by Carl J. Tracie
Like other immigrant groups, the Doukhobors created cultural landscapes on the Prairies that reflected their traditions and values. However, they modified these traditional cultural landscapes according to differences in their loyalty to leadership and to variations in their understanding of communalism as the essential religious centre of Doukhoborism. The following case study by Carl J. Tracie examines the role of religion and tradition in the cultural landscapes of the Doukhobors in the North and South Colonies and in the Saskatchewan Colony. Reproduced by permission from “Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives” by Bernard D. Thraves, Marilyn L. Lewry, Janis E. Dale, and Hansgeord Schlichtmann, editors (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2007).
The Doukhobors, a Russian pacifist sect, arrived in Canada in 1899, persecuted and poverty-stricken (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1968; Tarasoff 1982). Special concessions by the Canadian government, in the form of homestead land in blocks for close settlement and exemption from military service, made it possible for nearly 7,500 of these hardy agriculturalists to settle in three colonies in western Canada (Figure 1). The earliest and poorest of the Doukhobors located in the North and South Colonies; the last and relatively more prosperous group settled in the Saskatchewan Colony. Like other immigrant groups, the Doukhobors created cultural landscapes on the prairies that reflected their traditions and values. The application of the Hamlet Clause that allowed the Doukhobors to fulfill their homestead residence duties in the familiar context of an agricultural village, rather than on individual quarter-sections, encouraged the development of a traditional cultural landscape. Despite these commonalities, they did modify traditional cultural landscapes according to differences in their loyalty to leadership and to variations in their understanding of communalism as the essential religious centre of Doukhoborism.
Figure 1. Doukhobor colonies in Saskatchewan.
The Doukhobors’ leader, Peter Verigin, was exiled in Siberia and did not join the colonists until 1902, but gave quite specific instructions as to the shape their life should take in their new settlements. Along with a renewed commitment to pacifism, starkly symbolized by the “Burning of the Arms” in 1895, they were to organize their settlements in Canada on a communal basis, following the example of the New Testament Christians who had all things in common. This communalism grounded and facilitated the concept of brotherhood: equality in persons, each of whom had the ‘divine spark,’ which gave equal access to divinity. The sole exception was their leader in whom the divine spark was magnified to the extent that he was regarded as an earthly Christ whose edicts had the force of divine directives. Most Orthodox Doukhobors viewed Verigin in this way and implemented a communal way of life. A minority, later known as Independents, rejected this elevated view of Verigin and followed more traditional ways, including an individualistic approach to settlement and activity. The following section illustrates the impact of tradition and religion on the distinctive cultural landscapes created in the Saskatchewan Colony and in the North and South Colonies.
Traditional Cultural Landscapes in the Saskatchewan Colony: The Russian Heritage
The Doukhobors who settled in the Saskatchewan (or Prince Albert) colony created the most traditional cultural landscape in the new land. They were relatively more prosperous, more independent-minded, and apparently less anxious to engage in communal sharing. They regarded Peter Verigin as no more than mortal, and his instructions as suggestions to be interpreted according to their own needs. Some of them made an early attempt at communalism, but it quickly faded as the disadvantages of sharing their relative prosperity with their poorer brethren became clear. Consequently, they rejected the communal way of life as an essential component of true Doukhoborism. The cultural landscape they created in the bend of the North Saskatchewan River therefore reproduced their traditional cultural landscape without the modifications introduced by the communal way of life evident in the North and South Colonies.
The village plan followed the traditional layout of the Russian mir: a strassendorf or street village plan (Figure 2). Initially, some villagers did attempt communal sharing but they were outnumbered by those who pursued an independent or, at most, a co-operative approach to farming. Neither approach affected the traditional cultural landscape since the returns from agricultural activity were retained by the individual settler. These settlers reproduced the traditional house-bam combination as well, since each farmstead needed a barn and other outbuildings to house animals and store crops and implements. Some of these connected structures were more than 30 m long.
Figure 2. Plan of Pokrovka (W 1/2 4-39-9-W3), Saskatchewan Colony. Saskatchewan Archives Board S-A36-17.
This traditional cultural landscape disappeared quickly as Independent Doukhobors moved out of their villages onto individual homesteads and the communally-minded answered Verigin’s call to join their brethren in the South Colony in 1905. Interestingly, many of these would-be communalists returned so disillusioned by the abusive treatment they received, that they determined to abandon even the appearance of the communal life by leaving the confines of village settlement as soon as possible.
Traditional Cultural Landscapes Modified by Religion: The North and South Colonies
The Doukhobors most loyal to their exiled leader, Peter Verigin, settled in the North and South Colonies. They believed Verigin embodied fully the spirit of Christ and thus they implemented his instructions regarding the communal organization of land and life that was to illustrate clearly their adherence to the model set by New Testament Christians. The compact form of the traditional mir admirably accommodated communal sharing. Since agricultural activity was to be communal as well, they modified the regular plan that characterized the Saskatchewan Colony by creating larger lots, usually in the centre of the village, for communal structures: barns, stables, shops and a meeting house (Figure 3). Communal agricultural activity meant that individual barns and other agricultural buildings were no longer needed. Consequently, these settlers modified the traditional house-barn by eliminating the connected barn or stable when they constructed their houses (Figure 4).
Figure 3. Plan of Petrovo (NW 1/4 22-26-32-W1), South Colony. Saskatchewan Archives Board S-A36-23.
Contemporary accounts and photographs identify exceptions to these generalizations: house-bam combinations occurred in the North and South Colonies, and individual houses separated from barns or stables occurred in the Saskatchewan Colony. But, particularly in the former case, these records indicate that the exceptions were related to the factors of tradition and religion.
Carrying these associations a step further, the movement of the Verigin faithful to the ‘second community’ in British Columbia (BC) established a cultural landscape where the religious conviction of communalism dominated. There is no vestige of tradition, either in the courtyard ‘village’ plan, or in the almost-square, two-storey ‘double houses’ which comprised most villages. All aspects of land and life were now communal.
Figure 4. House at Osvobozhdenie (NE 1/4 6-34-1-W1) North Colony in 2006. Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
While the move to BC removed the bulk of the community Doukhobors, a remnant remained in Saskatchewan to form villages on purchased land. These persisted until the collapse of the communal system in the late 1930s. Faint traces of both the earlier and later communal villages are still found in the present-day landscape, while the traditional cultural landscapes have been erased.
- Tarasoff, K. 1982 Plakun Trava: The Doukhobors (Grand Forks, ND: Mir Publication Society).
- Tracie, C.J. 1996 “Toil and Peaceful Life”: Doukhobor Village Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1899-1918 Canadian Plains Studies 34 (Regina, SK: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina).
- Woodcock, G. and Avakumovic, I. 1968 The Doukhobors (Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press).
This article is reproduced from “Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives”, Saskatchewan’s first comprehensive geography textbook. Its major sections cover these themes: Physical Geography, Historical and Cultural Geography, Population and Settlement, and Economic Geography. Eighteen chapters provide an excellent overview of the province from a variety of geographic perspectives, while twenty-nine focus studies explore specific topics in depth. Included are more than 150 figures, 70 tables, and over 60 full-colour plates. For more information, visit the Canadian Plains Research Center website at: http://www.cprc.uregina.ca/.