by Andrei Bondoreff
In 1947, Sons of Freedom leader Michael “the Archangel” Verigin and 200 of his followers established a 348 acre communal farm at Hilliers, British Columbia. There, the colonists cleared and tilled the land, set up apiaries, planted orchards and large vegetable gardens. While it lasted, the small communal farm was quiet, peaceful and industrious. Nonetheless, it set off a firestorm of controversy and rumours and made many of their Islander neighbors nervous about the “potential danger” the Doukhobors posed to the region. Reproduced by permission from the Times Colonist (December 07, 2008), the following article by Andrei Bondoreff examines one of Vancouver Island’s most extraordinary communal experiments.
For six short years, the Vancouver Island community of Hilliers was home to a small peaceful communal settlement that made many Islanders nervous. In early spring of 1947, folks in the rural district about 60 kilometres north of Nanaimo noticed that a group of people had purchased and begun working 348 acres together.
The commune’s 200 inhabitants cleared and tilled the land, set up apiaries, planted hundreds of fruit trees and cultivated thousands of strawberry plants and raspberry bushes along with large vegetable gardens. They began building a small sawmill to provide lumber for barns, residences, a dining hall and a canning plant. They even built a school.
In May 1947, the Daily Colonist reported “an interesting sight is furnished by the women in their full white blouses, pulled down over their full skirts, and kerchiefs worn peasant-style on their heads, stooping low to the earth and putting every inch of soil through a sieve, making a picture reminiscent of Biblical times, silhouetted against the background of rolling hills.”
A group of “Spiritual Community of Christ” members working their communal gardens at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01624.
These “interesting” people were from the diverse Doukhobor community living in the Interior. They came from an offshoot of the fundamentalist branch known as the Sons of Freedom. Leadership issues and differing views of schooling led to a rupture that brought the breakaway group to Hilliers.
During the colony’s first few months, spokesman Joe Podovinikoff announced that “private property was the cause of world troubles.” He added, “not only do we renounce private ownership in matters of land and money; we also believe that private ownership of persons and families, including women and children, belongs to the old order.”
This set off a firestorm of controversy. It wasn’t long before the public was titillated with lurid stories of “wife-sharing” or “wife-swapping.” Churchmen were up in arms. Rev. Hugh A. McLeod, pastor of the First United Church at Victoria, said it was “degrading man and woman to the level of the beasts” and had “within it the seeds of slavery.” Dean Cecil Swanson, president of the Vancouver Ministerial Association, told the Daily Colonist that it was “tragic that these people should have been allowed to colonize in Canada and be given a sort of preferred status among us.”
Members of the Doukhobor community at Hilliers, BC, 1947; Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01625.
The Daily Times speculated that the “settlement may cause some concern to wealthy landowners at nearby Qualicum Beach. It is less than five miles from the famed resort where millionaires have summer homes and retired generals, titled gentry and high officers of the army, navy and air force have settled.”
Rumours of the possible migration of 3,000 Doukhobors to the Island inflamed the Parksville Board of Trade, which attempted to rally its counterparts in Port Alberni, Courtenay, Comox, Campbell River, Nanaimo and Duncan against the “potential danger” the group posed to the region. “If Doukhobors spread as they have in the Kootenays it is only a matter of time until they will reach your district,” wrote Parksville Board of Trade secretary Ron Thwaites.
It wasn’t long before the colony and the newspapers began battling. Spokesman Podovinikoff criticized the media for the ways it characterized the group. “We would like to protest to the newspapers and others against calling us ‘Doukhobors’… for us that name is an empty shell.” According to him, they had changed their name to the Elders of the Spiritual Community of Christ. He also added, “We beseech the public and all the Christian world to believe that we have come here not to transgress the law but fulfil it. There are no gross motives in this endeavour and all the reports of swapping wives are sheer misrepresentation of facts.”
Doukhobors bucking wood at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01628.
Provincial officials were calm. The attorney general’s department said: “We have not heard of any wife-swapping among the Island Doukhobors. If there is such a practice, it would give grounds for divorce — that is all.” Dr. J.B. Munro, the deputy minister of agriculture who owned property nearby and like the Doukhobors enjoyed beekeeping, said, “I know nothing of my new neighbours, haven’t heard of any lawlessness and haven’t missed any bees.” Neighbours of the commune said the communalists were “conservative and mild-mannered people.”
Real estate agent E.D. Thwaites of Qualicum Beach complained that too much had been made of the settlement and that publicity was unnecessarily affecting real estate sales on the whole Island. According to him, there was nothing wrong with the communalists and they made no trouble. “The trouble with Doukhobors is that they don’t mix … if anyone is living alongside two of them he may as well be without neighbours.”
In April 1951, Comox MLA H.J. Welch called the communal group at Hilliers “first-class citizens.” He said that women were joining women’s institutes and the men farmers’ institutes.
Michael ‘the Archangel” Verigin and a group of women who helped organize the Doukhobor Community at Hilliers, BC, 1947. Koozma J. Tarasoff collection, BC Archives, C-01627.
When an “agitator” from a violent wing of Sons of Freedom in the Kootenays arrived at the colony and urged a new campaign of “bombings and fire raids,” he was “stripped, decked with a necklace of tin cans and ejected from the community.”
There were conflicting reports of stripping at the colony. In 1952, newspapers in Vancouver reported nude demonstrations. However, “surprised” RCMP officers told the Daily Times: “We have received no information to substantiate these reports … we have a man at Hilliers and I’m sure he would have reported a nude parade.”
By then, the colony was in decline. In November the Daily Colonist reported that it had “been losing residents for weeks and the RCMP stated that they had no idea why they were going.” “As a rule, the Doukhobors are close-mouthed with us,” said an officer.
The fact that the group’s leader Michael “the Archangel” Orekoff, who assumed the name Verigin, had died in July 1951 played a big part in the colony’s disintegration.
In December the property was up for sale and by February, the Daily Colonist reported that the settlement was a “ghost town.” The group had all returned to the Kootenays, bringing an end to one of Vancouver Island’s most extraordinary communal experiments.