by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
Peter A. Kouznitsoff (1918-) is the son of Russian Doukhobor immigrants who arrived in Canada in 1899 and settled in the Blaine Lake district of Saskatchewan. Raised on the family farm, he received his education at the Brook Hill one-room rural school. Upon completing his education, he began farming. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Peter refused to perform military service when he received his call-up papers. As a conscientious objector, he chose to perform alternative service instead. He was sent to Montreal Lake in northern Saskatchewan, where along with 70 other Doukhobor men, he worked in a road construction camp, building Highway No. 2 to Lac la Ronge. After completing his alternate service, Peter returned to Blaine Lake where he continued a lifelong career in agriculture. In the following interview, conducted by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff on October 2, 2011, Peter discusses his experiences of 70 years ago as a Doukhobor conscientious objector.
Peter A. Kouznitsoff, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, October 2, 2011. Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
What is your full name?
Peter A. Kouznitsoff.
What is your present address?
Stensrud Lodge, 2202 McEown Ave, Saskatoon.
What is your date of birth?
September 27, 1918.
Where were you born?
I was born in Terpeniye village, in 1918 when the flu was epidemic. Mother was saying, I was so sick [from the flu] that they prepared a funeral, but I pulled through. They thought I would never make it.
What were your parent’s names and occupations?
Alec Kouznitsoff and Hrunya – she was a Dorofaeff. They were farmers. Dad was from Petrovka, but Mother was from Terpeniye.
Do you know how they got married? Mother was eligible already to get married. So Peter Dorofaeff – Grandfather – got them united with Fedya Tikhonoff. And then Grandfather told them that they were going to get married. But they were already planning with Dad that they were going to get married. Dad – he was from Petrovka. So what they did – they eloped at night [and] Alec Dargin took them to North Battleford. And they stayed at Osachoff’s – Masha – that was an Aunty to Dad. After that they moved to Tarasoff’s in Langham – that was Dad’s mother’s [family], she was married to Harry Kouznitsoff. Grandfather was very upset, but Grandmother had a different tone, she kind of toned him down. They came back. In the meantime, Grandfather moved farms two miles west and they built a new house there, and his son got another house and they built a barn and garage and all the other buildings. But he [the son] was a drunkard and the bank seized everything. But they gave Grandfather 3-4 acres where his yard was, so they didn’t touch him. But Uncle, he had another place further and moved to the farm further down. And then, when Mother and Dad came, they took over and started farming Grandfather’s place, and then they bought it from them. Grandfather’s farm was kitty-corner to where the village [of Terpeniye] was and he had 15 acres of the other quarter that was his property.
Describe your upbringing as a Canadian Doukhobor. How did it influence you growing up?
I got everything from Mother and Dad. They told me everything about it, and I just kept on.
I went to Peters Day on a wagon and all that. It was [held near] the Pozirayevka Cemetery – in the bush there was an opening [clearing], but now its all overgrown with young trees. This was to the south of the cemetery. On the east side, along the fence, they used to come with horses and wagons and tie them up there for Peters Day, but the cars were parked in front. We had to walk through the bush to the tent – a big tent they were getting from the Mennonites from Waldheim for Peters Day. Pete Padowsky and another were entitled always to bring it, and two men from each [school] division had to go and help set it up and after Peters Day, to take it down, and put it in the wagon and take it back. It was a lot of work to set it up. And they got the lumber from the lumber yard and they made the benches – where people sat. And there was a platform on the east side. If it was a hot day, they would lift the sides [of the tent] up, so a breeze would go through, and it was good. There was choirs from each district – and there was seven villages – and there was a choir from each village – Uspeniye, Terpeniye, Slavyanka, Spasovka, Pozirayevka, Horelovka, Trinity – or Troitskoye, and Petrovka. All the villages celebrated Peters Day there. There was no Prayer Home in Blaine Lake yet; the Prayer Home was built in ’32, I think. Once the Prayer Home was built, they quit that [location].
The Prayer Home was built – the way I remember – the bricks – Doukhobor bricks – were from BC. And the bricklayers came [from BC] but all the [labour] help was local. They had to haul sand and help and all that, and that’s how it was built. I [then] went to sobraniyas to the Blaine Lake Prayer Home.
Outbreak of World War Two
Where were you living when war broke out in 1939?
In ’38 I rode the freights. I rode the freight cars. My sister was in Vermillion, married to Nick Konkin. She was pregnant, and they asked me to come and look after – they had two little girls. And I rode out and stayed with them. And then I went to Edmonton, looking for a job on the freight, in the morning. And in the evening, I’d come [back] as a passenger in the engine, cause there was no freight until the next day. They let me. The engineers – they were good to me – I sat where they put the water for the old engineers – I sat on there and it was comfortable. That’s how I traveled back and forth.
