Doukhobors Work in Lieu of Fighting, 1941

Prince Albert Daily Herald

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, 70 Doukhobor men in Saskatchewan agreed to perform alternative service rather than military service, which violated their pacifist principles. In June of 1941, they were interned at a work camp near Montreal Lake in northern Saskatchewan, where they performed road construction. This manual work was long and arduous, lasting from sunup to sundown. By October of 1941, when their four-month terms ended, the Doukhobors had built over forty miles of Highway No. 2 connecting Lac la Ronge with the south of the province. The following article, reproduced from the Prince Albert Daily Herald (October 25, 1941), is a first-hand, objective journalistic account of the Doukhobor conscientious objectors, their decision to perform alternative service, general living conditions in the camp, the road construction work they performed, and its significance to the development of Saskatchewan’s north. 

About 130 miles north of Prince Albert, a crew of conscientious objectors from Doukhobor communities in Saskatchewan is at work on the Lac la Ronge highway, which is pointed like an arrow at the Lac la Ronge settlement near the mouth of the Montreal River. Ten miles of new road may be completed by these men and machines by freeze-up, bringing the highway within 42 miles of the Pre-Cambrian Shield.

In the camp are seventy Doukhobors doing jobs from “straw” boss through every phase of construction to the ordinary chores around camp. Meanwhile, in Prince Albert Jail there are 92 other Doukhobors from the same communities who were fined and imprisoned for failing to report for alternative service on the road project instead of compulsory military training. The men at each end of this strange “axis” – those in jail and those in camp – claim to have done the right thing as conscientious objectors. However, the C.O.’s in camp will not condemn those in prison, saying it was their privilege to decide in what light they saw the right. It is the conviction of all that it is wrong to kill a fellow man.

Doukhobor conscientious objectors lining up at the mess hall for dinner.  Alternative service work camp, Montreal Lake, SK, 1941. A Flickr photo by Alycia Bockus-Vanin. 

There is more than usual interest attached to the Lac la Ronge highway in this third year of Canada’s war. The folk armed mostly with faith who are pushing the road through to completion expect important developments to follow, the kind of developments that came with the building of railways and other roads across the Great Plains and which in time poured back a great wealth of food and raw materials. There are others just as interested in the project, authorities and civilians alike, who are closely watching the vexing question of dealing with the C.O.’s.

For the purposes of the record, it may be stated that W.M. Stewart of Saskatoon, the resident engineer, will be well satisfied to complete ten miles of new road before the camp closes. That would take the road to a point between Mile 44 to 45 in the picturesque Bow River Hills country. The road now is completed to approximately parallel 54 degrees 50 minutes. When it reaches Lac la Ronge, it will reach north of the [indecipherable].  At the present time the road is located and cleared to Mile 87, leaving approximately 42 miles to go after this year’s work.  Besides work on the new grade, in which several caterpillar tractors, graders and dump wagons are employed, some repairs and improvements were made on previously built road.  The C.O.’s cleared windfall from ditches for 15 miles and trimmed several miles of the old grade. Repairs were done on about ten miles of road and a total of about half a mile of sandy grade was clay surfaced. New road work then became the order of the day.

A visit to the camp and road project impresses one with the idea the government is accomplishing a twofold task among the C.O.’s – giving them an opportunity to render some form of national surface and building up the Doukhobors’ confidence in the government.  It is considered only right that they should perform a service to their country that in some small measure equals the sacrifice of those who volunteer to fight for their nation’s cause and those who are compelled to train for home defence. By means of alternative service on the Lac la Ronge road, the young Doukhobors and their elders can see the government has no intention or desire to interfere with their religious beliefs. As a result, their confidence in the government has increased.

The explanation for the attitude and philosophy of the Doukhobors appears simple. The average Canadian, like the British, is reared in the tradition of national and Empire heroes. He is taught to look up to and admire the men who sacrificed everything, including life, for their country and their country’s cause.  On the other hand, the Doukhobors have been raised in the tradition of martyrs and taught to revere those who suffered persecution for their pacifist ideals. They wish to be Christ-like and they remember that Christ was persecuted for his beliefs during his ministry on earth. Such a tradition, while perhaps not as strong in the Doukhobors youths as in their elders, will not be gone in a day or a year.

The question of whether to perform alternative service split not only whole communities of the Doukhobors but it also divided some Doukhobor homes. At least one C.O. in camp has a brother serving a prison term for refusing to work on the road project, while others in camp have relatives, friends and acquaintances in jail. The men in camp often visit those in jail when they go out on leave.

Some of those who were prosecuted for failing to report for work said in court that in addition to being opposed to taking up arms they believed alternate service was equivalent to military service and, therefore, they could not accept the principle of alternative service. In some cases, counsel retained in their behalf pleaded for leniency on the ground that the young men were largely influenced by the older Doukhobors.

Three Doukhobor conscientious objectors working on new road grade with shovels. Alternative service work camp, Montreal Lake, SK, 1941. A Flickr photo by Alycia Bockus-Vanin.

Doukhobors who went to camp stated they believed the right thing to do in this time of world crisis was to accept the alternative to military service agreed upon by their representatives and the Saskatchewan war services board in a conference at Saskatoon in April.

In an open letter to the weekly newspaper (The Blaine Lake Echo) in a large Doukhobor community west of Prince Albert, which chided them for not taking up arms, the Doukhobor workers said they had accepted alternate service intending “to be sincere in our Doukhobor religious convictions because we wish to uphold Jesus Christ’s highest principle, ‘Love thy neighbor’ the principle for which our forefathers were persecuted in old Russia.”  They emphasized that the work was constructive, not destructive.  Their letter went on to state they appreciated the fact that their liberal Doukhobor philosophy had been free to grow in democratic Canada. They were grateful to “our fellow Canadians” who, while not agreeing with their philosophy of life, respected them and their convictions.

In camp they found neither military discipline nor interference with their beliefs. It was a democratic life and the road work was no different than ordinary peace time construction.

The Doukhobors felt that the 16 Mennonite C.O.’s in the Prince Albert National Park who enlisted in the armed services had not been true conscientious objectors. The majority of Doukhobors, they said, were resolved to stick to their convictions. The letter was signed by six men on behalf of all the C.O.’s.

Men in the camp readily admitted that it is in no sense a military camp and no pressure was brought to bear upon them to change their ideals concerning military service.

John I. Bondoreff of Blaine Lake, who was made personnel supervisor after serving first as a waiter in the dining room, said those performing alternative service had an open mind about the decision of their comrades who are in jail.  “We think we have done the right thing and they think they have done the right, too,” said Bondoreff, shrugging his shoulders. “Who are we to judge who is right?”

The Doukhobors of Saskatchewan said they cannot understand why Doukhobor men in British Columbia have not been called upon to perform some similar form of national service.

The military has nothing to do with the Lac la Ronge road project. It is operated by the surveys and construction branch of the Dominion department of mines and resources.

The Saskatchewan government provides the engineering staff of two – W.M. Stewart, resident engineer, and Max Jacoby of Dundurn, Sask., assistant engineer – and some of the equipment. The foreman, George Lamont of Swift current, is on loan from the Saskatchewan highways department to the Federal mines and resources department. Mr. Lamont’s son, Sgt. Roy Lamont, is a wireless operator air gunner in the R.C.A.F. who recently arrived overseas.

Doukhobor conscientious objector operates a caterpillar tractor on the new road grade. Most of the Doukhobors performed manual labour. Alternative service work camp, Montreal Lake, SK, 1941. A Flickr photo by Alycia Bockus-Vanin. 

The Doukhobors came to the camp fully willing and intending to work. There has been the odd malcontent but no more than the average number that might be expected in any similar group of men. All but one of them is a Doukhobor. The exception is a Seventh Day Adventist. He works Sundays instead of Saturdays.

Since actual road construction commenced the C.O.’s have been engaged in four phases of the work: Camp chores, construction of culverts and bridges, shovel work and caterpillar tractor operations on the grade, and trimming of the completed road.

