(Re)Reading BC’s Doukhobor Cultural Landscape

by Carl J. Tracie

In British Columbia, the Community Doukhobors under leader Peter ‘Lordly’ Verigin created a cultural landscape that reflected their dedication to a communal lifestyle, loyalty to spiritual leadership and their understanding of agricultural activity as the essential economic and spiritual foundation of Doukhoborism. At the same time, this landscape was defined by the spatial strategy of Verigin in scattering his followers in widely-separated sections of the East Kootenay valleys, and by ideological dissatisfaction and internal dissension, most radically characterized by the Sons of Freedom. The following unpublished article by Carl J. Tracie examines the role of the spatial and spiritual factors that weakened, and finally undermined the economic survival of the Doukhobor Community and eventually resulted in the disintegration of their unique cultural landscape.


When the majority of communal Doukhobors, under leader Peter Verigin, moved from the village reserves in Saskatchewan to purchased land in the valleys of south eastern British Columbia, they created a cultural landscape which embodied their continued dedication to a communal lifestyle and to a spiritual leader. Agricultural activity remained the foundational economic and spiritual base. The undergirding principles of “toil and peaceful life” and brotherhood continued to provide the spiritual core which gave purpose and stability to the group.

There was, however, a continuation of the ideological differences of a small, but increasingly significant segment of the group which was determined to correct what it felt to be a growing materialism in the aims and priorities of their leader. So while the initial settlements in British Columbia were being developed under the direct supervision of Peter Verigin, ideological dissatisfaction in the ensuing years was to leave its mark on the cultural landscape, and eventually, contribute materially to its disintegration. This paper examines the disintegration of the cultural landscape as reflecting failure on several levels. Most attention has been given to the economic aspects of this disintegration, focussing on financial management, or mismanagement, the lack of government support, and the impact of the depression. I would like to suggest that spatial and spiritual factors were at work as well. The former deals with what I have argued in a previous paper was the spatial strategy of Peter Verigin in scattering his followers in widely-separated sections of the East Kootenay valleys, and the second relates to internal dissention, most radically characterized by the Sons of Freedom, and to the personal behaviour of the Doukhobors’ second leader in Canada, Peter “the Purger” Verigin. Finally, I would like to suggest that a re-reading of the cultural landscape of the Doukhobors, in its flowering and fading, reveals the damaging ramifications of viewing groups of people as uncompromisingly “other.”

Immediate Background

The Doukhobor experience in Saskatchewan made clear that the commitment to communalism on the part of the orthodox Doukhobors was much stronger than their attachment to place or to the value of the labour they invested in villages and land. This commitment was clearly embodied in a completely modified settlement form as the core of the cultural landscape Peter Verigin created on purchased land in British Columbia, beginning in 1908.

By settling his followers on purchased land, Verigin freed his community from any government regulations regarding land acquisition; he felt finally that his followers would find both place and peace. They were to lose both in subsequent years. By the time of Peter ‘Lordly’ Verigin’s death in 1924, they had established a sense of place in the Grand Forks and Castlegar areas, with a well-established communal system with strong links to sister settlements in Saskatchewan and Alberta. A place for growth and development appeared to be secure. Finding peace, however, was to prove more difficult.

Doukhobor leader Peter ‘Lordly’ Verigin seated (left) with two women and two men in British Columbia, c. 1910. Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection.

The Doukhobors came to this “second community” with some baggage. First, they came with an increased sense of group solidarity around the principle of communalism. The difficulties surrounding the land question in Saskatchewan had weakened the boundaries between the communal idealism of the Doukhobors and the individualism of the surrounding society. Moving to British Columbia, Verigin hoped, would maintain and strengthen the boundary that separated his followers from the attraction of individualism in the host society and would consolidate his own control over the group.

Secondly, despite this increased solidarity on broad ideological principles, the BC-bound migrants were beginning to feel fragmentation along other lines. The group which moved to British Columbia included members of the Sons of God, or Sons of Freedom as they became known more popularly, who, in Saskatchewan, had already begun to express their displeasure with what they felt was the increasing materialism of the community Doukhobors. Their numbers were to increase and their concerns were soon to be expressed in more vivid and violent ways.

Finally, the Doukhobors came with an increased suspicion of government: the loss of their homestead lands in Saskatchewan had, they felt, given them ample evidence that governments could not be trusted to keep their word.

