Schools of the Boundary: The Doukhobor Schools

by Alice Glanville

The settlement of Doukhobors in the Grand Forks area in 1909 brought about unique, often complex challenges to public education in British Columbia’s Boundary District.  The following article, reproduced by permission from “Schools of the Boundary: 1891-1991” (Merritt: Sonotek Publishing Ltd: 1991) reveals the history and the people behind “reading, writing and ‘rithmatic” in the isolated, one-room Doukhobor schools of the region, including Outlook School, Spencer School, Fruitova School, Carson School and Kettle River North School. Opposition, conflict and eventual compliance are all part of the story that, in many ways, represents the evolving role of education among this group of Russian non-conformists. 

The Doukhobors arrived in the Grand Forks Valley in 1909 after the loss of their land on the prairies. Those who came wanted to continue the communal way of life which was being challenged in Saskatchewan. They refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance which was a requirement in order to retain their land.

Their move to British Columbia, however, did not bring an end to their conflict with the authorities. The law required that children between the ages of seven and fourteen attend school and they were told that they must obey the law.

As early as 1912, Peter Verigin, the spiritual leader of the Doukhobors, had a school built on communal land at Brilliant in the West Kootenays. A commitment to formal education, however, was not part of their culture and they would withdraw their children from school to help at home. They would leave school at the age of twelve or thirteen because their labor was needed. Early leaving age was common not only with the Doukhobors but with most pioneer families.

Doukhobor children in flax field, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01745.

Theirs was an oral education, learning psalms and hymns combined with a practical knowledge of farming and craftsmanship. According to the Blakemore Report of 1912, they were also concerned that education might lead to an assimilative process which they felt would be a threat to their communal way of life.

The basic objection to Canadian schools has been an ideological one. The most significant tenet of the Doukhobor faith has been pacifism and the schools, they felt, put too much emphasis on the glorification of war.

Certainly some justification for this concern could be found in the schools. In 1909, Lord Strathcona established a fund to support physical and military training in the schools. The Strathcona Trust Fund continued until the 1940’s and although the physical exercises underwent many changes over the years, the pacifists expressed their concern for this type of training. Some of the history books and the observance of Remembrance Day also reinforced their suspicion of the school system.

In 1915, Attorney General Bowser guaranteed that no paramilitary nor religious education would be forced on the children. Peter Verigin promised to enroll enough pupils to fill the schools that then existed. This compromise solution lasted fairly satisfactorily until 1922. The compliance was never complete since not all children attended school and some of those enrolled had irregular attendance.

Grand Forks Gazette, 1921: “The Minister of Education states that there is a total of 53 children of school age in the Doukhobor settlement of Grand Forks. According to the Dominion registration which took place in June 1918, 237 children were registered as being under the age of 16.”

The following article, “Doukhobors in the Boundary” by V. Novokshonoff, L. Reibin and M. Obedkoff, published in the Fourth Boundary Historical Report describes the early years of Doukhobor education:

“No special outfits were worn by the children when they went to school. Both boys and girls up to twelve years of age wore a dress-like garment. They wore no shoes and had nothing on their heads. The school age was limited to the age of twelve years, so very few children went to school, mostly boys.

“Each district had a school to which the children had to walk. During the winter months, the children were taken by sledges, pulled by horses. The children were taught reading; writing, grammar and some arithmetic. They went only as far as grade five or six.

“Due to the fact that the children were always speaking Russian, and often had to stay away from school in order to help at home, their progress in English was quite slow.”

After seven years of more or less compliance with education requirements, Doukhobor parents once again, in the fall of 1922, began to withdraw children from school. The precise reasons are not known. The Doukhobor community was experiencing financial difficulties, thus causing some discontent.

Grand Forks Gazette, February 1923: “Following seizure of a Doukhobor community truck by distress warrant, Doukhobor children were removed from school as a protest measure.”

Sons of Freedom children forcibly taken from their parents and detailed at New Denver, 1954.  Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.

Outlook School was burned in 1923, Spencer School in 1925 and the second Spencer School was burned in 1929. Outlook School, Sand Creek School and Kettle River North were all torched the same night in the spring of 1931. Attempts were made to destroy the new brick Fruitova School. Other schools in the Kootenay area were also burned during those years.

Soon after Peter Chistiakov (Peter Verigin the Second) arrived in Canada in 1927, differences between him and the Sons of Freedom became apparent. He stated, “We will educate our children in the English school and we will set up our own Russian school and libraries.” In 1928/29, the Doukhobors, with the new leader’s encouragement, built the Fruitova School and the children attended that school on a regular basis.

In 1928, the Sons of Freedom openly declared their opposition to compulsory education for Doukhobor children. In 1932, the Sons of Freedom were sentenced to three years at a special penal colony on Piers Island. The older children were sent to the Provincial School for delinquent children and the younger ones were sent to foster homes in the lower mainland. After a year they were placed in the care of other Doukhobors, but already much emotional damage had been done.

The opposition of the Sons of Freedom lasted until 1959. At various times throughout the years it was necessary to guard the schools because of the fear of arson, as illustrated in the Grand Forks Gazette, October 1947:

“School Boards throughout the Kootenay area were being advised that insurance on schools would be cancelled unless armed guards were posted. The move resulted from new outbreaks of incendiarism.”

In February, 1954, Mr. R.H. Mclntosh, who was fluent in Russian, was appointed School Attendance Officer with the Doukhobor children as special duty. Periodic police raids took place at Gilpin and any children who were found were taken from their parents and placed in a boarding school at New Denver.

Grand Forks Gazette, March 1954: “The parents of two families of Sons of Freedom were given a suspended sentence of three days in which to send their children to school. This was the first local case where Sons of Freedom were charged under the new section of the School Act.”

In April 1954, the footbridge was moved from the North Fork to Gilpin for the convenience of the children living at Gilpin. The school bus would make the run to the bridge each day, but all to no avail.

The authorities came in for a great deal of criticism in what was considered very harsh measures, that of removing children from their families. After six years of operation, the New Denver School was closed in 1959 because the parents agreed to send their children to school. The children were returned to their families, but the emotional scars of family separation, in some cases, remain to this day.

Bomb-damaged school bus, 1962. Photo courtesy School District No. 12.

Some of the Orthodox Doukhobors were taking a more active role in the education system. In February, 1958, Eli Popoff became the first member of the Doukhobor faith to be elected as a trustee of School District #12. Special dispensation was granted so that he did not have to swear the Oath of Allegiance.

Two resolutions were put forward to the 1960 Chant Royal Commission on Education: 1. That Russian be taught as a language in B.C. schools. 2. That students start learning a foreign language as early as grade four. Today Russian is taught in the Grand Forks schools from Kindergarten to grade 12 by trained, competent teachers.

In April 1962, a school bus was badly wrecked when a bomb placed over the right rear dual wheel exploded while the bus was parked for the night in front of driver Leo Madden’s home. This terrorist act was during the time of the trial of the Sons of Freedom before their march to the coast. Families of only one or two children attending Grand Forks schools joined that march to Agassiz.

Grand Forks Gazette, 1975: “A second language pilot program in the Grand Forks School District has been approved by the Department of Education. The introduction would see the teaching of the Russian language in Grades 2 to 10.”

Outlook, Spencer and Fruitova were the three main Doukhobor schools in the Grand Forks area, but some Doukhobor children did attend other schools such as Carson and Kettle River North.

Outlook School: 1917 to 1949

Outlook School, established for the special convenience of the Doukhobor children in the school term 1917/18, was located on community property at the base of Hardy Mountain, just below the present Doukhobor Museum.

The average attendance at Outlook in 1919 was 11 and in 1920 was 13.

