The Story of Saskatchewan and its People: The Doukhobors

by John Hawkes

Born in Aylesford, England in 1851, John Hawkes came to Western Canada in 1884, worked on the railroad, homesteaded near Percival, SK for a time and then ran for the North West legislature in 1888. In 1892, he moved to Whitewood, SK where he acted in many official capacities in addition to editing The Whitewood Journal from 1897 to 1900. In 1907, he was appointed the first official Legislative Librarian for Saskatchewan. In 1924, Hawkes published the impressive three-volume history of the province, “Saskatchewan and its People” (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company). The following excerpt from his book relates his personal observations and reminiscences of the Doukhobors of Saskatchewan.  He was one of the first historians to portray the Doukhobor story as part of the broader history and tradition of the province and its people.

In the fall of 1898, or 1899, I was returning officer in the Territorial election and I was returning officer for the district for which Wm. Eakins was then returned. The district extended to the Swan River. In the course of my work as Returning Officer I arrived at the old Fort Pelly. I got there about midnight after a pretty tough trip through the Coté Reserve. I was on wheels, but there was six inches of wet snow on the ground. Just as I drove into Pelly a wagon appeared, with wheels covered with snow and frozen mud. There were five occupants of the vehicle. After we had all been thawed out by Angus McBeth’s hospitable Hudson’s Bay fire (and something else) I found that the travellers in the wagon included Fred Fischer, a fine fellow, well known, who was assistant to the Indian Agent at Coté Reserve. He was acting as guide to some Doukhobor delegates, one of whom was a Russian Prince [Khilkov], a follower of Tolstoi. The other two were ordinary Doukhobors, big solemn fellows, but capable looking. It appears that the Russian Dowager Empress had interested herself on their behalf, and the Russian Doukhobors were given leave to emigrate. They had been harassed for generations, as they preferred martyrdom rather than accept military service, which was against their religious principles, and even the Cossacks had got tired of persecuting them without results. The Doukhobors had first selected the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean as their objective, but finding it unsuitable, they had decided to take a look at the Canadian West. Hence the delegates in the wagon with Fred Fischer.

Doukhobor woman drawing a pail of water from a well, c. 1899.  Library and Archives Canada PA-022227.

They were looking for running water, wood and good soil, and they were not particular where it was as they intended to live within themselves. Suitable locations far from railways or projected railways (at that time) were found at Swan River, east and west of the Assiniboine, between the present Kamsack and Togo; Devil’s Lake, south of the present Buchanan on the Canadian Northern Railway; Stony Creek, Two Creeks, and other points farther west, with which I was not familiar. The following spring large numbers of Doukhobors arrived at Yorkton. Mr. Creerar, Immigration Agent at Yorkton, took charge. I only assisted for a few weeks, but travelling on other work both winter and summer kept me in touch with them. McGreavy was Commissioner of Immigration at that time and took great interest in them, earning thereby the name of “Doukhobor Bill.”

Large log buildings were erected as depots between Yorkton and Pelly for the use of the immigrants as they were moved out to their different reservations. The Doukhobors were a big, stolid lot of people, vegetarians who would not kill anything or eat even eggs, claiming that eggs were embryo “chickens.” Neither would they use butter or grease, claiming that the milk and cream were intended for the calves, and grease could be got from dead animals; yet notwithstanding all this they were a very sturdy and hardy lot of workers. Finally they all arrived and were settled in villages.

Their houses and buildings were well built of logs and clay, a fact that is partly accounted for by many of the Doukhobors being skilled mechanics. The houses in the villages were in double rows with stables, etc. behind, and wide streets between the rows. The buildings were white-washed, and there were net fences; trees were planted in front of the houses and there were good gardens. Of course this was not done all at once. The villages were connected with good roads, many miles in length; and the Doukhobors were the first to have telephones between the villages, long distances apart of course, but built, owned and operated by themselves.

Road building on the Doukhobor community estate, Veregin district, Saskatchewan, 1918. Library and Archives Canada PA-022237.

Their system of government consisted in electing three councillors [elders] in each village who were invested with supreme control. They could marry and even divorce couples who were found incompatible. By the way, a test case was tried at Yorkton to ascertain if these divorces by the councillors were legal. It was ruled that they were not, and if the divorced parties married again, which they generally did, they committed bigamy under our laws. This put a stop to the divorces.

The intention of the Doukhobors was to live as a nation within a nation, and make their own laws, living entirely to themselves. They claimed they were “God’s chosen people.” They gave great trouble when the census was taken in 1901; they resisted the registration of births, deaths and marriages, and giving their reason for refusing information, they said “God knew it and it was nobody else’s business.” Neither would they make individual entry for their homesteads. They would not take the necessary oaths and claimed they were a community and had nothing to do with individualism. As nobody wanted the lands, which were first class, but too far from the railroad, or likely to want them for years till a railway appeared, they were not disturbed at first, but this could not be permitted to go on indefinitely; and finally they had to throw up their homesteads. They purchased the intermediate railway lands adjacent to their homesteads, getting, however, some concessions where the villages were situated. A considerable number, however, of the younger men, withdrew from the community and became independent Doukhobors. These men had knocked about the country working for farmers, and had imbibed some independent ideas. They got tired of throwing their wages into a pool, and getting very little out of it, for the Councillors divided the money, or its equivalent, according to the size of the families.

A [Community] Doukhobor could not personally own a house, or a cow or a calf or anything else, although purchased with their own money. This became very galling to those who had gone about and learned something of modern ideas, and many withdrew from the community and entered for homesteads in accordance with the regulations. Like many Indians, some of these learned more of the white man’s vices than his virtues; they not only ate meat, but drank whiskey, smoked and even swore, of course in English as there were no swear words in Doukhobor. However, they became excellent citizens as a rule. The older people and some of the younger, making a majority of the whole, stood fast to the old order.

The Doukhobors were at first very poor. Count Tolstoi had financed their passages out [of Russia] and some assistance was given from the Dominion Government, but all the fit men had to go to work, leaving the old men and women and children in the villages. They had at first no oxen or horses, but got ropes and strong young women hauled the plows with the old men between the handles. This was done principally for gardens, and not on a large scale.

Doukhobor railway construction crew, 1907. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Amongst other activities the Community took the contract to grade the Grand Trunk Pacific branch from Yorkton to Canora which meant thirty miles through a country a good deal of which was low and wet and alkaline. They made a good job of it and earned a lot of money between seeding and haying. Of course there were a great number of them to do it but the labor was well organized and the work was systematically carried out. Other Doukhobors undertook to grade some of the wet parts of the Canadian Northern between Dauphin, Manitoba, and Prince Albert, Sask., being a job that others would not accept or take hold of at any price. The Doukhobors drained the muskegs, cut the sod with spades and carried the “dirt” to the dumps in hand barrows. They got a good price per cubic yard, and they worked from daylight to dark and they made a lot of money. With this money the farms were equipped. Their living was cheap and they saved most of their earnings, and they certainly were a hard-working, happy and contented lot, both men and women. They were very religious, being literal interpreters of the Old Testament; they had prayers night and morning, and sang hymns at their work; withal they were very courteous and hospitable and would take no money for accommodation, as I frequently had to discover, but a gift to the children was allowed.

A change came over [some of] them, however. Some fanatics worked them up to fever heat. They were “God’s special children,” and God would take care of them. They should not work animals or use them in any way as they were the Almighty’s, and so on. So, many of them turned their stock loose, and hauled all their implements and wagons by hand, long strings of them being thus employed. They discarded all leather and woolen clothing, because it came from animals, and wore linen garments and rubber shoes. Some discarded all clothing, not from any immorality or immodesty, as they were wrongfully considered to do by the general public, who did not know them, but because they were following the example of the Garden of Eden. Finally large bodies [in 1902] started on the tramp “looking for Jesus.” One known as “John the Baptist” headed them as they moved slowly and solemnly along. At night they slept in the bluffs if they found any, and they gleaned their food from the fields. Their mournful dirges as they moved along could sometimes be heard for a couple of miles off. Day after day they travelled on, suffering great hardships, till they reached Minnedosa in Manitoba. By this time the weather had become severe; and the authorities now without much trouble, were able to round them up, put them into box cars on the railroad and take them back to where they started from. John the Baptist, however, protested vigorously, but he was gently lifted up and with others, deposited in a box car which was locked. The Doukhobors would not fight, as it was against their principles, but they showed they were very good wrestlers. The most violent were herded and fed west of Yorkton [in Orcadia] for awhile; the bulk went quietly back to their villages, some of the ringleaders who had broken the law, were taken to Regina Barracks; and some, who were visibly unbalanced were sent to an asylum. There was subsequently another march [in 1907] which took them to Fort William in New Ontario, but stronger measures were now used and they were returned.

Doukhobor pilgrims leaving Yorkton to evangelize the world, 1902.  Library and Archives Canada C014077.

Peter Veregin, the real leader of the Doukhobors, was an exile in Siberia, but he was liberated, and came out and took charge. He was looked upon [by his followers] as the Almighty’s Vice-regent and by the more superstitious was supposed to have supernatural powers, one of which was the gift of All-seeing. The Doukhobors obeyed him readily and he got them into line again after their bursts of fanaticism, and they got a new start. Soon after this the railways reached the Doukhobor reserves. The lands were first class and although no one else would look at them when the Doukhobors first took them up because they were so distant from a railway, yet now those lands were looked upon with envious eyes, and the trouble began to which a previous reference has been made, with the result that the Doukhobors who had hitherto been unmolested, although they had not made entry according to law, were now obliged to throw up their homesteads, as they would not consent to individual ownership.

Veregin is a great organizer, but a benevolent autocrat. He had to be supreme, but he ruled wisely. He purchased car loads of machinery including a modern flour mill which was erected at “Veregin”. Veregin is just west of Kamsack, and in the centre of the settlements consisting of numerous villages along the Assiniboine River, Stony Creek, and White Sand River. A good store was established with modern office equipment. Any one could buy at this store but no tobacco or meats were stocked or sold. You could buy biscuits or crackers as they were manufactured but if you wanted butter it was sent out for and presented to you. Steam plows were largely used and great stretches of land were cultivated and the Doukhobors became great producers. They again had horses and cattle, all of good quality and kept in fine condition, but they were seriously handicapped when they had on principle, to abandon their homesteads. As previously stated a good many deserted the community and some of the villages had to be abandoned, as the “Independents” who had taken up their individual homesteads built on their farms.

Veregin, desiring to retain his supremacy, now arranged with the British Columbia Government for fruit and farm lands, and sent out an advance party [in 1908], and after this party had erected houses and planted trees Veregin moved a large number of the Doukhobors to B. C.

Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin, 1922. Library and Archives Canada PA-030798.

He had lived in great state near Veregin. He had a fine large house, with all modern conveniences including a Turkish bath. He generally drove about with his secretary and three or four handmaidens in a swell democrat [buggy] with four to six horses, acknowledging the bows of his subjects with great dignity. I have no doubt that he now has his limousine of the best; but the people are not as much in awe of him in these later years.

He has however, great power yet, and being a very able man and really devoted to the welfare of the Doukhobors as long as they recognize him as their Lord and Master, there can be no doubt he has done good service.

It is a noteworthy fact that no Community Doukhobor has ever been brought before the Courts of Justice. I believe the Doukhobors are quite sincere, and have a practical belief in the Brotherhood of Man, which belief they live up to. 

During the [First World] war they, of course, took no part in it, but they sent at least one carload of jam from British Columbia for the Canadian soldiers and if I remember correctly they presented several carloads of wheat from their farms in Saskatchewan.

I remember a couple of incidents which will give some insight into the character of this peculiar people.

Driving from Pelly to Saltcoats with my foreman (I was engineering a steel bridge across the Assiniboine River) I put up at a Doukhobor village where we got the best of treatment. Early in the morning I visited the stable, and found my foreman surrounded by several young Doukhobor inquisitors.

I overheard the following, but missed what had been said previously. Doukhobor to foreman: Tobacco smoke you? “Yes”. Oh, bad, ver’ bad. Whiskey drink you? “Yes”. “Oh, ver’ ver’ bad”; and they all scampered away doubtless under the impression that we natives were a very bad lot. They had given us of their best; everything was clean and tidy and they had made us very comfortable, yet on our offering them money they as usual shook their heads and said with smiles “All brothers”. I however left a dollar or so where they could find it.

The other incident was of a different nature. The Two Creek Village [probably Terpeniye, a Doukhobor village located in the Two Creek rural school district north of Wroxton, SK] was some twelve or fourteen miles north of the Galician [West Ukrainian] settlement which the Austrian Consul named after myself. The trail to Langenburg, another twenty-five miles, passed by a place of a Galician who was partly blind, and not able to go out to work. He had however a very energetic wife who went out to work, and earned enough to keep the pot boiling. A little girl of ten or twelve completed the family. The man managed somehow to cut and carry poles and together they built a very neat little house, finished with clay, and well whitewashed and some outbuildings were also erected. During their second year they had actually four acres in crop all spaded and hand-raked, and well fenced, as well as a good garden. A team [of horses] of any kind had never been on the place, except one was hired to bring supplies or seed, and which was bought by the woman with her earnings. They had a pig or two and some hens. All the work on the farm was literally done by hand. The crop, a good one, was cut with the sickle and threshed out with a flail on a clay platform, and the grain was cleaned by throwing it up in the wind.

Doukhobor ox cart, c. 1900.  Library and Archives Canada C-007815.

The Doukhobors evidently had noticed what these poor people were doing to make an honest living and they knew of the man’s disability through his partial blindness. They must have talked things over among themselves, for one day three stalwart Doukhobors arrived leading a pair of steers, and a heifer fresh calved. They called the Galicians to the gate and with courteous bows, asked them to accept the cattle from the Doukhobors as a brotherly gift to deserving people. The languages are different, but have something in common and I believe Galicians and Doukhobors can make themselves understood fairly well. The Galicians were very much surprised and very grateful. The ropes on the cattle were put into the hands of the Galicians and the Doukhobors, bowing and raising their caps departed quietly on foot to their village. I happened to be an eye witness of this incident. I realized what was going on, although I did not understand the language; and I thought to myself, “These people may be ill-informed and peculiar, but they practice what they preach and one cannot help but respect them.”