(Re)Reading the Cultural Landscape

A superficial reading of the cultural landscape created by Verigin and his followers would emphasize, rightly, the impact of communalism as a central tenet of Doukhoborism. The ubiquitous “double houses” of the new village form represented adherence not only to a communal economic enterprise, but to a totally communal life. The appearance of industrial structures in the cultural landscape—sawmills, pipe-making plants, flour mills, brick-making plants, packing and processing structures–attested to the economic development of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood.

A reading of the abandoned communal houses, fields, and industries which followed the bankruptcy of the community in the last years of the depression, would, again rightly, emphasize the failure of a communal economic enterprise. However, I wish to focus particularly on the spatial and spiritual factors that weakened, and finally undermined, the economic survival of the CCUB and eventually resulted in the disintegration of their unique cultural landscape

I have argued previously that Peter Verigin may have pursued a deliberate spatial strategy in the sequence of land purchases in British Columbia. Briefly, I noted that Verigin engaged in a well-thought-out spatial strategy in the progressive abandonment of Saskatchewan homestead lands, deciding to send to British Columbia first, those members from outlying villages and holding the core areas to the end. It was not unlikely then, that he might have employed some form of spatial strategy in resettling those migrants in British Columbia.

The Blakemore Commission’s Report suggested the intriguing possibility that Verigin was losing control over his followers in Saskatchewan: “With each little village surrounded by independent Doukhobors, enjoying more prosperity and more freedom than the Communists, with settlers of other nationalities constantly coming into contact with them…Peter Verigin found his own influence and authority steadily on the wane.” Then further, the Report notes, “… it is obvious that the narrow valleys of British Columbia afford a better chance to isolate the Doukhobors from these disintegrating influences than could be afforded by the wide prairies of Saskatchewan.” By moving the faithful to British Columbia and scattering them in isolated areas, Verigin could avoid the problem of contamination by the outside world and also exert increasing control over them.

The sequence of land acquisition in establishing his community in the Castlegar area, indicates that Verigin either was not able, or did not think it necessary, to consolidate his people in one block. The purchase, in relatively quick succession, of small plots of land separated from each other by tens of kilometers of difficult terrain suggests either a random acquisition of available land or a spatial strategy in the placement of settlements.

In support for the idea that Verigin desired to enhance his control over his followers by this dispersed pattern of lots, I noted the following points.

First, there appears to be little practical support for this patchwork pattern. A compact settlement would be a more efficient pattern than a scattered one, which suggests there might be other motives involved.

Second, keeping Verigin’s followers in small, scattered settlements would have made it more difficult for significant numbers of people to get together to form a protest group. By fragmenting the larger group, I believe that Verigin hoped to avoid, or at least make more difficult, a consolidation of opposing opinions that might have created a major fragmentation along ideological lines which would threaten his control.

Map of Doukhobor settlement areas in British Columbia, 1908-1938.

Third, if the experience of the Hutterities is an example, a continual division of a communal group into small colonies is necessary to keep all hands busy at productive jobs. Perhaps Verigin was wise enough to foresee that if everyone was gathered into one large settlement, the process of clearing and tending the land, and building the infrastructure, would eventually provide fewer opportunities for constructive work and perhaps more opportunity for dissatisfaction. I suggested, then, that Verigin’s choice of settlement areas was motivated by two complementary purposes: to establish clear boundaries between the Community and the surrounding culture, and to weaken potential internal divisions that might threaten his leadership.

If this was Verigin’s strategy, it appeared to be successful initially. While there were sporadic outbreaks of arson by the dissident Sons of Freedom, they did not seem to threaten either the Community’s solidarity or its economic basis. The long-term effects are harder to assess since Verigin’s leadership was cut short by a bomb planted in his railway car in October, 1924. In the years following Peter “Lordly’s” death, however, this strategy may have had some unforeseen consequences. The Freedomites grew in strength (900 in 1931 and about 1500 in 1947) and tended to congregate in the more isolated fringe settlements. The spatial separation isolated them from the direct control of Peter Verigin and his associates which allowed some of the more radical and outspoken individuals to increasingly influence the members of this faction.

The spatial separation not only provided an isolated venue for planning damaging forays into Community property, but it enhanced the differences between the labourers and middle managers at the heart of commercial activities in the core settlements of Grand Forks and Brilliant, and the agricultural labourers in the scattered villages of the valleys. The “pseudo-believers,” of the core in the Freedomites’ eyes, had given up the true faith of simplicity and brotherhood for the fleshpots of economic progress and materialism.

Spirituality, or perhaps differences in the perception of spirituality, clearly played a role in the impact of the spatial factor. A division in commitment to what was felt to be the core beliefs of Doukhoborism (pacifism, simplicity, brotherhood) was growing in the years following Peter P. Verigin’s death, as was concern for what was seen to be an abandonment of those central beliefs. The Sons of Freedom began their purifying activity among the Doukhobors while still in Saskatchewan.

In British Columbia, Peter Verigin’s close control limited these outbreaks, but after his death, and especially after the arrival of his son, Peter the Purger, the attacks increased in numbers and impact. From 1916 to 1937, at least 54 acts of arson or bombing damaged or destroyed Community property, estimated to amount to over $437,000. The Sons of Freedom focussed their depredations on the elements of the cultural landscape that most clearly embodied the compromises of the Community with the materialism and motivations of the external society. Schools were the most frequent target (26 were burned in the period 1916 to 1937). They represented the invasion into the Community of values directly contradictory to the main tenets of pacifism and communalism. Public education, it was charged, encouraged militarism, patriotism, and individualism.

The second most frequent targets were the industrial/economic structures. These represented the corrupting influence of materialism. Lumberyards, saw mills, planing mills, flour mills, elevators and the jam factory were damaged or destroyed. Finally, the Sons of Freedom repeatedly targeted the leadership of the Community by burning the leader’s residence (on four occasions) or by explosions at Peter Verigin’s tomb. These acts protested what was felt to be the corruption in leadership. During the period under consideration, at least, the Freedomites rarely burned the domestic structures of the orthodox Doukhobors. Only three houses and one bath house appear on the list compiled for the Sullivan Commission.

The fallout from these acts was threefold. First, and most directly, it weakened the Community’s economic viability. Especially during the dark days of the depression when much of the income of the Community was eaten up by mortgage payments, these losses were extremely serious. Not only did they result in direct financial loss, but the Community directed much energy and finances to protect its property. These acts also raised another area of contention with the surrounding community as the Doukhobors attempted to have local or provincial protection against these damaging acts.

Sons of Freedom hold open air sobranya meeting, Nelson, British Columbia, 1928. British Columbia Archives C-01407.

Secondly, these acts of terrorism enhanced the already stereotypical view of the Doukhobor community as distinctly “other.” There was little understanding and less sympathy for these foreigners who had, in the past, rejected the rules and regulations of a civilized society (registration of births and deaths), who refused military service while their own sons fought and died, and who refused to participate in, or contribute to, individualistic enterprise. These acts of arson also raised fears among the general public that they might spread from the Community to public and private property. In sum, the uneasy co-habitation of the Doukhobors with the surrounding community was increasingly unsettled by the activities of the Sons of Freedom. Faced with economic disaster in 1938, the Community asked for government protection. But with the smell of smoke in its nostrils and with the vocal disapproval of the larger community in its ears, the government felt no compunction to rescue such a different and difficult group from economic ruin.

Thirdly, the continued activity of the Sons of Freedom and the threat of increased activity may have been a significant factor in delaying the process of land sales to the Community Doukhobors in the early 1960s.

Judge Lord had recommended that the Doukhobors be given choice as to whether they wished to buy back the land individually, co-operatively or communally.

However, it appears there might have been some slippage between the recommendations of Judge Lord and the application of the recommendations by the Attorney-General’s office which appears to have been committed to “curing the Doukhobors of communalism.” William Evans had been disposing the first of the former Doukhobor lands under the provisions first outlined by Lord. However subsequently, the sale of Grand Forks lands to the CCUB in trust was deemed “an exception” and no further exceptions were to be made in the sale of Kootenay area lands. J.J. Verigin protested the “new conditions” (which excluded all communal land sales and all sales with the USCC as Trustee) noting they were not in the spirit of the original recommendations and were enacted without consultation with the Doukhobors.

Evans, a Nelson magistrate, was caught in the middle, on the one hand, attempting to explain to the Doukhobors why the original conditions had changed and on the other, confessing to the Attorney-General’s office that he had sold land in the Brilliant area (most of which was sold by May, 1963) almost all under the “old provision” of selling to the Community in trust rather than to individuals.

Although other factors were involved, the fear of further attacks on community property by the Freedomites who resisted any dealings with the government, would have caused some hesitation in entering into negotiations with the Land Settlement Board. Had the sale of lands taken place sooner, it is possible that Judge Lord’s decision that lands could be purchased communally as well as individually or co-operatively would have been acted upon, and that the Community might have re-established itself on a communal basis. Thus, ironically, the activities of the very group that was most adamant in maintaining communal property rights, may have contributed to the denial of those same rights to the orthodox Doukhobors.

The dissatisfaction with the spiritual focus of the orthodox Doukhobors by the Sons of Freedom was exacerbated by the personal habits of Peter P. Verigin. Peter “the Purger” took up leadership of the Doukhobors in Canada nearly three years after the death of his father. Verigin, despite his erratic and volatile leadership style and his sometimes bizarre schemes for raising funds, proved to be a better business manager than his father. His personal behaviour, however, surely raised doubts as to the effectiveness and sincerity of his spiritual leadership, particularly among those most committed to maintaining the purity of true Doukhoborism. Verigin’s decidedly non-Doukhobor personal activities–drinking, gambling, smoking, swearing—were hardly those of a spiritual leader, a “living Christ.” His behaviour also confirmed the belief that while the leadership elite might pay lip service to the Doukhobor faith, their activities, both economic and personal, belied any evidence of it in day-to-day life. In light of this, the Sons of Freedom felt motivated to do some purging of their own.

In summary, the spiritual focus was being lost to an increasing focus on economic activity and there were increasing concerns about the direction of Verigin’s leadership. As the orthodox core of the Doukhobor community appeared to be abandoning true Doukhoborism, the periphery had two choices: either leave or attempt to reform the core. The Independents chose the former route; the Sons of Freedom chose the latter. They were determined to purge the Community of its worldly materialism and, with fire as the purifying agent, to call the Community back to the centrality of the Doukhobor faith.

The words of W.B. Yeats come to mind in considering the implications of the above factors. The oft-quoted phrase “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” surely describe the Doukhobors, and eventually, describe their cultural landscape. But the rest of that stanza seems startlingly apt as well:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

(Yeats, “The Second Coming”)

The growing ideological split between the Sons of Freedom and their leader is captured in the first two lines and the rift between the core and the periphery is wonderfully captured in the last two lines.

The cultural landscape created by the Doukhobors embodied concretely the values of an initially flourishing Community. The remnants of that cultural landscape – abandoned or remodelled houses, abandoned orchards and fields—signify failure; failure on many levels. While the failure of the Community was ultimately economic, this paper has stressed spatial and spiritual factors which contributed to the economic collapse.

Further, re-reading the cultural landscape, as it developed and disintegrated, brings us face to face with the ramifications of viewing groups of people as “other.” The Orthodox and Freedomite Doukhobors viewed each other as distinctly and uncompromisingly “other.” Each saw the need for the reformation of the other and neither could accept any compromise that might have unified them. The ultimate result, as I have attempted to show, contributed significantly to the disintegration of a viable group enterprise and its cultural landscape. In the larger context, society labelled all the Doukhobors as “bizarrely other,” failing to distinguish between the behaviours of a fringe group dedicated to reform by any means, and a large core group dedicated to toil and peaceful life. This perspective, along with the general opposition to the communal lifestyle of the Doukhobors on the part of neighbouring communities and government, militated against any sympathy or intervening action that might have rescued the group from financial collapse. The marks of this failure are memorialized in the current cultural landscape, and embedded in the memories of living Doukhobors.

Dr. Carl J. Tracie has been an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan from 1970 to 1979 and thereafter, an Associate Professor of Geography at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia. He has travelled widely and frequently through the original Doukhobor settlements in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.  Dr. Tracie has published numerous articles on Doukhobor historical geography. His book, “Toil and Peaceful Life”: Doukhobor Village Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1899–1918 (Regina, 1996) is a major work of historical geography that analyses the unique cultural landscape created by the Community Doukhobors in Saskatchewan. He is currently researching and writing a book on the Doukhobor “Second Community” in British Columbia.