superintendent of Immigration on 4 November 1898 that it was possible to arrange with the Canadian Pacific Railway officials to transport the vegetables at half price but he could not make the same arrangements with another company. Writing to Pedley again on 16 November 1898 he outlined developments.

You are probably aware that I was instructed to buy a large quantity of vegetables for the Doukhobortsi who, as I was informed, would arrive here about the 15th November. I have already purchased between eight and ten thousand bushels of potatoes at Winnipeg, Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Yorkton and Dauphin . . . also about 15 tons of cabbage. These potatoes average probably 30 to 40 cents delivered in the warehouse here. . . . The potatoes, however, I think we shall be able to save, though it will cost a little more for warehousing than I anticipated. However, from the present outlook potatoes are going to be worth from sixty cents to $1 next March, and I think I could easily place all the potatoes I have on hand at profit.

While all these solicitations were being made by all these officials on behalf of the arriving Doukhobors, it was learned that their departure from the port of Batoum had been postponed for six weeks. As a result the first trainload of Doukhobors did not reach Winnipeg until 27 January 1899. An unexpected turn of events occurred in December 1898, when the Customs Inspector in Brandon, George H. Young, cabled Smart on 21 December: “Quantity potatoes stored in cellar public building here think require attention decaying smell through offices very bad most unhealthy for officers and presume potatoes spoiling.” McCreary was ordered to investigate and apparently the matter was taken in hand and resolved as nothing more was said about the matter.

The importance of potatoes as part of the diet of an agrarian population like the Doukhobors can be seen from continuous efforts by immigration officials to secure enough of this produce during the first year of the Doukhobors’ settlement on the Canadian prairies. On 16 May, 1899, Harley wrote to Smart from Swan River: “I have bought 50 bushels of splendid potatoes for seed here at $1.25 per bushel . . .” And McCreary wrote to Smart on 4 November, 1899:

I have already bought at Yorkton about a thousand bushels of potatoes, and I am sending to-day another carload to Swan River . . . and as they will likely use most of the potatoes which they are buying now, seed potatoes, probably 2500 to 3000 bushels, should be got there before the 5th of April…

Once firmly established on Canadian soil, the Doukhobors produced enough crops, among them potatoes, not only for their own consumption and seed reserves, but also for marketing.

This article originally appeared in the pages of Saskatchewan History, an award-winning magazine dedicated to encouraging both readers and writers to explore the province’s history. Published by the Saskatchewan Archives since 1948, it is the pre-eminent source of information and narration about Saskatchewan’s unique heritage.  For more information, visit Saskatchewan History online at: