By James Lightbody
In May 1912, Nelson Daily News reporter James Lightbody visited the community of Brillant (then centred in Dolina Utesheniya) at the junction of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. There, he found 1,300 Russian-speaking Doukhobors living in a ‘Socialist Utopia’ who, after four short years, had transformed 2,900 acres of forest into a veritable garden paradise with 600 acres planted into trees. Lightbody wrote an article about his experience and observations, including the Doukhobors’ history in Russia, their settlement at Brilliant, their learning of English, communal system and management, their land-clearing, industrial development and financial system. It was first published in The Nelson Daily News on June 1, 1912. It was subsequently republished in The Daily Province on June 8, 1912 and the Victoria Daily Times on June 25, 1912. Editorial comments [in square brackets] and After Word by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
An hour’s ride from Nelson, British Columbia, there exists a foreign country, 2,900 acres in extent, where nearly 1,300 people live without a knowledge of English, without money in circulation and without an elective government, and yet contented and prosperous. It is the Doukhobor community at Brilliant, at the junction of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers, where fruit farming upon a strip of land encircled by steep mountains is conducted on a scale not attempted in any other part of British Columbia. These exiles from their unhappy land in Russia are part of a band of 7,500 in Canada and beyond a few hundred in British Columbia and their kindred living in far away Canora in the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan, these people live out of touch with all races and creeds in Canada.
Twelve years ago they began to come to Canada to escape the tyranny to which they were subject under the bureaucratic government of the Czar’s dominions, and under the liberty allowed them under British rule, they have proved themselves to be so industrious that they have carried out agricultural operations on a scale almost impossible to the English speaking citizen of the country. They have cleared hundreds of acres of their land of the dense timber that covered it four years ago and have planted it with fruit trees and bushes. They have received not a cent in return for their fruit but are still living upon what their countrymen in Canora [district, Saskatchewan] can send them and from what they have raised from selling timber and potatoes and other minor products of their land.
Nor are they concerned mainly about getting an immediate recompense for their labor. Rather they are building up for the future with a foresight which will surely be repaid. There is mapped out and in part operation an irrigation system covering the whole of their territory, and already a domestic water system fed by springs in the mountains connects every one of the thirty or more dwellings upon the plateau.
That is only one part of the story of industry and thrift that a visitor to Brilliant sees. Their quant customs; their odd form of government with its freedom from complications, yet efficient in its simplicity, their adaptability to new conditions and new surroundings; all these things tell a story seldom met with in the rush of the present-day life.
Settlement at Brilliant
To the person who alights from the train at the new station at Brilliant just being built by the Canadian Pacific railway, there opens a panorama which is puzzling to one who has no hint of what the settlement is. After journeying through a gully hemmed in by steep mountains, a wide level stretch of land takes their place and here and there upon it are dotted houses, peculiarly set in pairs of with acres and acres of trim gardens round them. In places a rugged stump-dotted patch, not yet cleared, shows what the neat, trim gardens were in their rough state. Close at hand there is a busy scene along the water’s edge, as if some gigantic industry was being established there. And so there is. As one descends the bank one encounters a gang of men loading heavy masses of machinery upon a ferry strung across the swirling Kootenay.
You journey across with the gang, few of them can speak a word of English, and on closer view find a water pump being placed in position, and boilers being set together with noisy activity. You ask what it all means and are informed that it is the pumping plant for irrigating the fruit fields that you are yet to see. Pressing on, guided by one of the obliging settlers, you pass sawmill, stables, several houses, and rise to the top of a bank to come upon an immense tableland whose houses you have seen from the station upon the railway track. For some distance you walk along until you come upon a wide expanse of cultivated land both under crop and ready for planting. On each side of the road there are large houses; always in pairs, always of the same plan, bare of exterior but eminently practical.
In your walk, if school be not in session, you will be passed by picturesque children, the girls in bright colors and the boys – well, as growing mischief-loving boys always dress. But all have an inquiring, inquisitive look, for strangers are not seen every day. Yet disrespect is totally absent and they call to you “Hello,” their first word of English probably, and the boys raise their hats and the girls nod their heads.
There is a schoolhouse there, just put in commission by the provincial government, with an English-speaking school ma-am in it, and the children, so they say, flock to the school with such eagerness that playing truant is an unheard of offence. In fact, they come round from school and clamor to be taught before their teacher rises in the morning, and she is an early riser.
A peep into the houses discloses the tidiness that characterizes everything. Paint has not been found absolutely necessary everywhere but cleanliness cannot be sacrificed at any cost. Around the house are gardens both for flowers and for vegetables, with walks neatly bordered with stones among them. Not a fence can be seen, for the land belongs to no one and to everyone.
Then you visit the post office [at Waterloo], where John Sherbinin, the purchasing agent and financial manager, holds forth, and you find to your astonishment everything for a well-appointed office already there. There are typewriters, one in English and the other to master the vagaries of the Russian alphabet; letter files and account books and also a certificate that this is one of his majesty’s post offices.
How They Came
To see the state of improvement the settlement has reached it is hard to believe it has all been done in four years. Yet that is the time which has elapsed since the first band migrated from Canora, near Saskatoon. In the early winter of that year, Peter Verigin, acknowledged head of the whole Doukhobor sect, came to British Columbia and found what he thought would be an advantageous site for a colony. He bought the land, piece by piece, and a month or so later, in April, 1908, ninety men came down from the Saskatchewan community, and began the work of making the stubborn bush yield to the coming of the fruit rancher.
The hardships the Doukhobor sect have passed through since it was founded in the middle of the eighteenth century are no doubt responsible for the sterling qualities of the men and women at the present time.
Primarily the ill-treatment followed their severance from the Orthodox Russian church and the methods of conscription employed by the Russian government in the nineteenth century forced them to flee the country. At the age of 21, every young man becomes liable to be called upon to bring the standing army up to a certain mark. Each year army officers come round to the Doukhobors and took away their sons to fight, and they would, it is said, take the same man year after year, seemingly to do their worst towards the nonconformists.
Many resisted this and were put in prison and Peter Verigin, who rose as a champion of his race, was seized and sent to Siberia for 16 years. At other times as a reminder of the czar’s rule, Cossacks would be sent down to their villages with horse whips to beat the communists into subjection.
Resolved to stand the tyranny no longer, the Doukhobors decided to emigrate, and in 1898 many moved to the Island of Cyprus, which is under British protection, in the Mediterranean Sea, being assisted by Count Tolstoi. Not satisfied with this and hearing of the opportunities that Canada offered, they moved to Canada in 1899 and 1900 in large numbers, settling at once near Saskatoon. In all 7,500 persons of the Doukhobor sect have come to this country. Each man of 18 years of age or more took out 160 acres of land for farming purposes. Put together, the thousand odd quarter sections made an immense tract, and true to their customs they established a community such as may be seen at Brilliant.
But they made a fatal mistake, which they blame upon the Canadian government as not having brought to their notice. The regulations say that the settlers must cultivate at least 15 acres of his quarter section by the end of three years when a patent will be granted. Instead of doing this the Doukhobors cultivated one large piece in the centre, equal to 15 acres for every homestead in the settlement, thinking it was in compliance with the requirements. When they came to ask for title they did so for the whole piece and not individually, it appears, which the government would not grant. They now say the government would not grant them a patent because they had not cultivated a piece as required by the regulations.
The area they retained after their homesteads had been forfeited was hardly sufficient to support the whole of their 7,500 people. The winters, too, were hard on them, used as they were to the comparative warmth of Southern Russia. Finally Peter Verigin set out to find a new country to which his people without a home might go. How his wanderings brought him to British Columbia has already been shown.
When the 90 men, like [Biblical] spies into Canaan, came to Brilliant, they found an unpromising piece of land on which to start their settlement. Before their arrival it had barely been scratched as a fruit raising district, but some of the timber had been cut and floated down the river [to Trail], leaving the stumps standing. Hundreds of acres on the other hand were in their virgin state, while still more had been burned off ready to be grubbed of their dense underbrush and second growth trees.
They set to work, however, and cleared a piece of land more than a hundred acres in extent ready for planting the following spring. In April, 1909, another party of 180 men were brought out to the new settlement from Saskatchewan and joined the pioneers in putting the land in crop. That year they planted many acres with fruit trees brought from nurseries in Canada and the United States. But to obviate purchasing from an outside source, which is against their policy, they have started a nursery of their own, where thousands of young bushes may be seen approaching the stage when they may be transplanted.
While gangs of men were treating the soil others were erecting houses, and in June of the same year the wives and families and aged men were brought out from Saskatchewan and joined the able bodies in working towards getting a crop. In 1910 another batch of 200 men came out, some going to neighbouring settlements, of which there are Pass Creek, Crescent Valley, Glade and Grand Forks. In the spring of the present year a party of 346 passed through on their way to Glade and Slocan Valley. At Brilliant there are now 1,285 people, while at Grand Forks there are an additional 500 living in like communistic manner.
Since their first coming to Kootenay, the Doukhobors have not received a cent from their fruit plantations. Their expenses are small, for where possible food is grown and articles of wear are made. There is a strong aversion to being dependent upon outsiders, hence the Brilliant community subsists upon flour made at the Doukhobor mill at Canora, Saskatchewan.
Harmony and Contentment
The harmony and contentment which pervade Brilliant impress the visitor at first sight, and a glance into the economic system in vogue there reveals the reason for this. It is a Socialist Utopia, the realization of equality which is being advocated for the rest of the world to-day.
At Brilliant, unlike the modern city, there are no cares as to where the next day’s meals will come from. There is no stinting to provide sustenance when one’s strength has ebbed in declining years. There is no division between “mine” and thine”; no man richer than his fellow; no jealousies or envies as to the possessions of another.
Cares as to money are totally absent, for there is no money in circulation. Neither is there any need for money, for food and clothing are doled out as needed from the department in charge of these matters. All men are equal and have a voice in the government, and more than this, women are recognized as being competent to judge upon the affairs of their community.
Their houses are large, and for economy are made to accommodate from 30 to 36 people. At the rear of each pair, there is a long low building which puzzles the stranger. It contains the baths, made of wood and looking like punts. A boiler in the centre of the room heats the water for the numerous baths round about.
The food for all the months is handed out at the general store, to which the head of the household repairs on certain days. To the storekeeper he intimates the number he must feed, and gets doled out to him food in proportion. The bread is baked in each house, and vegetables are raised in gardens surrounding them, it being part of the women’s work to look after them.
How Community is Run
The executive of the community is in the hands of several heads of departments. There are two men who manage the fruit-growing and the general affairs of the colony. One man does the purchasing for them, another oversees the building of the houses and the carpenter work, another superintends the sawmills, another the waterworks, and so on. These men are responsible for the part of the work they look after.
They form the executive, but the government is in the hands of the people, effectively and simply, although with no machinery of government whatever. Once a week all persons both men and women who have reached years of mature understanding, crowd into the school house [to hold a sobranya or ‘meeting’] and discuss the affairs of the community. At these meetings, according to the popular sentiment, the managers of each department are given their instructions.
Should one of the managers ever be guilty of doing something wrongly he is required to make an explanation and allowed to clear himself if he is able. But if not, one of the electors, if you can call them such, may propose another man, and the case is disposed of on its merits. No definite time is specified at the appointment of an officer, but he holds office as long as he does his work well. This is the initiative, referendum and recall system without the cumbersome machinery in use at the present day.
There is no police force at Brilliant, and none is needed. Every man is so loyal to this community that misdemeanors are practically unknown. As no one possesses anything to the exclusion of others, there is no stealing. If anyone should do wrong, however, he is dealt with by the society.
Land Worked in One Piece
In tilling the land it is all done in one piece. There are no divisions of the whole 2,900 acres as far as that is concerned. Men are put to work on whatever task they are best suited for and may be changed to another more congenial to them if it means greater efficiency. Thus some are at work in the fields, others in the sawmills and others at carpenter work. Should any man display a lazy disposition he is put to work tidying up the garden round the house, and if he does not keep it spic and span he will suffer derision at the hands of his comrades. But such a penalty is seldom necessary because of the intense interest taken by everyone in the welfare of the colony.
Two Big Sawmills
Two big sawmills are kept busy all the time at Brilliant, and have seen busier day in the early life of the settlement. There, the logs that were taken from the land in preparation for the fruit trees coming, were sawn up into hundreds of thousands of railway ties and shipped all over the country. In connection with the sawmills, where, also, all lumber needed for the buildings is turned out, there is a planing mill. Finished lumber is made there, and mouldings, indistinguishable from the product of a big factory, are manufactured. There is also a joiner’s shop, and all tables, chairs and furniture used in the houses are made by Doukhobor labor there. More than this, window frames have been turned out, but for economy’s sake they are not bought.
In the high parts of the territory the guide will point to two immense reservoirs, big concrete tanks containing water. These, he will explain, are the nucleus of the irrigation system they are planning for the whole of their land. By and by when they have their pumping plant on the Kootenay in working order, the fields will be covered by a network of pipes giving water to the thirsty soil.
At the present time all is activity with the fruit trees, but when winter comes and work on the land ceases, electric light and power wires will be installed everywhere. In connection with the new pumping plant a generating station will be built to supply energy to the whole colony. You may ask the Doukhobor, on perceiving the high tension power wires of an electric company passing over the land, why he does not buy his power from the company. He will tell you that he prefers to be independent and generate it himself.
Overlooking nothing, a school-house of generous proportions has been built in the centre of the territory and was just opened during the present year. The settlement does not attempt to give education to all the children at once, but that will come in time. At present about one hundred young hopefuls are being taught in English and Russian, and show an avidity to learn often absent in English-speaking children. They look upon schooling as a privilege they must not abuse.
The Financial End
The material assets of the Doukhobors at Brilliant would do justice to many communities of larger size. The land was bought by Peter Verigin four years ago for $150,000 under an agreement for sale covering a number of years. There is yet a small balance left to be paid. The timber they sold gave them many thousands of dollars, part of which was used to pay for their land and part to bring others of their band from Canada and Russia. There are now 50 buildings of all kinds valued for the purpose of obtaining a loan at a conservative sum of $50,000. The two reservoirs and equipment are estimated for the same purpose to be worth $30,000. The largest sawmill is assessed at $15,000, and the new pumping and electric light plant is reckoned to need an outlay of $25,000. These figures were made by a bank valuator and are authentic.
To provide transportation across the Kootenay river a bridge is in the course of construction high up on the bank to allow vessels to pass under it. It will be of the suspension type. At present a ferry driven by a horses and windlass gives communication from bank to bank. There is also a ferry between the settlement and Kinnard on the Columbia river.
There are now 600 acres planted with fruit and the acreage is constantly increasing. The settlement has spread upon the banks of the Kootenay and down the Columbia river. In the course of time the whole of the Doukhobor sect in Canada and many more from Russia will have migrated to British Columbia, for it is the intention of those already there to assist their brethren to come out. With the warmer climate and the freedom they enjoy they are sure to prosper and help to develop the natural wealth of the province.
Born 1891 in Edinburgh, Scotland, James Lightbody emigrated to Canada in 1904. He started his newspaperman’s career in Winnipeg with the Tribune and Telegram. In 1911, he was briefly employed as a reporter with the Nelson Daily News. It was during this time that Lightbody visited Brilliant and wrote his article about the Doukhobor colony. It was perhaps as a result of the article’s successful syndication in several Vancouver and Victoria newspapers that he moved to Vancouver in 1913 to work as a reporter for the News Advertiser and Daily Province. In 1916, Lightbody began a 33-year career as publicity manager for the B.C. Electric Railway Company (later B.C. Electric), also serving on the executives of numerous civic and service organizations prior to his retirement in 1949. He died at age 96 in 1986.
It should be noted that at the time Lightbody visited ‘Brilliant’, the place name applied exclusively to the Doukhobor settlement in the Valley of Consolation (Dolina Utesheniya) on the southeast side of the Kootenay-Columbia confluence. The lands known as ‘Brilliant’ today on the northeast side of the confluence were only purchased by the Doukhobor Society in July 1912 – a month after Lightbody’s visit.
It is possible to trace the route of Lightbody’s visit to Brilliant in May 1912. After disembarking at the C.P.R. Brilliant Station, then the only building on the northeast side of the confluence, he walked a quarter mile southeast along the Doukhobor-built Pass Creek Road. After crossing the Kootenay River on the Doukhobor cable reaction ferry, he arrived at that part of the Valley of Consolation known as Kamennoye, where a sawmill and several large communal houses had been built and where a large irrigation pumping plant was under construction. He then traversed the length of the Valley of Consolation on the Doukhobor-built road which today forms parts of Ootischenia and Waterloo Roads. He passed by the Community meeting house known as the Belyi Dom (‘White House’) which at the time in 1912, briefly served as a public school. He then continued on to the former Waterloo mining camp which, at the time, served as the business and administrative centre of the Brilliant colony.
Lightbody’s article provides a fascinating snapshot of the state of agricultural and industrial development of Brilliant at the time. As of May 1912, there were 1,300 Doukhobors living on 2,900-acres in the Valley of Consolation. About half the acreage had been cleared, with 600 acres planted in fruit trees. The Doukhobors had not yet received any returns from the plantation, as the orchards would take another 7-10 years to reach full bearing. The Doukhobors had constructed two large concrete irrigation reservoirs on the second bench and a pumping station on the edge of the Kootenay River; this orchard irrigation system would be finally completed in 1926. However, in the meantime, a water pipeline for domestic purpose, sourced from mountain creeks, was already serving the Doukhobor communal homes throughout the colony. Two sawmills (the Bol’shaya Pil’nya or ‘Large Sawmill’ at the edge of the second and third benches and the Malaya Pil’nya or ‘Small Sawmill’ in Kamennoye) were in operation, with a planer mill located at the former.
Lightbody explains the Doukhobors’ early history in Russia and initial settlement on the Prairies, and provides a fairly detailed account of their initial settlement at Brilliant, only four years after it occurred. He also describes the colony in glowing terms as a ‘Socialist Utopia’ where cash and divisions of property were absent, and where the communal ownership system enabled all persons to have their basic needs met, to be equal and to have a voice in the government and management of the colony. Lightbody clearly attributes the Doukhobors’ social structure as the basis upon which they were able to transform Brilliant from a forest to a garden oasis in only four short years.
In terms of financial arrangements, Lightbody notes that the Doukhobor Society purchased the 2,900 acres at the Valley of Consolation for $150,000.00 under an agreement for sale, whereby payments were made under installments over five years. Now in its fourth year, there was only “a small balance left to be paid.” He does not provide an updated value for the improved land; however, its value must have increased manifold. Lightbody does note that the chattel improvements to the colony equaled $95,000.00; almost two-thirds of the original purchase price of the land in 1912.
Lightbody’s article was highly-complimentary of the Doukhobors, precisely at a time when anti-Doukhobor sentiment was reaching a fevered pitch in the Kootenay and Boundary regions. This was primarily on account of the Doukhobors’ reluctance to send their children to public school, their refusal to register vital statistics, as well as perceptions about their large, unpaid labour force undercutting local wages and commodity prices. These various public grievances – real and perceived – culminated in the formation of the Royal Commission on Doukhobor Affairs in late August 1912, only three months after Lightbody’s visit. As such, his article stands out for its objectivity and insightful, fact-based analysis, in contrast to most highly-critical, opinion-based accounts of the Doukhobors that appeared in local newspapers at the time.