And then I went to Vancouver with the brother-in-law early in April. He lost a job, and he went with me. So we went to Edmonton, and I already knew how to ride the freights. And they had a double-tanker for pigs and sheep, and we asked the guys that prepared them and they told which ones was going to Vancouver. So they went and we stayed in the [rail] yard and we got some bailing wire, and on the top [of the rail cars], there’s a little door, and pounded a few nails in this door – one from the inside, and hammered on the outside, and tied the wire to keep it shut. And so, next day, we boarded it when they put the sheep in, we kind of waited till nobody was there, and we got in with the sheep. And we got extra wire, and partitioned it [inside the car] so that the sheep don’t come close. And that’s how we went. It was nice and warm with them, and the sheep were clean, and they got used to us, and they walked in between and everything. In Kamloops they stopped and changed the engine, and they [the railway employees] were looking through the sides – because there were openings, the boards weren’t close together – and I told for Nick, we’re gonna take the wire off and lie down between the sheep so they don’t see us. And that’s the way we got [there] free. Warm. Nice. We got out at Vancouver. We had Pete Postnikoff there and Bill Dorofaeff that were already there. And I think Nick Rebalkin. But we stayed at Pete Postnikoff’s – one, and the other [at] Bill Dorofaeff’s. This is what I was doing just before the war.
When war broke out [in 1939], I was back in Blaine Lake.
What was your occupation at the time?
I was farming.
What was your marital and family status at the time?
I wasn’t married at that time. We were supposed to get married in ’41, but when I was called, we had to postpone it to ’42.
What was your personal reaction to the outbreak of war? What do you recall thinking and feeling when you first heard the news?
At that end, you know, I didn’t bother too much [with it]. Until after we got the call. Then it became personal.
What was the general reaction of your Doukhobor friends and family to the war?
Everybody was talking about the war. It was in every family there was somebody eligible [to serve]. It was on everybody’s minds.
You take when we were called [for conscription in 1941], there was people from Regina come, from the military, and they outlined everything. The work and the jail [options]. That split us. And then, they had their meetings separate. The people that were for jail, they stayed where the Prayer Home was. And in between there was an alley, and on the other side there was a library; the ones that were for camp, they had meetings there – they never had them together. My Dad came once, they saw him, he sat in the back, and they said, “your meeting is out in the back”. It divided the community.
What was the general reaction of your non-Doukhobor friends and neighbours to the war? Did it differ from the Doukhobors?
I never [spoke to them about this].
Did you belong to a Doukhobor organization during the war? If so, what organization?
Blaine Lake Doukhobor Society.
How did your local Doukhobor community mobilize in response to the war?
When everything came up, the Society, they notified people, they had meetings. They were always full. Everyone was concerned.
A national registration was carried out in 1940. The Doukhobors were permitted to register their own people. Do you recall that event?
Maybe the parents did [register for their families] – we didn’t. I don’t remember [the Doukhobor registrar].
Compulsory military training in Canada was announced in 1940. Did this change your views about the war?
Our opinion was that our religion – we were against war. So, it was there already. Conscription did not change this opinion.
How and when did you receive your call-up to perform compulsory military training?
I received the call – I think it was in the spring of ‘41. It was a letter in the mail – I’ve [still] got the call-up letter.
Opposition to Military Service
Did you object to military service when you received your call-up?
I objected, because I went to the camp. I wasn’t for jail. The way it was in my mind, constructing the highway, it was for the community, not for war. In my mind, that didn’t interfere with my [way of] thinking.
Why did you object to military service? What religious and philosophical beliefs led you to this decision?
Well, the boys talked between themselves. But, then when it came to the final thoughts – work or camp – as I understood, this came later.
Peter A. Kouznitsoff (sitting, left) sharpening axes with three other work mates, alternative service work camp, Montreal Lake, SK, 1941. He was 21 years of age at the time.
Were there any individuals that influenced your decision?
Mother and Dad told me when I got the call, they says, “Peter, you’re old enough to make a judgment yourself. We don’t have to make it for you. And you do as you think is right.” So I made my decision.
In 1941, Conscientious Objectors were allowed to perform alternative service, or jail, instead of military service. What was “alternative service” and what did this involve?
Yes. The military guys from Regina came and they explained. I wasn’t to that meeting, but Alec Postnikoff he explained all the details. It was explained and I understood what it meant.
Given your objection to military service, why did you choose alternate service?
I thought that I will be a benefit to the community by doing road work – building something – and that’s why I made my choice.
Where were you designated to perform alternative service? Did you know where you would be going and what you would be doing?
Yes. At Montreal Lake.
How long did you have to perform alternative service? When did it begin and end?
Four months. It began June 27, 1941 and we were back by the end of October.