Miss A.J. Spence, the first teacher taught until 1923 for $85 a month. As a young teacher she had some rather unusual experiences.

Grand Forks Gazette, March, 1923: “A firebug set fire to the Outlook School; prompt action by resident teacher, Miss Spence, in getting help saved the school from destruction.”

Grand Forks Gazette, March 30, 1923: “There has been consternation among the Doukhobors since they were fined some months ago for not sending their children to school.”

After that experience Miss Spence resided in Grand Forks and that set the stage for a second arson attempt in June of the same year. This time they were successful in burning the school to the ground.

Grand Forks Gazette, May, 1923: “The schoolhouse is gone and no parents can be fined for failure to send children to a school that is burnt.”

The old public school in Columbia was repaired and opened as a school replacing the Outlook School which had been burnt, but as the Gazette stated, “There is no grand rush for seats.”

It appears that another school was built around 1925. Then the climax came in 1931 when three schools were burned the same night, Outlook, Sand Creek and Kettle River North Schools. The old Columbia School was again used and Nick Borisenkoff remembers the bus which was used to transport them. Mr. Vanjoff had a bus cab which he put on the back of a wagon and in winter it was put on a sleigh.

Another Outlook School was built and used until 1949 when the children were bussed into school in Grand Forks.

Besides Miss Spence other teachers at Outlook School were: Miss L. Hayes 1923/24, Mrs. M. Lyttle 1924/25, Miss E. Russell 1925/26, Miss A. Shaw 1927/28, Miss M.S. Fisher 1928/29, Miss A. Marsinek 1929-31, Miss B. McCallum 1931-35.

In the 1935/36 school year, the Outlook School was listed under Fruitova School with Miss B. McCallum and Mrs. Todhunter as teachers. When the school closed in 1949, Mrs. Kay Peterson was the last teacher.

Spencer School: 1920 to 1929

Spencer School was opened in 1920 to serve the students of the immediate Doukhobor villages and the last village at Spencer as well as any non-Russian students living in the area. The school was near the top of Spencer Hill across from what was known as the Prune Orchard and overlooking several large community houses below, near the present Schoolhouse Bed and Breakfast.

It was managed, as were other Doukhobor schools by an official trustee with P.H. Sheffield as the school inspector. Alex Verigin, former manager of Pope & Talbot, was a student at Spencer and remembers Mr. Sheffield as being very observant and good.

Spencer School from the west, c. 1920’s.  Photo courtesy Isabelle Nelson.

Miss M. Smith, the first teacher, taught from 1920 to 1922 at a salary of $1200 per year. Miss M. Jeffers taught from 1922 to 1923, and then Miss Isabelle Glaspell came in 1923 and stayed until January 1925. These teachers remembered and appreciated the fruit and vegetables which the Doukhobor people brought them.

Isabelle Nelson (nee Glaspell) bought a Model T Ford and would drive it to school on Monday morning and stay there for the week, returning to her home in Grand Forks on Friday. Her father, Hugh Allen Glaspell was principal of the Grand Forks Central School at that time. The attached living quarters at the back of the school provided adequate living quarters for her. She even had the convenience of a tap in the kitchen and a large Airedale terrier for company as well as protection.

In a letter Isabelle relates: “It was in October 1924 that Peter Verigin was killed. After that no students would come to school. I was required to open school every morning, wait half an hour and if no students came I could go home. That was the situation until January 1st when the school was closed. After that I went to Pullman, Washington and graduated in Home Economics.”

Isabelle Glaspell (Nelson).  Photo courtesy Isabelle Nelson.

Grand Forks Gazette, March 1925: “The Doukhobor school at Spencer was destroyed by fire. This is the 8th school in the Kootenays which has been burned in recent months.”

