With the Doukhobors to Canada

by Vera Mikhailovna Velichkina

Vera Mikhailovna Velichkina (1868-1918) was the daughter of a Moscow clerical family. In 1891, she broke out of the family circle to join Tolstoyans organizing famine relief among the starving peasants of Central Russia. In 1892, she immigrated to Switzerland where she studied medicine and met her future husband, Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Dmitryevich Bonch-Bruevich. They remained abroad until 1899, when Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy asked them to escort the fourth boatload of Doukhobors to Canada. To this end, Velichkina and Bonch-Bruevich (along with several other sympathizers) sailed from England aboard the SS Lake Huron to pick up the Doukhobors at Batoum. They disembarked at Constantinople to buy provisions for the sea crossing while the ship continued to Batoum. They rejoined the ship as it passed through Constantinople on its way to Canada with the Doukhobors on board. The crossing, their quarantine on Grosse Ile near Quebec City and the rail journey across Canada to Manitoba are described in detail by Velichkina in a series of three articles published in the Russian paper “Russkie Vedomosti” in May 1900. The English translation of this valuable historical material is reproduced by permission from Woodsworth, John, Ed. and Trans., “Russian Roots & Canadian Wings, Russian Archival Documents on the Doukhobor Emigration to Canada” Canada/Russian Series. Vol. I. (Toronto: Penumbra Press, 1999).

I. At Sea

On the morning of the 3rd (15th) of May [1899] we finally received word that our ship, the Lake Huron, was approaching Constantinople. We had spent the past ten days in Constantinople buying provisions for the ship, and the long wait in this dirty Asian metropolis was terribly annoying, all the more so since we so much wanted to see the Doukhobors as soon as possible and begin our work with them. I was awfully glad when we went to the English consulate and saw there our captain and doctor and our other companions with whom we had spent two weeks en route to Constantinople.

Doukhobor sympathizer Vera Mikhailovna Velichkina (1868-1918. Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, No. 533.

Approaching the Lake Huron by launch, we could see from some distance away that it was full of people. Upon boarding the ship, I felt a bit disoriented at first from being surrounded by so many people. Everyone had crowded onto the decks to have a look at the huge city spread out along the shore. Little boats pressed in all around the ship, from which all sorts of merchants carried on a shouting dialogue with the Doukhobors.

First of all I got acquainted with my colleague, field-nurse Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova (1859-1938). She had already accompanied the second boatload, and consequently was much more experienced than I in this matter. I must admit the first few days I was quite thrown by all the various inconveniences of the ship. For example, we had to prepare medicines not on a table but on a bed, which we both had trouble reaching, and so forth.

Apart from that, instead of relying on the ship’s pharmacy alone, she had equipped herself with various medicines and medical instruments from Russia, which turned out to be a wise decision. She showed me all our ‘treasures’. The ship’s pharmacy depressed me – it was so dirty, confining and ill-equipped.

Besides the two of us, there were two other escorts aboard: Vladimir Dmytrevich Bonch-Bruevich (1873-1955) and Alexander Nikolayevich Konshin (1867-1912), along with a fifteen-year-old boy [Sasha Bodyansky], being sent by his father with us to America. We at once seconded him to be our assistant. His duties included seeing to the proper ventilation of the holds, which he carried out most properly.

After looking over the ship I went to the upper deck to get acquainted and talk with the Doukhobors. I was immediately surrounded by women asking questions. One very old woman who, as I found out later, already had a great-great–grandson, invited me to sit down and have dinner with them, but of course I wasn’t able to do that right there and then.

We left Constantinople toward evening.

The next day Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova and I set off on a medical inspection tour of the ship. She had already learnt her way around on the leg of the trip from Batoum to Constantinople, and pointed out to me the people that were ill. We got along rather well with the English doctor. At first he did hardly any work at all, and it was only during the second half of the crossing that he caught on to our example and set about his work in earnest. He made no inspection tours of his own and came down only when I told him that someone was seriously ill.

Initially we had a conflict with him over the medications and the bandaging materials. He wore me out with his long diatribes on medical practice aboard ship and how to deal with ‘this class of people’. He especially protested against the treatment of chronic illnesses. But what should one do about all these chronic sores when the voyage was going to go on for twenty-eight days? One could not, in fact, leave them unbandaged. He kept asking me to listen to him as a ‘senior colleague’: ‘If you constantly respond to every complaint, this class of people will make you their slaves. And what will happen when you go under yourselves – then they’ll all be without your help’, and so on.

Notwithstanding all these reservations, we did have access to anything that was to be found on the ship, and were quite free to go about our work. There was an unusually large number of chronically ill people aboard, since the other parties [on the previous ships] had been reluctant to take them with them, as they were travelling in the wintertime when the seas were rough.

There were a lot of old men in particular in our party. Initially, of course, there were not many acutely ill, although dysentery began rather early [in the voyage]. It did not take on any threatening character on the ship. The drinking water-the most important issue on a sea voyage-was always satisfactory.

Doukhobors aboard SS Lake Huron, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01448.

During the first few days, until I had got used to the ship, Efrosinya Dmitryevna and I made our inspection rounds together twice a day – morning and night. We checked those who were ill, and carried with us everything essential for first aid (cognac, liquid ammonia and a few other medications), noted down any who were weak and needed a better diet, and looked into the various other needs of the Doukhobors. We either brought the prescribed medicines ourselves later, or the patients’ relatives came to the clinic for them. Our young assistant looked after the distribution of milk, eggs, coffee, lemons etc. After the morning tour we busied ourselves in the clinic up until the mid-day meal, after which we would bandage patients with chronic sores. By and by, to save time, we began making our rounds separately, dividing the ship into two parts. Our patients were increasing in number and time was something to be treasured.

Not long afterward a minor incident occurred, after which our doctor significantly softened his attitude toward the Doukhobors and stopped arguing over their medication. Once, while Efrosinya Dmitryevna and I were bandaging one seriously ill woman, he came into the cabin to see her. Earlier he had tried to persuade us to change the bandages less frequently, as she was not going to get better in any case, and she required a lot of time and bandaging materials. But the poor woman told us that without the bandages she suffered terribly. Her whole leg from top to bottom was infected with tuberculosis… Her lungs, too, were seriously infected, so that we had little hope of keeping her alive to the end of the trip, and in fact she passed on a few days after our arrival in Canada.

No sooner had the doctor begun to expound on the need to save bandaging material than the patient suddenly grasped his arm, and, pointing at her heart, kept repeating: Khoroshii, Khoroshii! [Good, good!] She very much wanted to tell him herself how much she appreciated his kindness and the good he had done for her. The doctor, of course, did not understand and turned to me. I explained what was going on. As it happened, I had sent her a jar of preserves that very morning, and she thought it had come from him, and wanted to thank him herself. I did not attempt to explain the misunderstanding to her, as I always wanted to establish good relations with the staff, and told the doctor that I would send her other things in his name. The doctor was completely bewildered and embarrassed and ran off. A few minutes later he returned and brought us new bandaging materials, splendid and soft.

This comic incident happened during a time when we were isolating patients. There were quite a few among the Doukhobors who suffered from Caucasian fever, and the doctor was so afraid of any kind of infection that he endeavored to put anyone with a high temperature into immediate isolation. The Doukhobors had no understanding of why contagiously ill patients should be isolated. They did not raise a protest; they simply did not understand.

At one point the doctor discovered a healthy eighteen-year-old lad with a slight temperature and decided to isolate him in the hospital cabin. His wife, whom he had only recently married, had absolutely no wish to leave her husband in the cabin alone. At first the doctor was quite unwilling to allow her to stay with him on the grounds that she would be taking up an extra patient bed. After long negotiations, I suggested that if all the beds were occupied, she could lie on the floor… Finally the doctor agreed.

The doctor staunchly defended the sanctity of his hospital cabins. When I came back to see the isolated patient an hour later, I found, to my horror, a whole crowd of female visitors in his cabin. The next day our patient seemed quite well and the doctor, after seeing him and checking his temperature, decided to release him. We went to the cabin (as an interpreter, I always accompanied the doctor) and found there neither the patient nor his wife; in their place we found his sister sitting there with her baby. She responded to our query by saying: ‘It’s all right – I’m part of their family’. We looked at one another and burst out laughing.

Two babies were born during the voyage – a boy and a girl. The girl was born first, and the crew asked that the ship’s name be attached to hers. Accordingly, I called her Anna-Hurona. Good weather prevailed for almost the whole time. There was little rocking, and then only crossing the ocean. The Doukhobors were a little afraid of the ocean; it always seemed that a storm might blow up such as the storms they heard about in letters from the first party (we were the fourth boatload) and that they would be rocked to pieces.

Doukhobors aboard SS Lake Huron, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01434.

We started across the ocean and nothing terrible happened. Many were ill, but not from seasickness. Our workload kept increasing, however, so that we had scarcely any time to talk with the Doukhobors or read to them, as we had expected. If we happened to catch a free moment here and there, most of the time we would gather around Petr Verigin’s elderly mother, upon whom the Doukhobors bestowed special care and respect. She was always surrounded by the more intelligent Doukhobors, who would tell us about their lives, about their plans for the future, and sing or recite their psalms. For our part we would read this dear woman letters from her sons, which she never tired of hearing.

Upon arising in the morning on the ninth day out, we were greeted by the sad news that a five-year-old girl had died. I was astounded, as I had not known a single seriously ill child on the ship. It turned out that this girl had been completely paralyzed with an abnormal skull, and had been close to death for some time, to the point where her parents no longer asked for help for her but only awaited her final passing from day to day. This was the first death on the ship, not counting the death of a mentally-ill girl who had been brought aboard in a terminal state and died a few hours after our departure from Batoum.

The girl was buried that afternoon. The weather was splendid and clear, the sea was completely calm. The Doukhobors had been singing over her from early morning, and a sense of hopelessness permeated their monotone singing. The Doukhobors took it very hard when someone died on the ship – it was sad for them to cast their loved ones into the sea, where no one would ever know their graves. As a rule, they react to death very calmly.

It was a solemn moment when the father himself took his deceased daughter into his arms to cast her into the sea. Her mother walked behind, all in tears. All the Doukhobors sang. They let her down gradually on a rope to the water’s surface, and then, still singing psalms, calmly lowered her into the sea. One of the Doukhobors stepped forward and began to recite a psalm in a clear, distinct voice. Then voices were once more raised in song. At this point the child’s mother herself tearfully recited a prayer. This was followed by still more singing-now no longer about death – and the clear blue Mediterranean sky reflecting the dark azure of the waves – all this, it seemed, was speaking only of eternal, deathless life and reconciliation with earthly death. The heavy feeling of oppression had been lifted from the heart. At the end of the ceremony the father bowed to those around him and thanked them for their compassion.

Six people altogether died on the voyage. In addition to the two already mentioned, there was a very elderly lady (an epileptic), and then another elderly lady who had been ill for a long time with liver-disease. She was an amazingly bright individual; I knew her and looked after her meals. She died very suddenly, for on the morning of the same day she was feeling so good that she even wanted to go up on deck. Her husband felt devastated by her death, and even I went under and spent a whole day lying in bed in my cabin. The next to die was the lady with tuberculosis of the leg, whom I mentioned earlier. And toward the very end of the voyage, just as we were approaching Canada, a seven-year-old boy passed on with a serious case of pneumonia.

Toward the end of the journey we began smallpox vaccinations. Right at this time a little girl took sick; her temperature was constantly above normal. The Doukhobors, understandably, suspected an infection, all the more so since rumours were going round of smallpox on the ship. The Doukhobors didn’t come to us – they greatly feared a quarantine, since, under the terms of the ship’s charter, it would cost them dearly. And any delay in their journey would be very unpleasant for them, as they were in a hurry to get established on their sites.

The first to express her suspicions was Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova – the girl was her patient. I told the doctor, since isolation of contagiously ill patients came under his jurisdiction and he bore official responsibility for the spread of disease. The doctor, who was busy with the smallpox vaccinations, did not pay much attention to our assertions, and only as we approached the quarantine site did he isolate the patient. Both he and I realized that we were dealing with a mild form of actual smallpox. But he told me he was not completely sure, and asked me to pass that information on, and to tell the mother it was chicken-pox.