Two shifts work in the kitchen and dining room, others cut and split wood, sweep and scrub office and canteen. One assists the time-keeper and works in the canteen which is a dry canteen. Another is the camp carpenter and one is blacksmith’s helper.

Two other Doukhobors assist the engineering staff as rodman and chainman. They replaced two regular department men who returned to school. One of these is Walter Katelnikoff of Yorkton, who has spent a year studying architecture at the University of Manitoba. He hopes to return to the university for the fall term. The other is Mike Deakove of Veregin, Sask., who is an amateur photographer and who ran a general store before being called up for alternative service.

Proceeding in advance of the main camp is the dragline building the grade over the muskeg. There is a crew of three but no Doukhobors are employed there. Also in advance of the main crew is the bridge building gang of four men putting in culverts. Two are Doukhobors, the other two being experienced bridge builders.

The main body of C.O.’s is employed on the grade where several caterpillar tractors, graders and dump wagons are used. Five Doukhobors are “cat” drivers, four of them learning the job since they went to camp. Shovel-wielding C.O.’s spread the earth dumped from the wide-wheeled wagons. After they have passed, blade graders go into action smoothing the surface of the road.  Bringing up the rear is another group of C.O.’s with shovels and rakes trimming the shoulders and slopes of the grade. This is the finishing touch of the work except for gravelling but no gravelling is being done this year.

The C.O.’s work an eight-hour shift and are paid 50 cents per day and receive board and the use of blankets. Some in key positions are paid 75 cents a day. They are paid in cash twice a month as provided in the agreement with the war services board.

They sleep in wooden bunks under canvas, about ten men in each tent. The tents are erected on floors built on skids and each has a rough door. In cold weather camp stoves furnish heat.

Eleven Doukhobor conscientious objectors pose in front of their tent, August 7, 1941.  Note the tents had wooden floors and were placed on skids for portability.  Alternative service work camp, Montreal Lake, SK, 1941. A Flickr photo by Alycia Bockus-Vanin

They get three square meals a day in the dining room which is made of two tents end to end. Food is prepared in two adjoining tents that serve as kitchen and bakery. Breakfast consists of cereal, bacon, boiled eggs, bread and butter, hot cakes and coffee. Lunch and supper include hot or cold meat, potatoes, various vegetables, pie, pudding or cake, jam and marmalade. From time to time, apples and cheese are served on the tables. Soup is served at the noon meal. Tableware consists of enamel plates and mugs. The food is the kind of wholesome and substantial grub that working men need to do their job and there is enough to satisfy the hungriest.  At the breakfast table the C.O.’s stand with bowed heads while one of them recites what a Doukhobor described as “a combination of grace and the Lord’s Prayer.”

At places the road builders encountered frost in the muskeg, even in summer months, which is not unusual in that country.

The road has been gravelled as far as Mile 28. Mileage is reckoned from the junction of the Waskesiu and Montreal Lake highways.

Mr. Stewart made the reconnaissance survey in the fall of 1937 and the location survey was made by him in 1938. Construction was begun in 1939 and suspended in 1940 on account of the war. No work was contemplated on the project this year until the decision to offer C.O.’s this form of alternative service. Work was begun late in the season.

On their arrival in camp the Doukhobors chose a camp committee with one representative from each tent to consider problems that might arise from time to time. It was quite active at first but lately it has had little of a controversial nature to discuss. The committee consists of John I. Bondoreff, secretary, Peter Chutskoff, Nick Calmusky, Gregory Karaloff, all of Blaine Lake, Walter Katelnikoff, Yorkton, Alex Morozoff, Veregin, Joe W. Fofonoff, Watson, and John Chernenkoff, Fort Pelly.

Recreation consisted of ball games, boxing and occasionally swimming at Montreal Lake on weekends.

On Saturday nights they usually entertain themselves with concerts or singsongs in the Community Tent. There are instrumentalists and vocalists among them. A feature of one concert was a Hitler-Mussolini skit made popular by radio’s Carry On Canada. Imitations of the dictators were lively and realistic. The audience reaction was definitely anti-Axis.