As you know, not all Doukhobor men agreed with alternative service; some believed it was the equivalent to military service. Those who felt this way refused to report for alternative service and were fined or jailed. Why do you think they did this? How did you feel about their decision?
I think the parents had something to do with it. They thought that alternate service went against our religion. As for the boys who went [to jail], that didn’t bother me at all, that’s because it was their choice. When we came back, we were the same friends all over again. Friendships continued.
There was a [prayer] service for the boys who went to jail, on the south side of the Prayer Home, just before they went. We had a big crowd by the railway station. I don’t remember if they had a service for the boys who went to camp, but there were [many] who said goodbye at the station. We all said goodbye. I remember opening the [train car] window and looking out at them.
The Work Camp
How did you get to the work camp?
We [the boys from Blaine Lake] went on a passenger train to Prince Albert. We came there – it was about dinner time. We had lunch at the café. Then we boarded a two-tonne truck on the back [and drove] to the camp. It was already getting dark when we got to camp. We were hungry already. We walked around, the kitchen was open, we seen that there was something to eat, so we ate. We were the first boys to show up at the camp – others came later. Not everyone came at the same time.
Describe the work camp you stayed at. What was the physical layout? What kind of structures?
The camp was all tents – all the buildings. The bottoms were shiplap – wooden floor. The rest [of the tent] was canvas. And then there were skids [under the floor] – we moved two or three times. There were 83 at camp. There was 8 men in each tent with four bunk beds in each tent – one [slept] on the bottom, one on the top.
The kitchen was separate but adjoining – two tents together. Where we ate, there was long tables, we ate one on each side, and they served us. All the men ate together.
There was a confectionary tent in the camp – a little store – there was gum, chocolate bars, for five cents.
The camp moved to follow the road [construction] two or three times. Where they were, it’s all overgrown now.
Did you know of other CO work camps in the area?
There was, on the west side of Montreal Lake, the Mennonites had a work camp – they were working in the bush. That was in the park. We never visited that camp.
Did you know many of the Doukhobors at the camp when you arrived there?
From Blaine Lake there were 13, I think. And 8, I think, went to jail.
Did you make many friends with Doukhobors from other communities?
Oh yeah. Especially when we were working in the ditches – on road construction.
Who were the non-Doukhobors who stayed at the camp? What were their names and what jobs did they perform? What do you recall about them?
Only one [worker]. I think he was a Baptist.
The staff – they were all English. The foremen – they were getting a dollar a day. They had their own tents, in the same camp.
What were your assigned tasks and duties at the camp?
At the start, when you came, you had to fill out a form – what you like to do. I said that I had experience with blacksmith, so I got that job. Some said kitchen – they got that. Some applied for higher up [positions]. They had to write your qualifications – that’s how they placed you.
I started out as a blacksmith at the camp. But when I got leave to go home for the harvest – I stayed two weeks – a little bit longer than you was supposed to – one week. When I came back – it was work on the road [for me]. I was penalized by 25 cents.
Of the other Doukhobors?
Most of the boys were farmers – they knew what hard work was.
You take when I was riding the freights in Vancouver – we had to go to the sawmill – there was a guy sitting at the table – there was a lineup, we came up, he asked questions – what you were, where you from, what you did – if it was satisfactory, you got the job. When I came up, I said I was from Saskatchewan – a farmer – he gave me the wheelbarrow – and I got the job.
Describe your typical day at camp. When did you get up? When were meals? How long was spent working? When did you go to bed?
We started work at 8:00. We had breakfast before that – everyone at the same time. We had to walk out to the work site – that’s why we had to move [the camp] because it was too far to walk. We came back for dinner. The work ended at 5:00. Then the boys would walk back to camp, and everyone had supper.
Describe the construction work itself. What type of work was involved? Was it manual labour or did you operate equipment?
We were working the ditches – clearing ditches. There was about ten of us.
Others – drove the wagons. Little tractors pulled the wagon – you sat in the wagon – and then they filled it [with dirt]. When you’re coming, there was a foreman, who shouts to us to open the gates, and the bottom opened and it [the dirt] dropped. A grader then spread [the dirt]. They graveled it [the grade] afterward.
We built ten miles of road altogether in four months. It started at the north end of Montreal Lake, north of Molanosa.
There was road clearing beyond that ten miles, but they used machines for that.
Would you say that the work was difficult?
No. Not for boys who grew up on the farm.
Were there chores at the camp besides the construction work?
Some boys worked as cooks, others as janitors – they had to clean up – somebody was assigned to these tasks.
Were there any special dietary needs in camp? Were there any vegetarians?
There were vegetarians. The kitchen staff made meals without meat.
When they served [meals], some boys – they didn’t eat meat. But when they served that meat, it was so tempting, a guy took and ate, and we noticed the boys started to eat [meat]. It was pretty good.
Myself – I never was a vegetarian. My mother – she was a vegetarian.
Were there any opportunities for recreation and relaxation at the camp, when you weren’t working? What did this involve?
We had a special tent – you can write letters there and everything. We had services [there] on Sunday – we had Wasyl Makaroff from Blaine Lake who stayed at the camp as our supervisor. He sang good. For boys who wanted to sing – they sang with him. Not all of the boys sang.
Swimming – we could go down to the lake. I think a few boys did that.
We had singsongs also – the boys got together and sang English songs.
One time, we were coming to the confectionary and we thought up a game – flip a coin – if odd, you’re buying for everybody. And I got one. And to my cousin Billy Popoff and Nick Konkin – I said, once head, twice tail, you’ll never buy. So the last day, Billy Popoff, my cousin said, “How come you never bought?” And then we told him, “once head, twice tail” and then they got it, when it was all over.
What reading materials did you have in camp?
I never read anything. But the others – I don’t know.
Did you listen to the radio?
Were Doukhobor spiritual sobranies and choir practices held at the camp?
Prayer meetings – every Sunday. Choir practices also on Sunday.
What main language did you speak in camp?
It was mixed. Some talked Russian mixed with English. It was about half and half. With the foreman – it was all English.
Did you interact much with the local Cree Indian residents?
What visitors do you recall coming to the camp?
From Blaine Lake – quite a few came. Popoffs – I remember, and Bonderoffs, Makaroff – the lawyer. They came on the weekends – by car.
Were you allowed to take leave from the work camp?
You take Saturday evenings – they gave us a truck, a two-tonne truck. And we was allowed to go to Waskesiu. So we went for the night – and they gave us a tent. We went and we met from Blaine Lake girls there. We went swimming. We left Saturday evening after work. But we had to come back Sunday for supper.
I also had leave to go home and help with harvest for one week.
Do you recall any disciplinary problems at the camp?
No, not that I remember. Everything was going smoothly.
Were you paid for your work at the camp? If so, how much?
Ordinary labourers – was 50 cents a day. A little bit higher up [i.e. heavy equipment operators] – they did some construction – 75. Foreman – he got a dollar a day.
All and all, did you enjoy camp life?
I enjoyed it – because I met the boys, we discussed about everything. Made a lot of friends.
When your alternative service ended, how did you travel back home?
Same way. By truck from the camp to Prince Albert, and by train from Prince Albert to Blaine Lake.
When you arrived back home, how was the attitude of your family and local people towards you as one who chose not to go to war?
I didn’t see anything different, no.
What did you do once you left the camp?
I farmed, until my retirement in the late 70’s. I’ve been active in retirement playing horseshoes, tournaments all over Western Canada.
Did you continue to keep in touch with the other Doukhobor men you met at the camp?
From Blaine Lake, we kept in touch with the ones at camp and the ones in jail – we were all the same. And from other places, not really.
Looking back, seventy years later, how did alternative service impact your life?
It didn’t make any difference. I did it according to my thoughts, of the parents, and all that. I still had the same beliefs after the camp.
Do you still feel as strongly today, as you did then, about your objection to war?
Based on your experience in the Second World War, what message would you give Doukhobors today, or in the future, about war and military service?
Depends on your background. Now we’re all mixed.
We’re not supposed to have guns, we’re not supposed to drink or smoke. I never did that. Based on my belief, that’s a healthier way to live. I’m 93 years old, and no-one can guess my age!
There is a proposal to name the highway you helped build the “Highway of Peace”. What do you think of this proposal?
Oh yes. I would support that. I was thinking, it would be nice to put a marker there.
Thank you, Peter, for agreeing to participate in this interview.
Group photo of 54 Doukhobor conscientious objectors – alternative service work camp, Montreal Lake, SK, August 25, 1941. Peter A. Kouznitsoff is standing in the second row, fifth from left (circled).
For More Information
For more information on Doukhobor conscientious objectors during the Second World War, see the following links:
- Portrait of a Doukhobor CO: An Interview with Mike S. Nadane by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
- Doukhobors Work in Lieu of Fighting by the Prince Albert Daily Herald
- Doukhobor Stand During World War II by John I. Bondoreff
- Index of Doukhobor Conscientious Objectors in Saskatchewan in WWII by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
- WWII Doukhobor Alternative Service – Road Construction Project (Google Map) by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
- Peter A. Kouznitsoff Collection – Doukhobor Alternative Service (Flickr) by Peter A. Kouznitsoff
- Mike S. Nadane Collection – Doukhobor Alternative Service (Flickr) by Mike S. Nadane
- Doukhobor WWII COs in Northern Saskatchewan 1941 (photos) by Koozma J. Tarasoff
- Highway Work Camp 1941 (Flickr) by Alycia Bockus-Vanin
- Progress on Lac la Ronge Highway (Flickr) by Alycia Bockus-Vanin