The children from Spencer went to the Carson School and some of the Carson students were required to walk to the Columbia school. Then in the 1926/27 term, the Doukhobors erected the second one-room school at Spencer with a residence attached for the teacher. Other teachers at Spencer were: Miss Ruth Axam (Mrs. Gordon McMynn) 1926/27, Miss A.I. Tait 1927/28 and Miss Lents-man 1928/29 when the school was closed. In August 1929, the school was burned.

Fruitova School: 1929 to 1949

The Fruitova School opened in April 1929, with Miss M.E. Tapping as the first teacher. Mr. Sheffield, the inspector, noted in the 1928/29 Annual Report that: “At Fruitova the Doukhobor community erected a model brick school to accommodate two divisions. Furnished living rooms for two teachers are also provided in this building, which is the most complete and best appointed rural school that I have seen.”

The brick used for the building came from the Doukhobor brick factory just below the site of the school. The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood built the school with a school room on each end and a teacherage in the middle. Some teachers did stay there for awhile, but seemed to prefer travelling back and forth to Grand Forks, each day. Eventually the teacherage was converted into another classroom.

The Cook family, who lived on Hardy Mountain, were the only non-Russians to attend the Fruitova School. In place of a School Board, Mr. Dunwoody was appointed as an official trustee.

John Malloff, presently a trustee on the Grand Forks School Board, remembers his happy years at Fruitova School. Lily Forrester, principal from 1942 to 1949, remembers a sleigh bringing the students from Spencer and Carson to Fruitova in the winter and a wagon bringing them in the spring and fall until a bus was provided.

Fructova School Heritage Site, Grand Forks, British Columbia.

School records show the following teachers at Fruitova School during the early 1930s: 1929/30 1930 to 1933 Division 1 Mrs. Todhunter Miss M.M. McDonald 1933 to 1935 1935 to 1937 Division 1 Mrs. Todhunter Miss K.M. Porter Division 2 Miss E.W. Lightfoot Miss E.W. Lightfoot Division 3 Miss E.G. James.

Esther Gipman and Anna Graham, residents of Grand Forks, both taught at Fruitova School. With the consolidation of school districts, Fruitova School was closed in 1949 and the students were bused into the Central School in Grand Forks.

In 1984, close to $200,000 was spent to renovate the Fruitova School (now called Fructova). This attractive building, with a beautiful sweeping view of the valley, now serves as a centre for the Doukhobor Historical Society of British Columbia.

Despite the struggles, the mistakes and the misunderstanding of many years, people now recognize our multicultural society whereby students of many different cultures are accommodated in our school system. This accommodation has resulted in all students attending school on the same basis and with many going on to further their education.

Carson School: 1908 to 1935

The rural areas responded to the need to educate their children by building their own one-room schools whenever sufficient numbers warranted it. Ten children were required to open a school, eight with an average attendance of six to maintain it. Carson School, named after the town of Carson, was opened in 1908 with 15 students. Carson was named by the McLaren brothers in memory of their mother Isabella Carson McLaren. The school, a little white frame building, was located on the bench overlooking the Customs.

J.H. Reid taught in 1909/1910, R.T. Pollock in 1910/1911, and Miss Annie Ross in 1911/1912. Miss N.C. Reid in 1912/13, Miss J.L Munro in 1913/14, James Hislop in 1914/15, R.G. Newbauer in 1915/16, Miss M.E. Morrison in 1916/17, Miss E.G. Frame from 1917 to 1919, and Miss R. Ross in 1919/20.

Carson School boys in 1924. Doukhobor boys sometimes wore a dress-like garment. Photo courtesy Helen Campbell.

Helen Campbell, who later became matron of the Grand Forks Hospital, taught at Carson for two years from 1923 to 1925. After she taught at Carson, she taught for one year on the prairies and then trained for a nurse. Other teachers were Olive Rooke and Pearl Redgrove (Webster). Nellie Ralph (Ritchie) and Bob Lawson, residents of Grand Forks, were students at Carson School.

The school was conveniently located near the Doukhobor communal property and many of the Doukhobor children did attend this school. In 1915 a special appeal was made to the Doukhobors to send their children to this school. It seems there was concern about the closure of the school because of the lack of the required number of students. In 1928 the teacher, Elizabeth McKinnon, reported that the majority of students were Doukhobors.

The Carson School was burned in April 1935, but the crumbling foundation remains as a reminder of the once busy school.

Kettle River North School: 1898 to 1928, 1946 to 1952

The North Fork area had settlers coming into its valley in the 1890’s. Again the desire and the determination for an education for their children resulted in the building of several schools. Three log schools, Kettle River North, Sand Creek and Brown Creek, typical of the many log rural schools in British Columbia, were built up the North Fork.

Kettle River North, eight miles up the valley on the west side of the Granby River – the first of these schools – was opened in 1898. The first school classes were held in the Seattle Clark home on the flat land below the former Fisher home. Pat Terrion was the first teacher and Russell Hill was the school secretary from 1898 until his death in 1907.

With the Wassholms, Mills and Clarks making up the required number of 10 students, the residents constructed a small log school on a flat south of the Steinson home, the former Ralloff home. Helen Erickson (Wassholm), now 92 and living in Grand Forks attended this school.

George Evans remembers walking or riding to school with Florence Miller, one of the teachers who boarded at the Evans home. When Florence Miller decided to leave for the coast and train for a nurse, her sister May, a high school student, taught at the school until Flora Johnson took charge.

Goldie Miller (nee Cooper) writes: “In 1915 when they moved from Eholt, the Cooper family lived on the Jardine place, now owned by Frank and Joyce Flanagan. Five Cooper children plus a cousin, George Birt, whose father had died nine days before Armistice 1918, attended the school. Sister Lucy Wilson lived in a cabin and had three children going to school. The Thompson boys rode a horse from their farm, now Carl Stone’s, a six-mile-ride each way. The Brown Creek School, which would have been much closer, did not open until 1920.

“Our family sometimes went to school in a buggy and we did try using a cutter, but our weather was too cold in winter, so we went only part time. To my parents, school wasn’t important and if we just learned to read and write we were fortunate indeed. Most of the time we walked the 4 1/2 miles each way and certain times of the year we left home at break of day and got home at dusk.

“Nels and Anna Tofelt lived with their parents in a small house on the hillside between Fishers and the school. Our teacher, Miss Becker, must have been a real Christian lady because all the songs we learned were hymns.

School kids in front of Kettle River North School, c. 1920’s. Photo courtesy Boundary Museum.

“A shed was built for the horses and each of the children brought oats for the horse’s lunch. We used slates and chalk, plastacine and colored sticks to build with. Our drinking water was brought from a spring and each family had its own drinking cup.”

A 1908/09 Report states the sanitation rules for the drinking water: “See that the water bucket is scrubbed each week. Get a cover for it to keep the dust out. Do not drink out of the common drinking cup before allowing some of the water to run over the edge of the cup that is to be applied to the lips.”

February, 1927, the log school was partially destroyed by fire. A frame building was constructed near the Jack Kenyon place, some distance north of the original school. The contractor was John Barisoff who built the school and outbuildings for $790. The sum of $500 was borrowed from Mrs. Plath at eight per cent interest for payments on the new school. This school was closed in 1928, after operating for only a year.

In the later twenties most of the children came from the Doukhobor settlement (the Seabrook farm). The teacher, Ruby Smith, reported that eight of the children not attending school were Doukhobor, but six of the nine enrolled were Doukhobor children.

From the 1927/28 School Report: “Owing to a reorganization of the Doukhobor community and a redistribution of their people, the North Kettle School closed as did three others in the Kootenays.”

This vacant school was torched in 1931.

In 1946, a new Kettle River North School was built about a quarter of a mile north of the original school. This school was closed in 1952 and the children bused to Grand Forks. The frame building was moved to West Grand Forks where it became a home.