Launch approaching Doukhobors aboard SS Lake Huron, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection, C-01516.

During these last days before arriving [at Quebec] one of my patients, a child, was dying of pneumonia. I left the rest of the ship in the hands of my kind and experienced colleague and devoted almost my whole time to the poor boy. The people’s health began to improve a little, now that we had crossed the ocean. The child died that evening, on the eve of our arrival. To the great comfort of his mother and family, he was not cast into the sea, but brought to the island where the quarantine was set up. We sailed in not with the yellow flag, which would have signalled trouble, but with the ordinary ship’s flag.

Some time after the quarantine inspectors boarded the ship, our doctor approached me and asked me to say, if I were questioned, that the girl had just taken ill the day before yesterday. I did not wish to lie, but neither did I want to put the doctor in an awkward position, so I did not leave my cabin. But one of our escorts, Alexander Nikolayevich Konshin, told the chief quarantine inspector what her mother had said, that the girl had taken ill nine days ago. This was most unpleasant for the ship’s doctor. The smallpox was immediately ascertained, of course, and a state of quarantine was declared. They took the girl and her mother away to hospital on a small quarantine boat. But before this they took my young patient to the cemetery. This was our first gift to Canada. The smallpox was the second.

We were all almost completely convinced that there were other cases of smallpox on board, carefully hidden by the Doukhobors. There was no longer any reason to hide them: the ship was to be detained in any case, no matter how many sick people there were. We went to see the elderly Verigina and asked her to use her influence to have all the cases of smallpox brought to us. And in fact this was done. It turned out that there were thirteen cases of smallpox among the Doukhobors. But (oh God!) what a frightful appearance was presented by two little girls that were brought to us! The smallpox had already covered half their bodies, and they had been covered up with clothing in that condition for nine days so they wouldn’t be seen. After that six sailors had fallen ill. Fortunately, no one died from the smallpox, and no new cases appeared during the quarantine.

They began taking people onto the island, starting with the sick [children] and their fathers and mothers. The quarantine boat was obliged to make many trips to and fro. Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova was taken along with the patients.

We were vaccinated at this time, along with all the officers. Then began the disembarkation and the transfer of both passengers and baggage to the quarantine site. The whole procedure took four days, as the operation had to be halted on occasion for more than half a day because the rough water prevented the little boat from approaching the Lake Huron. These days were frightfully exhausting for us, and so I breathed a sigh of relief as I left the Lake Huron with the last party, hoping to get a bit of rest in quarantine. The crew stayed on board, intending to wait out the quarantine period on the ship.

Toward the end I had some rather serious disputes with the doctor and the captain regarding the smallpox. They began sharply criticizing the Doukhobors for hiding the ones who were sick. I was so depressed at hearing their blistering – and for the most part unjust – attacks on the Doukhobors, whom I had grown quite attached to during the voyage, that I was unable to restrain myself and started defending them. I said that in a situation like this it would be difficult to blame anyone in particular, but if anybody were to blame, it would be [any] doctors who allowed such a disease to spread. In this case I myself did not hold the English doctor morally responsible, since he was not able to enter into direct communication with the Doukhobors. That left just me; but I had never taken upon myself any administrative or police duties and therefore did not hold myself responsible for the smallpox, except in the sense that I had not sufficiently earned the Doukhobors’ trust that they themselves would tell me about their diseases. For this I was prepared to take full responsibility, and, if necessary, to say so in print.

The captain and the doctor were very embarrassed, and began apologizing for their harshness toward the Doukhobors. They told me they would certainly not allow me to take sole responsibility for the smallpox, but would willingly share it with me. We parted on the best of terms.

II.    In Quarantine

The quarantine where we were to spend twenty-one days was situated on a rather large island named Grosse lle (about 4 miles [approx. 6.5 km] long), lying at the mouth of the St-Lawrence River, about 35 kilometers from Quebec City. What a paradise it seemed to us after the ship! Even before disembarking we admired the picturesque group of Doukhobor women and children who had gone to the island first and who had spread themselves out along the shore to wash all their clothing and underwear in the water – finally, fresh water! The little children took great delight in playing and running through the grass around their mothers.

Pier at Grosse Ile, Quebec. It was here where Vera M. Velichkina and the 2,286 Doukhobors aboard the SS Lake Huron disembarked for quarantine. Library and Archives Canada PA-046795.

In the meantime a ceremonial welcome awaited our party in Quebec. Representatives of earlier Doukhobor emigrants had come, along with delegates from the Philadelphia Quaker committee. But they were not allowed to meet with us. Three Doukhobors came to see us in quarantine and stayed with our party for the whole month, while the Quakers sent a welcoming letter to Grosse Ile, expressing fervent brotherly sympathy and concluding with the following words:

As we said earlier, we wanted to meet you upon arrival here, and let you know, as representatives of the religious Society of Friends, about the sympathy the Society feels toward you and to express our Society’s compassion for your trials and losses, and to do as much as lies within our power to help you with your needs. Not being allowed to see you at the moment, we commit you to the Lord’s keeping, believing that He will make all things work together for good to them that love and honour Him, and that He will be praised through the patience in tribulations shown by those who are His children…

‘Your friends: Joseph Elkinton, William Evans.’

The Doukhobors responded to the Quakers with a letter of their own, which reads in part:

The Lord save you, dear brethren, for the love [you have shown] by corning to meet us as your brethren of faith in Christ, and by laying down your life for your brother and your neighbour. May you be recompensed in a measure overflowing with heavenly and earthly gifts from the omnipotent hand of the heavenly Father. … We ask the same Lord and all kind people to forgive us our iniquities by which we have hurt innocent people through our intemperance and our uncertainty. And we ask you, dear friends, to convey our heartfelt greeting to all the brothers and sisters living in Philadelphia in the United States who believe in Christ, the Saviour of our souls.

‘With love from the Christians of Universal Brotherhood now in quarantine on Grosse Ile, and members of this Community: Semen Chernov, Pavel Planidin, Semen Vereshchagin.

Part of the island, about a kilometre square, had been sectioned off for the ship’s passengers. At the other end of the island was a general hospital and the smallpox dormitory. Most of the island was covered with a splendid forest. In the middle of it stood the employees’ houses and the house of the quarantine director, Dr. Martineau. At our end of the island there were eight large, bright dormitories and a fairly spacious old kitchen, which was not being used as in addition to that there was a new kitchen with well-appointed stoves and pantries. Besides the kitchen, the Doukhobors could use the bakery to make bread and in one of the dormitories there was even tap water, and bath-tubs.

Those escorting the party and the ship’s crew were housed in a splendid large building called an hotel, which was divided, like the ship, into first and second classes, with rooms appointed in the fashion of ships’ cabins. At first the crew hoped that they could spend the quarantine period on the ship itself, but this proved inconvenient, and a few days after us they moved in. This rather restricted the Doukhobors, since they were no longer able to freely come and see us in this building.

About twenty paces from the hotel were the quarters of the sergeant who ran this part of the island, and next door to them was a small room where smallpox vaccinations were administered. Next came the disinfection chambers, and beyond that was the cabin of an English physican, Dr. Church, whose whole job was the inspection of ships.

Quarantine hotel at Grosse Ile, Quebec. Library and Archives Canada C-079029.

There was no pharmacy nor walk-in clinic on this part of the island, nor was there any doctor to service them, since it was assumed that all serious cases of illness would be treated at the hospital. During the quarantine I became convinced even more than on the ship of how important it was to equip one’s self with all kinds of medications and instruments.

Upon my arrival on the island, I went to see the chief physician of the district, Dr. Montizambert, suggesting that I carry on my work during the quarantine. He was very happy [about this] and said that everyone would gladly help me if I needed it.

As to the medications, I was obliged to go see our quarantine director, Dr. Martineau. I immediately made up a list of required medications and bandaging materials – a rather modest list – and while my requests were never directly refused, what I got was either not delivered on time, or delivered in such small quantities or in such a disordered state that I have never, anywhere, suffered so much from a lack of medicines as on Grosse Ile. I had, for example, [to deal with] a multitude of minor surgical cases – bums, cuts etc., and in response to my request for bandaging materials I received a huge quantity of cotton batten and only three bandages. Then several people showed up with a rash; I prescribed sulphuric ointment, and they sent me two ounces… During the second half of our stay in quarantine I began ordering medicines from Quebec myself, but this did not happen often.

The individual smallpox vaccinations began right from the first day the Doukhobors began setting foot on the island. No official interpreter had yet been brought in; [Alexander Nikolayevich] Konshin. had his hands full looking after the Doukhobors’ living arrangements, and so right from that very first morning I offered to help the quarantine doctors in this work. […]

After the vaccinations the quarantine doctors made their daily rounds of all the dormitories, seeing to it that sanitary regulations were being observed and watching for the appearance of new cases of smallpox, which, thankfully, didn’t happen.

Then a curious incident took place. The quarantine authorities were not quite sure that the Doukhobors’ escorts had not taken part in covering up the smallpox on the ship. At one point Montizambert expressed his doubt to Konshin, adding, half-jokingly, that this was subject to a fine of 800 dollars and six months in prison. Konshin told that to the Doukhobors. Then on one of my rounds I found in one of the dormitories a very lively meeting taking place. I asked what was going on.

‘Yes, haven’t you heard, Vera Mikhailovna, about the trouble that has befallen us?’ replied Pavel Planidin, one of the most influential Doukhobors in the party. The doctors say that because of us, because of our mistake, our escorts may be put in prison. We cannot allow that to happen, and we have got together and want to go to see the doctors. We’ll tell them to take all of us instead of the escorts, since they didn’t have anything to do with it. If we wish to hide (some-thing), nobody, not even the doctors, no matter how much they inspect the dormitories, will ever find anything.’ And in fact they followed through on their intention and spoke about this to Montizambert.

But the main activity of the quarantine doctors was, of course, the disinfection of all the baggage and the ship itself. They really had a lot of trouble doing this. Those accompanying the ship were also obliged to expend no little energy convincing the Doukhobors that this was essential, and that without disinfection of their baggage they would not be allowed to leave the island. Our party had brought a fair number of possessions with them, including reminders of their previous days of wealth, and the Doukhobors greatly feared that this would all be spoilt by the disinfection. There were many doubts, questions and negotiations at first, but then little by little the matter was resolved, the Doukhobors became convinced that everything would remain safe and unharmed, and not only did they calm down themselves, but they also tried to write letters to calm the fears of those who were in hospital. The latter, for their part, also wrote cheerful letters [back] to their relatives to the effect that nothing was been taken away from them or burnt, as they had previously supposed, but that on the contrary, their needs were being well looked after and the food was splendid. In fairness to the quarantine personnel, it must be said that they were actually very attentive and careful with the Doukhobors’ baggage. […]

Baggage already disinfected was identified by labels with the sign of a red cross. Here another misunderstanding arose. The Doukhobors were greatly troubled upon seeing the crosses and asked that a different sign be used. They apparently took these crosses as a violation of their religious beliefs. One of our escorts, Bonch-Bruevich went to see Montizambert and asked him to resolve the misunderstanding in some way. He replied that [the inspectors] were obliged to attach this label, but that if the Doukhobors didn’t like it they could scrape it off. The Doukhobors soon realized that there was no attempt to violate their beliefs here.

Doukhobors having a meal while in quarantine, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection C-01485.

I myself took no part in the disinfection and didn’t even have time to observe it… After receiving patients I made my rounds of the dormitories. I was almost never able to complete this before lunch, and so continued with it after lunch. Later, if there were no serious cases to attend to, I would go to my cabin to rest for a couple of hours, prepare medications and talk things over with my colleagues. Then before supper I would once again open the doors of my clinic, and make a second tour of the dormitories in the evening. But I doubt I was able to follow this schedule to the letter much of the time, especially when there was a lot of work.

My evening reception hours began stretching to almost 11 o’clock at night, so I tried to get in the second tour of the day somewhat earlier. When there were more serious cases, I would have to visit the more distant dormitories as often as three or four times a day. Often secondary activity -writing letters for the Doukhobors, mediating as an interpreter between them and the Canadians -would take [time] away from my purely medical work. I tried to avoid such activity as much as possible during the quarantine, since in addition to [Alexander Nikolayevich] Konshin, who had a good command of both English and French, we did have an official interpreter.

But the Doukhobors knew that I too spoke the language that was foreign to them, and they often turned to me for help in this.

Before long an epidemic of dysentery broke out on the island. It turned out that at one end of the island, not far from two dormitories which stood some distance off to one side, was an old blocked-off well, alongside a huge abandoned cemetery containing the graves of some 3,500 people who died on this island from cholera and smallpox in the 1840s.!! To avoid going further afield – i.e., to the river – the Doukhobors in these dormitories unblocked the well without telling anyone and began drawing drinking water from it. The quarantine guards noticed it two days later, but the dysentery had already managed to infect almost all the residents of these dormitories and spread even further. At one point there were so many people ill that it seemed that there were scarcely any healthy people left.

Even in that desperate situation I was constantly lacking the [needed] medicines… True, there were few fatal cases. Altogether we lost seven people during the quarantine. Five very old people died – one of them from dysentery, the rest simply of old age, without getting sick. Then a small child died of lung inflammation, and one middle-aged man from dysentery.

Finally Dr. Church offered to help me in all cases where there were complications. He was a very good, experienced physician who was really a great help and support for me at this difficult time. Sometimes during the worst weather and in the middle of the night he would go with me without a word of complaint, and I felt much calmer in the presence of such an experienced senior colleague. […]

At this time in the dormitory furthest away a child became sick with inflammation of the lungs, which required very careful attention. My own condition was such that upon seeing me, Montizambert at once suggested the hospital. He insisted that I send all the dangerously ill patients there. I objected, saying the Doukhobors would be most reluctant to agree to that. But he continued insisting, saying that I could no longer go on working in my condition, that I would faint from fatigue. ‘Qu ‘allons-nousfaire, si vous crevez de fatigue?’ [‘how are we going to make it, if you die of fatigue?’] he would say.

In the end Montizambert persuaded me to tell the Doukhobors that this was his order. Of course I realized that in the large, splendid hospital they would receive a hundred times better care than from me.

I selected three to be transferred: an old man, who was lying in the kitchen, the child with inflammation of the lungs, who had taken ill just the day before, and Larion Tarasov, who had a typhoid form of dysentery. As I had expected, they all agreed very reluctantly. And I felt sorry to send them away, simply wanting to save myself extra work. But on that same day [Efrosinya Dmitryevna] Khiryakova. was released from the smallpox dormitory and after disinfection she set about taking care of these patients in the hospital.

Grosse Ile with quarantine buildings in foreground. Library and Archives Canada C-079030.

The day went quietly, but the following night I was awakened and called to the telephone. Usually our telephone made the voices sound muffled during the day, but they were clear at night-time, and I heard Khiryakova’s voice distinctly telling me that Larion Tarasov had passed on, the child after him, and soon the old man would die. The relatives had to be notified.

These three deaths all at once were a sudden shock to me. I had to go to work as soon as day broke, but my former cheerfulness and energy were gone, and I was very glad when, after the old man’s death, Khiryakova returned to us and was able to share the load. I must admit that during these latter days of our quarantine I was quite willing to let her take care of the whole task of receiving patients. In the meantime the epidemic had subsided.

The quarantine itself was finally lifted, the doctors withdrew, but our party still remained on the island, as the trains that were to take us to the north-west were not yet ready, because of some national holiday the Canadians were celebrating. The Doukhobors were terribly bored and anxious to get out to their sites as quickly as possible. Finally a small ship was hired which was able to take our party to Quebec, one group at a time.

Again we went with the last party, having seen all the Doukhobors aboard. As they passed through a gate onto the ship, they had to hand in their certificates showing that they had been vaccinated and had taken a bath. Dr. Martineau carefully looked each one in the face as they walked by, so as not to let pass anyone with smallpox. We were obliged to be present at this inspection to resolve any misunderstandings that might arise.

The procedure did not pass without a few comic scenes. One woman, for example, had a child in tow whose face was covered in freckles, and Martineau looked at him suspiciously. Noticing this, the woman explained: ‘Konopatyi on [he is speckled/freckled], understand? Konopatyi!’ Of course neither Martineau nor even the interpreter understood the word konopatyi, and even I didn’t catch on at first. ‘Ko-no-PA–tyi!’ the woman repeated. General consternation.

Finally, after all the concerns and alarms, the last group ceremoniously thanked the doctors and boarded the boat, and we went along too. I must admit I felt a tinge of sadness at leaving the island, where I had done so much work and gone through so much for my patients, all the more so since I myself now had no idea where I was going, for how long, and what would be awaiting me in this new and unfamiliar land.

III. To Winnipeg

Ever so quietly, in a hushed silence, the last group of Doukhobors sailed into Quebec harbour at sunset time.

‘Why so quiet?’ asked the brethren who had come earlier, with some annoyance. It is the Doukhobors’ custom to approach the shores of a new homeland with psalm-singing, but our group had somehow forgotten about that, probably tired out from the day-to-day anticipation of our departure.

They had not even thrown the gangplank across when my colleague Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova and I were snatched off the ship over the railing. The Canadians were in a hurry to get acquainted with those escorting the Doukhobors.

Port of Quebec where the Doukhobors aboard the SS Lake Huron disembarked in 1899. Library and Archives Canada PA-031895.

The new arrivals were met by a Mr. P. Doyle – a government immigration agent – and a Mrs. Cornille, a middle-aged woman in charge of all arriving immigrant women and children, along with Mr. Elkinton, a man of senior years with a very kind face, wearing a traditional Quaker costume, who had come as a representative of the Philadelphia Quakers.

We went at once to the immigration facility, where Mrs. Cornille wanted to show us how she had accommodated the Doukhobors that had come earlier. The immigration facility was a rather large two-storey building. On the lower floor the Doukhobors were accommodated in a huge, clean hall with electric lighting. Two large rooms on the upper floor were also placed at their disposal, along with several individual rooms where Mrs. Cornille took the sick and infirm, [so that they would be] further away from the noise and bustle. We too were allotted rooms here. The whole building was surrounded with an awning, which also sheltered a crowd of Doukhobors. This was where the trains came in.

By the time we arrived, the third train loaded with Doukhobors was already waiting to depart. The whole space under the awning was filled with the sound of cheerful voices bidding good-bye. They would not be parting for long; they had nothing but bright hopes for the future; the ocean, the smallpox and all the troubles and sorrows of the trip were behind them, and a very happy mood prevailed on the railway platform.

But it was not long before we had occasion once more to despair. It had been expected that the Doukhobors would set out for the north-west on one train after another, as usual. But then they were detained several more days in quarantine as the railway coaches were not ready. Now it turned out that there weren’t enough coaches. The fourth train was delayed until the next day. And the last party was obliged to stay five whole days at Quebec, expecting their train literally hour by hour, day and night.

There were six trains all told. [Alexander Nikolayevich] Konshin left with the first train to get everything ready at our destination. After a couple of days Efrosinya Dmitryevna Khiryakova left us – we saw her off on her way back to St-Petersburg. Bonch-Bruevich and I went with the last train.

These days of waiting – right at the doorstep of the railway station, it could be said – were exhausting. The government did not let any outsiders into the immigration building except with an immigration agent’s permission, to keep the Doukhobors from losing their money. It soon became necessary, however, to limit the Doukhobors’ access to the city, as a result of several misunderstandings that occurred – a lot of them, still unfamiliar with Canadian coins, were being cheated out of their money in the city; two of them were almost run over by an electric tram, and so on. In addition, the Doukhobors bought a great deal of fruit, most of it spoilt, and the dysentery which had all but disappeared in the quarantine blew up again. But this time those who fell prey to the illness were healthy youths, and they didn’t have too much trouble coping with it,

It is only fair to say that the immigration agents – the senior agent Doyle in particular – were extremely attentive even to the most insignificant needs of the Doukhobors. The kind old gentleman stopped to chat with each woman and answer each one’s questions, calling me over to serve as an interpreter. He spent the whole day making the rounds of the immigration building, barely stopping for a bite to eat. Doyle took care of all our requests at once and was exceptionally attentive.

I had rather little to do here in the way of actual medical work, but there were more things to be taken care of than ever. The official interpreter departed with one of the trains, and I was left as the only intermediary between the Doukhobors and the Canadians. Apart from the purely business matters, there were many visitors whose curiosity needed satisfying. One wanted to know about the Doukhobors’ religion; another was interested in their crafts and wanted to buy some kind of souvenir; a third wished to ask about their trip. Bored as they were from the long wait, the Doukhobors themselves were not averse to chatting with this visitor or that. I was constantly besieged with all sorts of questions. At this time I was able to make a few acquaintances that served me well in my subsequent experience.

Immigration buildings, Quebec City, Quebec, c. 1899. Library and Archives Canada PA-020858.

The boarding of the trains was splendidly organized by Bonch-Bruevich. Each family knew ahead of time which coach to look for, and the actual boarding took but a few minutes. There were still some arrangements that needed to made for the baggage, however. And so, when the next-to-the-last train was about to depart, I was standing with Doyle in the doorway of the baggage-car, translating his instructions to the Doukhobors, when we noticed some commotion in the immigration hall. Thereupon a couple of Doukhobors came running up to me and said:

‘The Minister’s arrived, sister, he’s asking for you!’ There was nothing to do but to leave the loading of the baggage-car and go see ‘the Minister’.

It turned out that the President of the Parliament [sic!] had arrived with an entourage to meet the Doukhobors. I had occasion to show him my patients, and then to talk more about the Doukhobors, their beliefs and customs, etc. At this point in one of the upper rooms the Doukhobors were preparing a ceremonial reception for him- including a prayer service. Upon our arrival there, the president was greeted with psalm-singing. When this was over, he addressed the Doukhobors with words of welcome, saying on behalf of the Canadian people how glad he was to see them in his country, wished them a successful establishment in their new homeland, and promised to do everything he could to make all traces of the trials they had suffered disappear as quickly as possible.

The Doukhobors, for their part, in simple, warm phrases thanked the Canadians for accepting them in their midst, and the president personally for taking the trouble to come and meet them. After the speeches the Doukhobors continued to sing and recite their psalms, and I conveyed the content of their songs to him in a half-whisper. The president stayed more than an hour with the Doukhobors, but at last the ceremony was over and the train could get underway. We went a little way on it ourselves to count the number of passengers, and then a carriage took us back [to the immigration facility].

I was sincerely happy at the outing, as up until that time I had not once been out of the immigration building. Later I managed to get some free time to myself and have a look around the city. The Canadian doctors suggested I take a look at the university in Quebec.

Quebec is an old-fashioned, ugly city with dirty narrow streets. But I was impressed by the university. It is a relatively small building on some back street or lane. Besides the university itself, the building also houses an art gallery and a museum. The small, old classrooms are appointed with plain wooden floors. The academic library is still of miniscule proportions, so that you completely forget you are at a university.

‘And here is the chemistry laboratory for the Faculty of Medicine’, a young doctor who had just graduated observed with pride. ‘The laboratory was just opened last year.’ ‘How did you get along before without a laboratory?’ ‘Only with theory; we didn’t do any practical work.’

In one of the largest and most decorated rooms stands the tomb of Bishop Laval; it was thanks to his efforts that the university was opened. The influence of the Catholic clergy is noticeable all throughout southeastern Canada. In Quebec itself almost half the city belongs to various Catholic orders.

Immigration buildings near train station in Quebec City, Quebec, c. 1899. Library and Archives Canada C-061968.