William P. Makaroff, a retired Doukhobor farmer who resides at Marcelin, visited the camp to brush up the choir of fifteen voices. Mr. Makaroff has a wonderful memory for the tunes and words of Doukhobor hymns and songs. Members of the choir can sing in both English and Russian, but many of their folk songs have not yet been translated.

In the evening after supper the sound of music emanates from the tents, often accompanied by voices in song. Modern music is popular with the young men. Finally the lights go out and sleep comes, broken again in the morning by the breakfast song and the roar of the caterpillars warming up for another day’s work.

View of the Doukhobor alternative service work camp, Montreal Lake, SK, 1941. The cook tent and mess hall are left, and the workers’ bunk tents are centre and right.  A Flickr photo by Alycia Bockus-Vanin.

Ambitions of the young Doukhobors lean towards the fields of arts and sciences as well as education, business and farming. They represent also many of the manual trades. Alex Zbitnoff of Blaine Lake was granted postponement some time ago to return to the School of Mines at Butte, Montana, to finish his course in engineering.  About five of the 70 have been to university but non has a degree yet and quite a number have a high school education. Three attended Normal School and are now teachers. The sister of one is substituting at his school until he completes his service.  Two are amateur photographers with the idea of going farther in that field, while another who has shown ability in pencil sketches and water colours is dreaming of a career as a painter. Several are keen about writing fiction and fact articles and are interested in finding newspaper work. One has contributed poems to a west coast newspaper.  While their finishing equipment has of necessity been the crudest, the amateur cameramen have done everything in the camp from shooting the picture to developing, printing and ferrotyping.

A newspaperman visiting the camp received a friendly welcome from the C.O.’s and found, as the resident engineer stated, that they were well-behaved and orderly.

They were willing to answer any and all questions and eager to pose for pictures. They enjoyed jokes at each other’s expense and a little horseplay. They seemed like average Canadians in a peace-time construction job. Their tents were neat and clean. Writing letters and postcards home occupied a good deal of their time. They avidly collected photographs of themselves and of camp life. Many of them smoke.

On the whole they were said to perform a good day’s work in return for their fifty cents and board.

Their favourite chocolate bar is called “Zowie.” During the summer relatives and friends frequently visited the camp, a factor which had much to do with allaying any alarm the folks at home may have had about their environment.

Mr. Stewart is called “the daddy of the camp”. To him the C.O.’s bring their grief and woe and they always receive a kind reception. The Doukhobors found no praise too extravagant to describe his virtues.

Nearly all of those questioned replied that they enjoyed camp life, did not mind the work. At home many would work much longer hours around the farm. Now with the frost coming and the snow not far away and their term of service well on to completion, they are looking forward to going home.

Fred W. Bourne of Saskatoon, the first aid man, interested several in regular first aid lectures. Mr. Bourne had qualified for service in the Canadian army base hospital early in the war but a medical board rejected him on re-examination. Besides attending a fractured foot and hand and dealing with a couple minor waves of illness, Mr. Bourne responded to Indian residents of the district when they send for him.

Usefulness of the Lac la Ronge road has already been demonstrated by the erection of several small sawmills and the shipment of several million feet of lumber.
The road crosses areas swept by fire in previous years and the spruce still standing with charred bark is said to be useful for the pulp and box-making industries. There is also a great deal of fire blackened timber useful for fuel. Completion of the road will mean that traders, trappers and prospectors can be landed right on the edge of Northern Saskatchewan’s deep waterway system. From Lac la Ronge any of these will be able to launch in any direction on the north’s great water highway system. A Prince Albert prospecting firm is now arranging for a small mill to be installed on its gold properties near la Ronge. The highway will thus open an excellent transportation route for this and other prospective gold mining operations in the area.

In connection with the C.O. camp, an official of the Quaker organization, the Society of Friends [Barnard Walton] , came from Philadelphia. He inspected the camp, addressed the men and appeared favourably impressed with what was being done here in respect of the C.O.’s.

View WWII Doukhobor Alternative Service – Road Construction Project in a larger map

For More Information

For more information on Doukhobor conscientious objectors during the Second World War, see the following links: