Shining Waters: Doukhobors in the Castlegar Area

by Vi Plotnikoff

Located in the Kootenay region at the confluence of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers, Castlegar is the home of many of British Columbia’s Doukhobors. The following article by Vi Plotnikoff tells the story of Doukhobor culture and lifestyle as it evolved in the Castlegar area between 1908 and 1938.  Their unique communal way of life, sharing of resources, agrarian development, industry, schools and education, and politics and leadership are brought to life in text and photographs.  Reproduced by permission from “Castlegar, a Confluence” (Karen W. Farrer (ed), Castlegar: Castlegar & District Heritage Society, 2000).

From 1908 to 1913, the Doukhobors purchased vast tracts of land in the West Kootenay, but it was at Waterloo that they first settled in BC. Peter V. Verigin renamed the place Dolina Ootischenia meaning “Valley of Consolation”. He also named the community of Brilliant for its sparkling waters.

Village life

Upon arrival in British Columbia, the Doukhobors began constructing temporary houses. These were individual homes, small in size and constructed of logs. As lumber became more readily available, temporary houses were built as long, single-story structures.

In 1911, Peter Verigin divided the land into 100 acre plots and built houses, or doms, which were unique to the area and Tolstoyan in concept because of their uniformity. Eventually, as brick factories were built, the doms were constructed out of brick. Each dom was 32 feet by 40 feet, and was two stories high with an attic, and a half-basement for storage. The wooden buildings in the village were never painted.

Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives A-08737.

There were usually two large houses or doms in each village. They were built side by side, approximately 60 feet apart, and joined by one-story buildings in a U-shape. Often families with very young children lived in these buildings, ensuring privacy. They also served as storage areas and summer kitchens. Each large dom had a meeting room with a long table and benches, sometimes used as additional sleeping space. The enormous kitchen was the heart of each dom. It was furnished with a long dining table and benches, a large cook-stove, cupboards to store cooking utensils and dishes, and a huge petch, or Russian-style oven. By 1912, all the kitchens had piped-in water. The head man in each village and his family usually had two bedrooms on the first level. Upstairs, several small bedrooms opened off a long central hall. People slept on long, wooden beds resembling benches, lying feet to feet. Thus a family of four often occupied a small bedroom.. An attic made up the third floor. Each village usually had a room which was used as a maternity room or an infirmary. A courtyard was located in the middle of the square and used for activities, such as drying fruit, vegetables and grains. Barns and outbuildings were built behind the doms. Each village had a banya (steambath), which everyone in the village took turns using. The banya also housed a laundry.

Every village contained about seventy to one hundred persons, or ten to fifteen families, and was known as a “BC One Hundred”. The people in the villages were not necessarily related to one another, but were chosen for their skills and assigned to various villages that needed these skills.

Orchards and gardens were planted and the people produced nearly all of their food. Each garden had an abundance of sunflower plants as sunflower seeds were a favourite snack among the Doukhobors. Fruit and vegetables were dried in the sun or in drying sheds and stored for winter use. Vegetables and grains were exchanged among the villages, and wheat was shipped from the Saskatchewan Community villages, while the British Columbia Doukhobors shipped fruit to the prairies.

The economic structure of the Doukhobor community in British Columbia was based on the mir of Russian peasants. The central committee included Peter Verigin and a head man from each village, also the manager from each of the economic enterprises.

Each individual’s needs were supplied from the community fund. If a person worked outside the community, he handed over his wage to the community, where it went into a common fund from which all purchases were made. Each region had a purchasing agent and if an individual required clothing, food or supplies, he only had to ask. If he had to visit a neighbouring town for medical or business purposes, he simply asked for the funds to cover his trip. Thus, people contributed their labour to the community, and the community looked after their needs.

In 1917, under a Dominion charter, the Doukhobor community was incorporated as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB). All commune members received flour, potatoes, salt and shelter and every member received a sum of money, which varied from year to year. Widows, the elderly and the men received different amounts, depending upon their needs. Each male member was assessed an annual sum, depending on his earnings. The settlements were functioning as a single unit, with crops and produce being shared by all as necessity arose.

Daily life among the Community Doukhobors was fairly structured, with the men either working outside the community, or in various community industries. Women’s work was laid out formally, with a strict rotation of duties. One week, a woman might be cooking and serving the meals, while the following week, she would be weeding the gardens or milking the cows and separating the milk.

This system allowed each woman to work and participate in all aspects of village life. Although the women sewed most of the clothing for their families, the exception was the denim work clothes sewed for the men. These were produced in a community factory. Many of the older women spent much of their time spinning wool and knitting stockings and mittens. Shoes were sewn in a cobbler’s shop and harnesses for the horses were produced in a harness shop or chebatarna.

Children spent much of their time weeding the gardens and working in the orchards. They also helped the elderly pick nuts and wild berries. Girls learned to knit, sew and cook at an early age, and boys helped with the cattle and learned carpentery or blacksmith work. Both boys and girls up to the age of twelve wore a dress-like garment and went barefoot all summer.

Doukhobor communal workers at mealtime – Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01490.

Meals were prepared and eaten in the large kitchens with everyone in the dom sitting down to eat together. The Lord’s Prayer was recited prior to each meal. Borshch and piroghi were usually prepared for weekends. Large pots of soup were served daily, and vegetables, fruits or traditional pastries such as vareniki rounded out the meals. Cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt were also part of the diet. Tea or atvar (fruit juice) were the favourite beverages. Bread-baking was done often and in large quantities. The loaves were huge and usually round. They were baked in the petch which stood in a corner of the kitchen.

Living in a village was a social experience, for one was seldom alone. People of all ages gathered on the porches of the doms or in the courtyards in the summertime, working at drying fruits and vegetables, mending or spinning. Evening singsongs were commonplace and most winter evenings were spent in the kitchens near the petch, perhaps eating sunflower seeds. The babas (grandmothers) and children often lay on top of the warm petch and the children learned to recite psalomchiki, or listen to stories about Russia.

The young people socialized, at the sobranye which the youth from other villages attended. Sunday afternoons, group singing was popular, especially in the summer. Young people would often meet outdoors and dance to harmonicas. In the winter, boys played hockey on the sloughs, and evening gatherings took place indoors. The girls spent their winters working on needlework for their sunduk (hope chest).

On Saturdays, work stopped at noon. This was the time for visiting the banya and preparing for Sunday, when everyone attended the molenye (prayer service), and the sobranye, where business would be discussed and hymns sung. In the summertime, large sobranye were held on the meadows near the Kootenay River in Ootischenia where hundreds might attend, especially if the leader were present.

By 1922, there were fifty-seven sets of double houses, and several single ones built in the West Kootenay, and twenty-four in the Fruktova area. The largest settlement was still at Ootischenia with twenty-four villages.

Agrarian Development

Throughout their history, Doukhobors were agrarians, and upon their arrival in British Columbia, they immediately began clearing land for agricultural purposes. The first area to be cleared was Brilliant, and the second area was the lowest terrace at Ootischenia. Krestova had also been partially cleared by 1909. Soon afterwards, in 1912, the Brilliant bench, nearly all of the second terrace at Ootischenia, 160 acres in Pass Creek, several hundred acres in Krestova and nearly all of Glade was ready for planting. The Fruktova (Grand Forks) area was easier to clear because it was mostly open land, with little underbrush and a light stand of timber.

Many of the trees were more than three feet in diameter and over one hundred feet high. The timber was cut by two men using cross-cut saws, and hauled to community sawmills by sled in the winter. Smaller trees were cut and used for producing railway ties for sale and for poles, posts and small buildings on community property. Cordwood was also cut, both for sale and for use by the Doukhobors. The underbrush was cleared, using grubbing hoes, axes, saws and shovels and the brush was used as fuel for the community steam engines. A rotary drum and ratchet puller, and horses were used to clear stumps. Boulders were also removed using this method. Stubborn stumps and rocks were sometimes removed by dynamite.

Sorting apples at Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01535.

As land was cleared, a five acre plot was assigned each village and the people immediately began planting. It was expected that food would be produced within forty-five days to feed a village and make it self-reliant. Crops included vegetables and berries. Wild nuts and berries supplemented the diet. Fruit trees were planted for commercial purposes, along with a large variety of berries. Grains and hay were sown in other areas. Soil at Krestova proved too sandy for successful crops; however, Brilliant, Ootischenia, Pass Creek and Shoreacres had thriving orchards within a short time. The Doukhobor communities in British Columbia used what they could, then shipped fruit to the prairies or sold it at local markets. Each village assigned about twenty men to work in the orchards and even more during peak times.

The Community Doukhobors practiced double-cropping, which entailed planting strawberries and vegetables between the young fruit trees. As the trees matured and spread, this method ceased because of the lack of sun. Ootischenia had the majority of orchards, producing apples, pears and cherries, mostly located on the second terrace. Grains, strawberries and potatoes were also grown there. Flax for linen clothing was grown in Ootischenia, the Slocan Valley and Fruktova areas. Woolen clothing was also highly utilized.

Linseed oil pressed from flax seed was used in cooking to a great extent, and the honey industry was flourishing. Flour mills were established in Fruktova, Ootischenia, Champion Creek and in the Slocan Valley, and flour was produced from grains grown on CCUB lands. Grains were grown in several places with the largest area being the northern part of the second terrace at Ootischenia. These ( crops included oats, wheat and millet. The broadcasting method was used to sow the grains, and harvesting was done by hand scythes. Various threshing methods were used, depending upon the amount of grain being threshed. If it were a small amount, large farm animals would be led over the grains, loosening hulls. Beans and peas were also threshed in this manner. If the harvest was a large one, either a horse-harnessed sled or a cog-roller was dragged over the grain. The sled was constructed out of wood, three feet by eight feet, with sharp pieces of small rocks studding the underside. This method was used by Doukhobors in the Kars province of Russia, who learned it from the Turks in Caucasia. The cog-roller consisted of a tree trunk with wooden blocks nailed into it.

Since all produce went into the central community, there was no need to separate the crops, and no need for fences. Crops were not fertilized by mineral fertilizers and there was not enough ‘natural’ fertilizer from farm animals to make much of a difference. This was cited as one of the reasons communities like Krestova did not succeed as agrarian areas.


The development of irrigation systems in the Doukhobor communities were of prime concern, and by 1912, two irrigation systems were in place in Ootischenia. A concrete tank measuring 75 feet by 125 feet and 14 feet deep was built. It held 1,000,000 gallons when full and was supplied by mountain streams. Located on the second terrace, it operated by gravity, providing water for several villages. A steam-driven, four-cylinder pump was located on the Kootenay River, supplying water to the reservoir through a fourteen-inch wooden pipe. A mill to manufacture staves for the wooden pipes was constructed in Ootischenia. The irrigation system was over seven miles long.

Doukhobor Reservoir at Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives D-01927.

Several sawmills were constructed on community lands, with eight mills operating by 1912. Other enterprises soon followed, including a brickyard in Fruktova, blacksmith and woodwork shops, flour mill, and harness-making and cobbler shops. A large honey industry was developed at Brilliant.

Soon after the Doukhobors arrived, they began building their own roads, ferries and bridges. In 1913, they completed the Brilliant Suspension Bridge. The bridge was part of the public highway system until the 1960s. The inscription on the bridge stated ‘Strictly Prohibited Smoking and Trespassing with Fire Arms over this Bridge’. Roads were built, connecting the Doukhobor settlements. The Doukhobors also operated ferries at Brilliant and Glade.

By 1911, more than 50,000 fruit trees had been planted, and the Community Doukhobors purchased the Kootenay Jam Company, which was located on Front Street in Nelson, BC. In 1914, they donated jam to the Red Cross for the families of soldiers.

Although Ootischenia had the largest population of all the Doukhobor settlements in British Columbia, it was in Brilliant where the biggest commercial enterprise was located. At the heart of this enterprise was the jam factory, which was relocated to Brilliant in 1915. It was called the Kootenay Columbia Preserving Works, but was better known as the Brilliant Jam Factory. The complex included a packing house, grain elevator storing prairie wheat, community store, gas pumps, offices, library, a dormitory with sleeping quarters and a dining hall for workers, also the dom of the Doukhobor leader, who also had a home in Veregin, Saskatchewan. Across the road from the complex was the CPR railway station with living quarters attached, and the Brilliant Post Office.

With the relocation of the factory to Brilliant, the production of jam was brought near the heart of the community fields and the output of jam increased. Twelve steam heated copper kettles were in use and the berries were picked and processed the same day. The factory also began manufacturing tin cans and lids for the jam. The community fields of Ootischenia, Shoreacres, Glade, Slocan Valley, Brilliant and Pass Creek provided the berries for the jam. Fruit from the Grand Forks community was shipped by rail. Harry Beach, jam-maker, introduced an old English recipe. It contained only fresh berries or fruit, pure cane sugar and water.

The irrigation system was further developed, with water from Pass Creek being brought in by wooden pipes to the Brilliant area. It was distributed by gravity flow. Two small systems located on the banks of the Columbia River brought water to the lower bench in Ootischenia in six inch wooden pipes to provide irrigation for the orchards. Staves for the pipes were supplied by mills in Champion Creek and Ootischenia.

By 1916, more land was acquired by the Doukhobors including two thousand acres of timber south of Nelson. In Ootischenia, one thousand acres were added to the lands there, extending toward McPhee and Little McPhee Creeks, and bringing in much-needed water supplies from the creeks. The rich soil of the Raspberry area was added to the Doukhobor community, and holdings in Pass Creek were extended by over 3,000 acres. Other land purchases included 360 acres in the Slocan Valley, and 240 acres across the Kootenay River from Shoreacres.

There was great demand for wood during World War I and the CCUB cleared vast tracts of land in Ootischenia, with the second terrace and the side hills between the benches cleared of underbrush and logged by 1921. By 1922, sixty acres on the upper bench were also cleared. The purchase of a steam donkey engine greatly aided stump pulling, but on the upper bench, the large trees were felled by hand, and the holes filled with dirt, thus large rocks below the surface would remain undisturbed, making the soil easier to till.

The eight mills in the CCUB provided adequate lumber for the Doukhobors, and up to three carloads daily besides. Some of the lumber was shipped to Saskatchewan for the CCUB communities, and the surplus was sold. By 1922 the sawmills dwindled to four as the lumber was exhausted.

A second brickyard was constructed in the Slocan Valley to supplement the yard in Fruktova. Bricks began to be used for the construction of the doms, and in the early 1920s, each village had at least one dom constructed out of brick, as fire protection. Other wooden doms were veneered with brick.

As the CCUB developed its industries and villages, fewer labourers were required, resulting in more men working outside of the community and contributing to the income of the CCUB. Some were skilled tradesmen, but most worked as labourers.

Doukhobor Jam Factory at Brilliant, BC, circa 1930. British Columbia Archives D-06930.

Despite the Depression, the Brilliant Jam Factory continued to flourish. Upon Peter P. Verigin’s arrival in Canada, the factory was enlarged and 24 jam kettles were in operation. The community could not keep up with the demand for fruit, so the farmers from Creston, Slocan Valley and Kootenay Lake areas began selling their produce to the jam factory.

During the Depression, household jam consisting of strawberries and apples proved the most popular because it was both economical and delicious. Commercial huckleberry jam was sold for the first time in Canada, but was not economically viable as the berries were not readily available. Other jams included plum, cherry, gooseberry, currant, apricot and peach. Large fields of raspberries were planted on fertile slopes and supplied to the factory. The Doukhobors named this area ‘Raspberry’. But it was the famous strawberry jam which was the most popular.

At peak times, sixty people could produce 1,050 cans of jam per hour, with shipments of 43,000 cases annually. Each case of jam contained 12 four pound cans. During one record-breaking trip in eastern Canada, salesman William J. Soukeroff sold 18 railway freight cars of jam.

From 1915 to 1935, Peter P. Zibin supervised the factory, followed by Mike J.Makeiff. The irrigation system in Brilliant-Pass Creek was very efficient, so it was decided to expand it by replacing the 15 inch pipe with a 24 inch pipe which was also made out of wood staves. The new pipe crossed the Kootenay River on the bridge at Brilliant. However, the wooden pipe could not withstand the pressure of water and attempts to pump it into the reservoir failed. Several Ootischenia villages obtained their domestic water from this system. The system feeding Ootischenia from McPhee and Little McPhee Creeks supplied water until 1953. A forest fire in 1933 destroyed the wooden pipes, trestles, and small pipes leading to the reservoir and damaged the watershed. This greatly reduced the output of the streams in the mountains east of Ootischenia. The water projects, which cost $438,000 to install, could not meet the needs of the Doukhobor community.

At this time, sawmills were abandoned, leaving only one sawmill and planing mill in the Slocan Valley and another planing mill at Champion Creek. They were destroyed by fire before 1938.

Schools and Education

The immigration of Doukhobors to British Columbia from Saskatchewan brought about new challenges to public education. First, there were at least 700 children of school age who had never seen a school and who knew little English. Second, there were the pacifist beliefs of the Doukhobors. Third, there was mistrust of governments by these new immigrants.

The Blakemore Royal Commission of 1912 recommended that “in order to give the Doukhobors confidence and secure their sympathy, some working arrangement might be made under which Russian teachers could be employed in conjunction with Canadian teachers and the curriculum modified so as to include only elementary subjects”.

In 1910, Peter V. Verigin constructed the first Doukhobor school in Brilliant, with eleven small schools being built in Doukhobor areas by 1920. It wasn’t until 1919 that Doukhobor girls were allowed to attend school, and even after that time boys largely outnumbered the girls.

In the next two decades many schools were built to accommodate the Doukhobor children. By 1923, school boards were held responsible for enforcing the attendance law, with compulsory age limit being fifteen years. By 1929, thirteen schools had been destroyed, mostly by arson. These activities were blamed on the extreme zealot group, who opposed the compulsory attendance law.

The name of ‘Brilliant’ was given to each of the schools within a five mile’s radius. They were identified as ‘Brilliant No. 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5’. Brilliant No. I began as a small school, with the teacher being principal for all of the five Brilliant schools. Eventually, overcrowding caused the school to close and a large brick school to be built. It was located at the junction of Pass Creek Road, Brilliant and Raspberry.

Group of Doukhobor schoolchildren at Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives D-01929.

In 1930 the school located in the south end of Ootischenia was burned as a cover-up to a theft, so classes were relocated to the old chebatarnia. The drafty old building housed forty students, so another classroom was hastily prepared in the front section of the building. These were Brilliant No. 4 & 5 Schools. The teachers lived in a nearby communal home and walked the four miles to the Brilliant Railway Station for supplies and mail. In the ensuing years, students from this school began attending either Pleasant or Cay Creek Schools.

In 1933 a brick school was constructed in Glade, resembling the Raspberry (Brilliant) and Fructova Schools. The school included a classroom at each end and a four-room teacherage in the centre. Although modern by the standards of the day, water had to be hauled from the nearby river and toilets were outside. The teachers found that one of the hardships of living in an isolated community was the drift ferry. If one wished to cross, one would call out “Parome!” (ferry) and it would be brought to your side of the river.

In 1935, Alexander Zuckerberg was invited by Peter P. Verigin to teach Doukhobor children in Russian. Classes were conducted in various Doukhobor prayer doms. Zuckerberg taught until 1961.

The first Ootischenia School was opened in 1942, consisting of three classrooms and teacherage. The building was not insulated, and the washrooms were outdoors. Wood stoves heated each room. The school was in operation for twenty years, until a modern facility was built. It was also named Ootischenia School and opened in 1963. Despite major additions, enrollment decreased and the school closed in 1986. Both buildings remain today, with the old school being utilized as a Doukhobor community hall.

Possibly the most isolated area in which the Doukhobors settled was Champion Creek. Situated eight miles south of Castlegar on the east side of the Columbia River, it was accessible by walking from Castlegar, then rowing a boat across the river from Blueberry Creek, or horseback riding from Ootischenia. In later years, you could risk your life by driving a vehicle, because the banks were sandy and there was the possibility of landing in the Columbia.

Champion Creek had a thriving population of five hundred people among its five Doukhobor villages. Because of isolation, the men came home only on weekends and holidays. Most worked for the CPR, in lumber camps or mines. The women did the bulk of the farming on the slopes high above the Columbia, growing fruits, vegetables, berries and hay.

The teacherage was located in one of the large doms, and sparsely furnished. Classes were also held in a meeting room of a dom, which was furnished with long desks and benches. Again, there were usually twice as many boys as girls. Wages were $100 per month, while other rural schools paid $79.

John Landis, who later became Mayor of Castlegar, recalled his years at Champion Creek School in the book “School District No. 9“.

I was assigned to Champion Creek School in 1956. The single room had ample space for its eight pupils from Grades 1 to 6. The teacherage consisted of a kitchen and a bedroom. Washrooms were two outdoor facilities past the woodshed. I soon settled into my first teaching assignment. The isolated area was far removed from a library or teaching tools. My copying machine was a jelly pad, and chalk and black on boards my sole visual aid tools. The parents supplied me with fresh produce, and I in turn, wrote letters on their behalf, and when I bought my 1938 Chevy, they received transportation to Castlegar.

“1956-57 was a cold winter, and the stove was kept cherry-red. During spring breakup, I left my Chevy past Blueberry, and then called for the boys to row me across the Columbia.

“P.E. activities were held outdoors except for curling. I used paper rolled out on the floor for a rink, and ink bottle caps for rocks. Curling became the children’s favourite winter pastime.

Isolation had caught up with Champion Creek, and in the mid 1950s, all that remained were three rundown sparsely populated villages. The school closed in 1958. Children began to be bused in 1956. Electricity arrived in 1960, the road was paved, and phone and cable services were installed.

Gibson Creek’s first school was built in 1924. It was small, dark and bare. A wood stove heated the one room and the toilets were outside. Water was hauled from a neighbouring home. Living quarters for the teacher were attached to the school. By 1947, the old Gibson Creek School was deemed inadequate, and a new school was built. It consisted of a stucco building with a large classroom and teacher’s apartment, and modern amenities such as washrooms, furnace room and lots of endows. By 1960 there were electric lights. The school was situated in a remote area. To reach it, one had to branch off of Pass Creek Road and take a scenic winding mountain road. During spring, Gibson Creek overflowed its banks and washed out the road, making it inaccessible. Heavy snowfalls hampered students as they climbed the hill. In 1963, parents withdrew their children from school because of poor road conditions. After that, the road was deemed public and has been maintained by the Highways Department. Gibson Creek School was closed in 1966 and its pupils bused to Pass Creek.

In 1948, a new school was built in Tarrys, just down the road from Thrums. To celebrate the opening, an open house was held. But before a single class could be conducted, it was levelled by fire – the work of an arsonist. Subsequently, the old school was moved to the burned site. It was known as Tarrys School. In 1954, a new school was built next to the old one, and the building of 1910 vintage was finally demolished. In the ensuing years, the school population expanded, and so did the school. Today, students from Tarrys, Thrums, Glade and Shoreacres attend this modern school.

Among Doukhobor students, various activities meant an absence from school. For example, the school register during the 1940s recorded the following reasons for absenteeism: Mrs. Verigin’s funeral, Peter’s Day, pilgrimage to Verigin’s Tomb, and celebration in honour of the elder Mrs. Verigin.

In 1945, when the Cameron Report on School Finance was given, it made no specific provision regarding Doukhobor schools other than that they should be treated no differently than others. “Every effort should be made to get them into the ordinary scheme of things.”

In the 1950s, the BC Government made an all-out effort to enforce school attendance among children in Krestova and Gilpin. Forty children were seized in one pre-dawn raid on Krestova and taken to an old sanatorium in New Denver, a nearby village located on Slocan Lake. The raids on the children continued for the next six years. The children were housed and schooled but not allowed to have contact with their families, except for every other Sunday. On that day, families would travel from Krestova and from Gilpin, the latter necessitating a two day trip in winter. An eight foot high wire fence divided the children and families. A molenye was held, and favourite foods passed to the young inmates. Farewells were said through the ‘chicken wire’ fence. The children were held in New Denver until fifteen years of age. The school closed in 1959.

The Golden Years

It could be said that the early twenties were the golden years for the CCUB. The Brilliant Jam Factory was producing high yields of jams, utilizing fruit from community orchards. The sawmills, flourmills and brickyards were busy, and there was plenty of work outside of the community. Most important of all, there was a noticeable spirit of togetherness among the people.

The Death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin

But on October 29, 1924, tragedy struck the Doukhobor community. Peter “Lordly” Verigin was killed in a mysterious train explosion in Farron, BC. Dynamite had been placed near his seat. Although eight others died, it was believed that Verigin was the target. John Mackie, MLA, was one of the victims, as was Harry Bishop, a hockey player with a Nelson hockey team. Others included a rancher from Grand Forks, two businessmen, labourers and a young Doukhobor woman. Although extensive inquiries were conducted, the murders remain unsolved.

Verigin’s funeral drew an estimated seven thousand people from across western Canada, many non-Doukhobor. After a lengthy and emotional funeral, during which hymns and psalms were sung and eulogies delivered, the leader was buried on November 2, 1924. His resting place was a rocky bluff high above the Kootenay River, Brilliant and Ootischenia, overlooking the vast enterprise he had developed. An elaborate tomb with intricate carvings had been erected, but it was blown up by dynamite several years later and replaced by a plain edifice.

Some seven thousand people attended the funeral of Peter “Lordly” Verigin on a hillside overlooking Brilliant, BC. Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection.

Peter Lordly Verigin was the ideal leader for the times. He had led the Doukhobors throughout the most turbulent period in their history, when they were at the mercy of various governments. He had counseled them to reject militarism from his exile in Siberia, which precipitated their move to Canada. After the loss of community lands on the prairies he had brought his people to British Columbia and established a large communal enterprise, which was at the height of its prosperity when he died a martyr’s death. It is no wonder that he is still revered today. “Toil and Peaceful Life” was the slogan he left his people.

Six weeks after the death of Verigin, a memorial service was held at his graveside. Four thousand people attended. They decided that the successor to Peter V. Verigin should be his son, Peter P. Verigin, who was living in Russia. He did not arrive in Canada until 1927. In his absence, the CCUB Board of Directors continued to function. When Peter P. Verigin “Chistiakov’ (Cleanser) arrived, he was greeted by enormous crowds and songs composed in his honour.

The CCUB under Peter Verigin Chistiakov

Verigin immediately implemented economic and cultural initiatives and organizational restructuring. He began by giving commune status to each village, with the CCUB providing leadership to these communes. Building on the structures already in place, he established villages or ‘Families’ in units of 100 persons, while on the prairie, 25 persons were allotted to a ‘Family’. A total of eighty communes or ‘Families’ were established, with an appointed headman from each village collecting earnings from his workers, making purchases, and paying levies and rent assessments to the CCUB for the entire village. Business between individual communes was done on a cash basis.

During the 1930s, CCUB membership was declining. This was attributed to a number of factors including the Depression. Furthermore, many Doukhobors were leaving the CCUB community and moving to towns or farms. There were also a growing number of zealots who didn’t pay assessments and who were sent to live in isolated settlements.

In the early 1930s, as a response to nude parades, several hundred zealots were sent to Piers Island on the west coast of BC. Their children were dispersed among mostly non-Doukhobor families for approximately one year. They returned to the communities of Krestova and to Gilpin near Grand Forks, earning their living by selling garden produce and obtaining outside employment.

CCUB losses by depredation were enormous, with flour mills, sawmills and houses, including the leader’s home being destroyed. By 1937, estimated losses totalled $400,000. These depredations, combined with the Depression, unemployment and declining membership, were major contributing factors leading to the bankruptcy in 1937 of the CCUB operations.

Doukhobors meet at Brilliant, BC with their new leader, Peter “Chistiakov” Verigin. Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection.

In ten years, Peter P. Verigin had significantly lowered the debt of the CCUB, however it was refused protection under the Farmers’ Creditors Arrangement Act passed by the federal government during the early years of the Depression. In 1938, Sun Life and National Trust Mortgage Companies instituted foreclosure proceedings on a debt of $350,000, dismantling a communal enterprise valued at over $6 million. On the verge of foreclosure by mortgage companies, the BC government became landlords by negotiating a $296,500 knockdown price on the amount owing. Those living on the land became tenants. The Doukhobors were allowed to rent their former homes at nominal fees.

Upon the dissolution of the CCUB, the centerpiece of the community, the Brilliant Jam Factory stood dark and empty. This once-bustling enterprise was a sad reminder of the thriving, golden years of the Doukhobor community.

The Doukhobors continued to tend the former community orchards and much of the produce was sold at Farmer’s Markets. Non-Doukhobor fruit-processing plants bought the surplus. Many people moved from the villages, seeking employment. They either became Independent Doukhobors or remained ‘Orthodox’ Doukhobors.

Following the dissolution of the CCUB, Peter P. Verigin established the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC) in 1938. Under his guidance, a constitution was developed, and a ‘Declaration’ stating basic principals.

Peter P. Verigin became ill and died in a Saskatoon hospital in February 1939. His funeral was attended by thousands. He was buried in Verigin’s Tomb alongside his father. During the leadership of Peter P. Verigin, more than a dozen schools were built, including Raspberry (Brilliant) and Fruktova Schools. Besides organizing the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ, he also established a strong USCC Youth organization. He left his people the following two slogans, “Sons of Freedom Cannot be Slaves of Corruption” and “The Welfare of the World is Not Worth the Life of One Child”. In 1940, at age 18, John J. Verigin, grandson of Peter P. Verigin, was appointed Secretary of the USCC, taking over many of his grandfather’s responsibilities.

Eventually, Doukhobor lands were re-surveyed, subdivided, appraised and put up for sale. By 1963, all former community lands, except Krestova, were in Doukhobor hands by virtue of sales.

Persecutions in Russia, the arduous journeys to Canada and British Columbia, breaking new ground, building new communities – the lives of the early Doukhobors were fraught with political unrest and heavy with toil. They were yearning for a peaceful life.

About the Author

Vi Plotnikoff (1937-2006) was a well known Doukhobor writer who wrote about her Doukhobor heritage for many years. She published a short story collection, Head Cook at Weddings and Funerals and other stories of Doukhobor Life (Polestar Press) and was a popular lecturer and teacher at Kootenay schools, including the Kootenay School of the Arts and Selkirk College. Prior to her passing, in a return to the roots of her oral tradition, she had begun storytelling. She also released a story CD, The Mysterious Death of a Doukhobor Leader.

The Doukhobors’ Place in Canadian History

by Andrei Bondoreff

As Doukhobors, what is our place in Canadian history?  Traditional Canadian history has focused almost exclusively on the story of the two founding groups – English and French Canadians.  The stories of minority groups, their accomplishments and contributions as nation-builders, often receive scant attention.  However, as writer and historian Andrei Bondoreff contends, the Doukhobors’ place in Canadian history is exciting, dynamic and above all else, important.  Reproduced by permission from ISKRA No.1959 (June 16, 2004), his article reminds us that our history is vital and relevant, not only to ourselves, but to the nation as a whole.

Understanding Canadian history is a lot like trying to figure out where you are in Disney land: unless you have a good map, it’s easy to get lost in the pleasantry and endless activity. You end up wandering about being inundated with gaiety and cheer, whimsically caring about little more than superficial characters, and animated voices singing sprightly songs. You go from one little blithesome, contrived experience to another in a sort of drunken satisfaction oblivious to the multitude of problems that are rife throughout the park, but which are covered up seamlessly by an efficient, clever and cunning corporation. So it is with Canadian history. In elementary, high school, and survey university course curricula, dominant culture has woven a smiley, amusing little plastic narrative meant to inculcate Canadian folk with pride and patriotism in a national story which conveniently ignores the contributions and activities of most minorities who have been an important part of the Canadian experience.

Canada’s historical narrative is basically the story of two groups – English and French Canadians – rolling merrily along building a country with the odd disagreement or tiff over French/English language rights or some other grave issue, with an odd trans-continental railroad thrown in for leavening, a pressing war Canada had to rush into for bite, or to add some sugar, a sports event that defined an era. Minorities hardly exist in this narrative. Their accomplishments and contributions are barely given a yawn, thus relegating them to the realm of insignificance. Reading standard Canadian history, you’d think that nobody but French, Scots and English did anything of any value or interest in Canada. Minorities are a by-line, assuming the role of the eclectic or quirky relative that is rarely introduced, or the irritating mother-in-law stuffed in the attack. English and French Canadians ran the Canadian nation-building show so they have determined that they should get all the limelight and accolades.

Crowd of Doukhobors first set foot on Canadian soil, 1899

By propagating such a whitewash of history, dominant Anglo-French Canadian culture has furthered its assimilative agenda: telling everyone that its history is everyone’s history and that to truly be Canadian is to be like them. Simply put, anyone outside dominant Anglo-French Canadian culture is on the outside looking in, staggering about in a malaise of alienation estranged from the Canadian historical experience.

Doukhobors are proud of their history, and rightly so. But few Doukhobors ever examine their place in a broader context. It is easy to consider Doukhobors in the following way: a determinedly pious and peaceful group of iconoclastic agrarians who challenged the Russian Tsarist state and the Orthodox Church, and after being persecuted for their steadfast “treasonous” defiance of the Czarist system, were given refuge in a welcoming Canada to escape persecution. In a superficial way, this is basically correct, but it doesn’t go far enough to explaining who Doukhobors are and what they have meant to Canada. It doesn’t give enough colour or context to the story.

Doukhobors weren’t given refuge in Canada for benevolent reasons. Immigration officials executing immigration policy weren’t selfless, righteous souls committed to virtuous acts. Many authors including Mariana Valverde in her book The Age of Light Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 detail how the Canadian government had an immigration policy predicated upon a hierarchy of “desirable” immigrants with race as a determining factor. At the top of this pyramid were Anglo-Saxon’s or British descendant-white Americans, then as a sloppy-second. Northern Europeans, followed by Western Europeans, Central Europeans, Eastern Europeans and Jews. Blacks and Asians didn’t cut the mustard at all and were encouraged to stay home. There were discriminatory legal measures instituted at the end of the 19th century through the first part of the 20th century such as Continuous Journey Legislation which prohibited immigrants whose voyage stopped at a destination between the originating embarkation point and Canada, thus limiting all Asians; head taxes and other laws controlled undesirable immigration. Doukhobors, as Eastern Europeans at the bottom end of the desirability totem pole, didn’t take on an aura of popularity until immigration levels slowed to a trickle near the end of the 19th century.

Doukhobors came into the picture within the context of nation-building, as being efficient tools in the Canadian political elite’s determined plan to settle the West. Many people often fail to grasp the macro picture of Doukhobors and their relationship to the expansion and growth of the Canadian state.

Doukhobor women pulling plow on Canadian prairies, c. 1899

Historian John Leonard Taylor writes that, “in 1867, three colonies of British North America united to form the Dominion of Canada. Compared to its present size, the new dominion was very small, from the very beginning, however, its founders had plans for expansion.” Canada sought to expand west, however, the land on the prairies was rugged and wild, the climate was forbidding and there was the inconvenience of Native peoples who inhabited the region. Canada, employed tangible political maneuvers to expanded west by surreptitiously taking control of the Northwest in 1870 from the Hudson’s Bay Company; passing the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 granting a quarter section, 160 acres, of free land for a 10 dollar registration fee conditional upon three years residence; concluding treaties with Native peoples and extinguishing their title to the land; and finally, formulating a National Policy which, among other things, called for white settlement of the West. Immigration became the vehicle for Imperial expansion.

Yes, it may come as a shock, but Canada was an imperial power in the age of imperialism when European countries were on a world-wide mugging spree, pocketing land and resources wherever they could. In the quintessentially Canadian way, imperial expansion was undertaken in a cost-effective, tactful manner rather than the American model which saw fierce and bloody Indian wars. This is the spot where Doukhobors among other pioneers fit. But we must look deeper at this Imperial expansion, at its ideology because it had a profound impact on Doukhobors and their functioning in Canada.

Canadian imperialism was oriented towards liberalism emphasizing ideas of liberty and protection of private property. Even though the two concepts fundamentally contradict one another, this was of little concern to English-Canadian elites who formulated imperial policy. Imperialism and liberalism don’t mix because the former is predicated upon imposing ones will on another which violates the fundamental idea of liberalism or freedom to allow people to believe or do what they want. Nobody has the right to impose his or her will or values on someone else.

Clifford Sifton, Minister for the Interior, had stated that his idea of an ideal settler was “a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forebears have been fanners for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-a-dozen children, is good quality.” Doukhobors, were steely tough, resourceful, self-sufficient and industrious white pioneers with a deeply rooted understanding of farming, and more than a few stout wives and children for the offering. The Canadian Government accepted the Doukhobors because of what the Doukhobors could do for Canada. Canada wanted white settlers to be the vehicles of development west, within this context the Doukhobors would do nicely because they were the epitome of tough, enterprising pioneers. The same can not be said of many of the pioneers serenaded in Canadian history. While Doukhobors set up shop on the prairies and lived in earthen hollows or sod huts, while the women pulled plows and the men helped build railways slogging through swamps and bogs for minimal pay, many English immigrants (not all) were enticed to colonize the prairies with the promise of pre-constructed homesteads – beautiful and cozy homes and pre-tilled land.

Canada, a country that professed to embrace liberal freedoms and had vast lands open for cultivation, seemed well suited to the Doukhobors’ wishes to farm and practise their religion unmolested. The Government, desperate to kick-start stalled immigration on the prairies, hastily, gave clearance for the Doukhobors to come, but, never (in my research) made three important aspects of its policies clear to the Doukhobors: firstly, that the government would openly and aggressively pursue a policy of assimilation towards them; secondly, that lands given to Doukhobors would be given at the expense of Plains Native peoples; and thirdly, that the Doukhobors’ collectivism would be incompatible with the Canadian Government’s vision of individualistic homestead farming on the prairies.

The third point is extremely contradictory and problematic because the government pursued colonial expansion into the western prairies in order to impose a system of economic individualism, utilizing a group that embraced collectivism and for whom private property was largely anathema. And people actually wonder why the Government/Doukhobors relationship has been testy and filled with squabbles, quibbles and quarrels. The Government’s entire policy towards the Doukhobors was predicated upon the idea that the Doukhobors would eventually assimilate and embrace individualism, private property and laissez-faire economics. The Canadian Government was woefully ignorant of the fact that Doukhobors had struggled against the Russian Government’s imperious assimilative efforts since Doukhoborism’s beginnings, and that this struggle had actually brought this feisty determined group the cohesion and strength that formed the basis of their identity, and their culture. When the government used the Doukhobors, and vigorously pursued assimilationist policies, it failed to recognize that Doukhobors were prone to enthusiastic and passionate questioning of authority and were possessed of great fortitude. Steadfast resistance to the coercive power of the Canadian state is certainly an important legacy of Doukhoborism in Canada, and few ethnic groups have pursued it with such vigour.

These homesteaders are waiting for a Dominion Lands Office to open the quarter-section homesteads on the Doukhobor reserves in Saskatchewan. The federal government’s cancellation of the Doukhobor entries led to an American-style land rush, one of the few witnessed in western Canada.

Harsh Russian assimilative measures against the Doukhobors were an important part of Doukhobor Russian history and anyone with even a passing understanding of Doukhoborism would know this, yet the Canadian government in its blissful ignorance thought it could succeed where Russian measures failed. Eventually, Canada would employ many of the same methods of assimilation such as seizing children from parents for forced assimilation. These are, however, peripheral issues in the mostly jolly Canadian grand historical narrative.

When unmolested, Doukhobors through hard work, perseverance and determination succeeded in prospering on the prairies. The establishment of infrastructure such as ferries and roads helped build the Canadian nation. Doukhobors created an economy out of rocks, trees, mud and seed. They built large communities with exotic architectural masterpieces of architecture in the heart of the desolate alien prairie. The Doukhobors were the epitome of the bull-dog grit and stoic spirit of romanticized early pioneers.

Doukhobors were also, the original environmentalists, being vegetarians, composters, using natural “organic” herbal remedies and cures as well as utilizing sustainable development before such words existed in the English language. Non-Doukhobor settlers would often seek-out the Doukhobors for medical help because no hospitals existed for homesteaders on the forbidding, lonely prairie. Before her death, one elderly English lady recounted how her life was saved and good-looks preserved by Doukhobor medical help after she was kicked in the face by a horse as a young girl.

Few people truly appreciate how arduous life on the prairies was. The most laborious task most people have today in their suburban enclaves is landscaping their front yard and planting a juniper bush or two. They curse as they pull out a weed that ought not to be strangling their geraniums, grumble about weed killer not working on dandelions, and sneer at crab grass. Imagine living in a foreign land, in a harsh untamed wilderness with miles upon miles of flat, raw, hard, gangly soil, fogs of sinister mosquitoes, horrible black flies the size of bull frogs and strangling extremes of heat and cold.

The Doukhobors with their tenacity and fortitude took the bit between the teeth and doggedly got down to business constructing order and beauty from the ferocity of the savage wild. They slogged, muscled, strained and pained to survive and prosper on an unforgiving land. They were creative, industrious and resourceful, sowing the land through brute, hell-fire, gut-wrenching determination. And those were just the women.

The Doukhobors established a successful communal model of farming which was a dangerous precedent for Canadian authorities because it was not what the elites of Canada had in mind for developing an economy. Even though communal farming in pioneering days was quite practical, eliminating the loneliness of homestead life, promoting group cohesion, and uniting labour and resources for a common good; it also, however, effectively insulated the group from the outside world. For Canadian authorities this was unacceptable and policies enforcing individual registration and requiring allegiance to the Crown were stubbornly pursued precisely because authorities knew it was so contentious with the Doukhobors: to accept individualism and the King would be to compromise Doukhobor principles.

The authorities and Doukhobors both knew that the two issues represented the top of the hill to the slippery slope of assimilation; the government had added impetus to apply pressure on the Doukhobors because the concerns of increasing numbers of land-hungry settlers, pouring into Saskatchewan seeking Doukhobor lands, trumped the concerns of the politically mute “Sifton’s Pets.” Once John Oliver assumed Sifton’s portfolio, the Doukhobors were seen as expendable, the gloves came off and the government was eager to do an “extreme make-over” of Doukhobor communal living. The Doukhobors had legitimate fears about individual registration threatening the cohesion of the group, and understandably felt it could lead to the destruction of the community — a community which was all these struggling immigrants had in their foreign land, and which they had come to Canada to preserve. Nevertheless, the government giveth, and it taketh away as it has done with so many groups in history such as Natives, Japanese and Ukrainians to name a few.

The requisitioning of huge swaths of Doukhobor lands worth millions dollars, is a particularly dark chapter of Canadian history that has gone mostly unmentioned in mainstream textbooks because it represents one of the more unromantic episodes of Canadian history.

In case you think the Canadian government only targeted the Doukhobors’ communal farming enterprises, think again. Native peoples on the prairies, who embraced communalism just like the Doukhobors, established communal farming ventures after signing treaties with the government of Canada (which is a complex issue itself). These Native peoples saw their ventures assailed and ultimately destroyed by repressive government policies. Venerable historian Sarah Carter in her book Lost Harvests details how the Canadian government subverted Native communal farming because, as with Doukhobors, communalism was an impediment to assimilation. In both cases, the Doukhobors and the Natives’ ways of living didn’t fit the Canadian Government’s particular brand of liberal ideology.

Doukhobor workers in boiler room, CCUB factory.

Doukhobors, never ones to lie on the canvas for the full ten count regardless of the beating, picked themselves up and many moved on to the Kootenays. They established the CCUB as one of the largest communal experiments in North American history. The contribution to the Kootenay economy with the construction of saw mills, jam factories, brick factories, bridges, roads and irrigation systems was tremendous, even though in 1922 politicians such as MLA J.W. Jones derisively spoke about the “unique problem” that groups such as the “Chinese and Doukhobors” presented to BC. The government would again play a part in toppling the Doukhobors’ second large-scale communal venture.

After Vancouver’s Japanese community was brutally liquidated and interned throughout the Kootenays during World War Two, Doukhobors helped many Japanese overcome starvation by delivering food. When many citizens in the surrounding community were overtly hostile and ignored the Japanese, Doukhobors and Japanese had friendly interactions organizing baseball games and other events.

Traditional Canadian history glosses over how the Government of Canada coerced many minority groups into forced labour. Few people know how the Ukrainians were interned behind barbed-wire fences during World War One, and were forced to work as veritable slave labour in the construction of roads, railways and national parks. Few people know that the infrastructure for Banff national park was largely built by interned Ukrainians. Few people also know how Doukhobor men worked in forced labour camps during World War Two building the nations road system as “alternate service.” Canada benefited from the forced toil of many minority groups such as the Doukhobors, yet these minority groups who, taken together aren’t much of a minority, receive little recognition in the story of the building of Canada.

In Canadian history, Doukhobors have not been neutral observers or an obscure quiet lot. The yin/yang and stark dichotomies in Doukhoborism represent a fascinating aspect of Canadian history. Doukhobors, on one hand, have been paragons of pacifism and proud purveyors of peace. Few groups in Canadian history have mounted the sustained and determined effort that Doukhobors have in pursuing disarmament. Doukhoborism possessed of its own heaven, has also been possessed of its own hell, with a small minority of its community engaged in the most sustained terrorism in North American history. There is no neutrality, no blandness to Doukhoborism in Canada. Doukhobors have had animated spiritual leaders, mystery, intrigue, conspiracy and superstition the likes of which could be a screenplay writer’s dream.

If one travels to a foreign country and is asked to name aspects of uniquely Canadian culture one is forced to pause, think and then rattle off maple syrup, hockey, “eh” at the end of a sentence, and Mounties. These examples of Canadian culture are amusing enough, but aren’t nearly as profound as examples that one could give to a similar question articulated with regards to Doukhobor culture. Doukhobors have unique humour, dialect, clothing, rhymes, songs, games, religion, food, woodwork, architecture etc. In this context, the aforementioned Doukhobor history is actually Canadian history that has never been given a chance to enter the realm of mainstream history. Canadian history should be the egalitarian tale of numerous ethnic groups living together in relative harmony contributing their own unique personality to a grand national drama. Instead Doukhobors occupy the fringe, along with so many other ethnic groups.

Peter Lordly Verigin (centre) with crowd of Community (CCUB) Doukhobors, c. 1920’s. Photo courtesy Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection.

The Doukhobors place in Canadian history is exciting, dynamic and above all important. Unlike so many people alienated in society, unsure of where they came from or what their roots are, every Doukhobor has a storied past. When you have a rich history, but it’s not the history of dominant culture, it’s easy to take it for granted or even to turn your back on it; however, in your quest to gain whatever it is you seek, you have actually succeeded in losing yourself. If getting lost is your “thing,” forget your past. The price of this is tremendous, and its impact is measurable only to each person left alone to face and contemplate their genealogical and cultural destruction. Remember the tales your grandmothers and grandfathers tell. They will become important and relevant when you least expect it.