But to get back to the Doukhobors. In the last group, who were to be going with us, we separated out all those who were penniless, who couldn’t even afford to buy bread for the trip – 178 people. They were provided with bread, tea, sugar, cheese, and salt to take on the train, and even milk for the children. During their stay in Quebec, all the little children also received milk. Before leaving, Elkinton, the Quaker, gave money to Mrs. Cornille to provide as much milk for the children as they wanted. Someone sent clothing for the youngsters, as well as wild strawberries.

The Cornille woman herself reacted to the Doukhobors very warmly; before the trains departed she wanted to treat the children to candy. But she did this rather awkwardly. After gathering all the children together, she tossed the candies from a little bag out into the crowd. The youngsters all scrambled at once to pick them up, and naturally the little ones got hurt.

The Doukhobors took great offence at this type of amusement. The elders called me over and asked me to tell Mrs. Cornille that they thought it was simply a mockery that ‘our children could get smothered just trying to get a little candy. And besides, what if they started fighting each other over it?’ To avoid offending the kind old lady, I refrained from conveying the sharp tone of their words, but for the rest of the candy distribution we lined up the children and put the littlest ones in front.

At long last our train arrived. We boarded quickly, took along all the provisions we would need for the three day’s journey and set off for the Far West. I felt sad at leaving these two kind senior people, Mr. Doyle and Mrs. Cornille, who were so good to work with and who treated the Doukhobors so warmly.

‘May God grant you [the opportunity] to get some rest, at least along the way!’ were their parting words to me.

I doubt that settlers anywhere travel as comfortably as in Canada. In the first place, all the coaches are sleeping-cars, and each person has a fine, comfortable place to sleep. The benches are soft, covered in oilcloth. The train has two stoves, on which the Doukhobors were able to cook hot food for themselves, and there was always enough water for washing and drinking.

It took us three days and nights to get to Winnipeg, stopping for no more than a quarter of an hour at only the major stations! At these stops we were very alert to make sure that none of the Doukhobors got left behind at the station. Two lads travelling on one of the previous trains were left behind when they got carried away gathering strawberries.

In the middle of the train there was a storage-car where all the foodstuffs procured for the journey were kept, as well as all sorts of dishes – cups, spoons, even towels, brooms etc. This coach also had a room for the immigration agent accompanying the train. The agent who travelled with us was so kind and attentive both toward the Doukhobors and toward us that in spite of my ill health my memories of this trip are most pleasant ones.

In my section I again set up a dispensary and received patients. True, there were not very many of them; nevertheless, every day a few people would come to me for bandaging, and while it was difficult enough to cope with this on the ship during the rocking, on the train it was practically impossible.

Doukhobors en route to Western Canada, 1899. BC Archives, Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection C-01512.

Every morning all of us escorting the train would gather in the storage-car and hand out foodstuffs for the day. Then an enormously-built and amazingly kindhearted Doukhobor by the name of Semen Zybin would pick up a large pail, and armed with a little mug, we would go with him through all the coaches and give out milk to the children.

The Doukhobors, for their part, also tried to pay as much attention as possible both to us and to the kind ‘train conductor’, and the amazed Englishman would find on his table dried bread-crusts, or a baked potato, or something like that. One time a lad who was passing by our section stopped at our table and took out of his tunic three hot potatoes. ‘This is for you,’ he said, handing me one of them; another was given to Bonch-Bruevich; ‘and this one’s for him’ – nodding in the direction of the conductor’s car.

Thus we arrived calmly and peacefully at the station in Selkirk, thirty miles [50 km] from Winnipeg. Here, half a kilometre from the station, was a large dormitory, where the majority of our party was obliged to stay until their chosen elders had procured the land.

We arrived at Selkirk early in the morning. For some reason we were not expected to arrive on this particular day, and no one was on hand to meet our group. The station [platform] was crowded with Doukhobors, but these were supposed to go right away to Winnipeg. The station quickly emptied, our train was parked on a siding, and we found ourselves in the middle of a field, with no idea where to go or who we should turn to [for help].

Our ‘conductor’ was deeply offended by this lack of attention. Each party was usually met by immigration officials with wagons to carry the remaining provisions, the sick, and the Doukhobors’ escorts. On this occasion the provisions had to simply be piled up on the grass, and I, together with Bonch-Bruevich, set off in the direction of the dormitories to get one of the attendants to go and greet the party.

It was a bad beginning, and our subsequent experiences in real life showed us that here in the Far West, away from the eyes of the world, the Doukhobors were not treated with the same sincere interest as they had been up to now. The time for gracious words and ceremonial greetings was over – it was time to get themselves established, and not infrequently struggle against unfair treatment toward the Doukhobors, unacquainted as they were with the language and the customs of the country.


Unlike the other Doukhobor sympathizers who soon returned abroad, Vera Mikhailovich Velichkina and Vladimir Dmitryevich Bonch-Bruevich decided to stay with the new immigrants in Canada right through the winter of 1899-1900, giving them physical and moral support in their trials of getting established in their adoptive homeland. In the North Colony village of Mikhailovka, Velichkina set up a hospital, clinic and pharmacy through which she administered medical aid to the Doukhobors. She also assisted in Bonch-Bruevich’s ethnographic research among the Doukhobors, interviewing elders and writing down their oral traditional psalms, hymns and sayings. In spring of 1900, Velichkina and Bonch-Bruevich returned to Switzerland where they were married. Thereafter, they became active in the Russian revolutionary movement, collaborated with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and published Bolshevik propaganda material. After the February Revolution in 1917, Velichkina and Bonch-Bruevich returned to Russia where they held a number of ministerial posts in the Soviet Government. Prior to her death in 1918, she headed the People’s Commissariat for School Health and Hygiene, was a member of the Board of the People’s Commissariat for Health and was Lenin’s personal physician.

About the Publication

The book in which the above article appears, Russian Roots & Canadian Wings, Russian Archival Documents on the Doukhobor Emigration to Canada (Toronto: Penumbra Press, 1999) is a volume of 48 documents collected in 1895-1902 by the Department of Police of the Imperial Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and recently made available by the State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF), presented in English translation by John Woodsworth with informative annotations. These documents include: internal police memos on the Doukhobors and their supporters, the Tolstoyans; letters written by Doukhobors and Tolstoyans, intercepted by government agents; and two series of first-hand accounts of the journey from the Caucasus to the Canadian prairies published in Russian newspapers of the day. Copies of all these documents were procured in Russia by archivist George Bolotenko for Carleton University’s Centre for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations.

To order copies of Russian Roots & Canadian Wings, Russian Archival Documents on the Doukhobor Emigration to Canadacontact the publisher Penumbra Press at: Box 940, Manotick, Ontario, K4M 1A8, Tel: (613) 692-5590 or visit its website at: http://www.penumbrapress.com.

Trek of the Doukhobors

by Betty Ward

The story of how four large groups of Doukhobors were handed across Canada by train from district to district in 1899 is a mission the details of whose drama has never been fully appreciated. It necessitated a monumental piece of fast organizing and is told in remarkable detail in the records of the Immigration Branch of the Department of the Interior. The following article by Betty Ward, reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (34, 1981, No. 1) outlines the frantic work of immigration officials to order supplies, fight red tape, inclement weather and inadequate shelter buildings during the months the Doukhobors were arriving. Despite these challenges, and an occasional loss of tempers from time to time, the immigration officials got the Doukhobors to the Canadian Prairies intact. 

The immigration policy of the Canadian government from 1882 to 1899 was to give to booking agents of steamship companies, or local agents in small towns, a bonus of one English pound for each adult ticket sold in Europe, $1.75 in Great Britain and Ireland, and half that for “half-tickets” – presumably children. The bonuses were given as an incentive to sell more tickets. The Canadian Government had not employed any immigration agents on the Continent, so booking agents were paid “a sufficient amount to encourage [them] to … act as agents for this country.”

When the Doukhobors came, the English Society of Friends had chartered the ships, no tickets had been issued, so no booking agents’ fees were involved. Because of this, an arrangement was made that the government would pay to a committee appointed in Winnipeg, one pound for each person, and this money would be held as a credit that could be used on the Doukhobors’ behalf when necessary.

They came, exhausted and fearful after four years of hounding and persecution from the Russian government because of their refusal to bear arms. They came as fast as they were able and before the Russian government could change its mind about letting them go, to a Canadian winter of “unprecedented cold.” Only a fraction of those who came had any means. The rest fled Russia with blind trust that nothing they might encounter in a foreign country could possibly be as bad as what they had endured in their own. They received financial assistance from the Friends (Quakers), concerned humanitarians like Leo Tolstoi, who donated royalties from his last book Resurrection to their cause, and his son, who came with them at least as far as Winnipeg, and the Canadian government, as well as private donations from many other compassionate and concerned individuals and groups, in England, Canada and the United States.

First party of Doukhobors a day’s journey from Yorkton. Library and Archives Canada C-000684.

Beginning in late January 1899 the groups landed in Halifax, Saint John, and Quebec. Interpreters were sent from Winnipeg to meet them. Chief among them was Philip Harvey. Harvey made only the first trip, and then remained at East Selkirk to supervise incoming trains. Five other interpreters shuttled back and forth across the continent at a time when travel was neither easy nor taken for granted, assisted the Doukhobors from ship to train, saw they had what they needed and understood what was happening to them, and helped at each point to divide up and load the consignments of food. They talked, listened and worked endlessly.

Six days travel from Winnipeg to Halifax. It’s interesting to read, too, that in 1899, $20 was considered sufficient for each interpreter’s expenses, plus $2.50 a day for meals.

W. F. McCreary, Commissioner of Immigration at Winnipeg, and Frank Pedley, Superintendent of Immigration, Ottawa, and their deputies, wrote countless letters during the months the Doukhobors were arriving. They scrambled to order supplies, fought red tape, frightful weather and inadequate shelter buildings, tore their collective hair, and in a gentlemanly way lost their tempers from time to time. But they got the Doukhobors to Western Canada intact.

The first letter after the first group of Doukhobors arrived was a long and detailed one from McCreary to James Smart, Deputy Minister, Department of the Interior, in Ottawa, dated February 9, 1899. McCreary’s secretary was ill, he was behind in his correspondence, working overtime and in haste. His letter shows it but tells its own story best, mistakes and all.

… in the memory of the oldest inhabitant, there has not been a more prolonged stretch of extremely cold weather, than we have had for the last two or three weeks. This morning, at nine o’clock, when I came down, the thermometer stood at forty four. [below zero, Fahrenheit] Last night, during the fire in the “Manitoba”, it stood about fifty one, and it has been running from thirty-five to forty-five, with a keen wind, for many weeks. You can readily imagine, as an old resident, what that means.

These Doukhobors have hard leather boots with a piece of balnket [sic] about the foot, and no socks. The women also, have only a half slipper with leather soles. They have not mits [sic] whatever, or, at least, very few, so that the work of getting them out to the colonies has been stationary.

Yorkton Shed is, I believe, ready, but I have not even been able to send the people from Dufferin School there, because I could not risk loading the children on the trains in such weather. It will surely, however, moderate when the new moon comes in on Friday, so that I will possibly get them out on Saturday or Sunday. As I must have this building for the Superior people. [Doukhobors coming on the Lake Superior]

I have heard from the gang of ten men whom I sent out to the White Sand Colony; [Canora area] they are getting along fairly well, but sadly hampered by cold weather, they were also some time finding timber, but have secured some now on the Hansack. [Kamsack?] They have built three houses 24 x 24 already, so that fifty or sixty Doukhobor men can be sent either there as well as to the camp at Thunder Hill, just as soon as the weather moderates.

I have a car of flour at Yorkton and the same at Cowan as well as other supplies. I have at each place five teams of horses and three of oxen. I tried to engage teamsters at Yorkton to exercise these horses taking out the flour, but Crerar wires me tonight that he cannot get a man, even for big pay to face the cold.

Certainly Providence intervened in preventing the “Superior” people from coming up here, for I believe, had they been forwarded, they would have had to remain on the cars or would have perished. …

I deem this explanation of the weather necessary, in order that both you and Mr. Pedley, may understand thoroughly why more progress has not been made in getting the people forward. In fact, I have been urging such incessantly but Prince Hilkoff will not hear of the people being forced out in this weather.

I have loaded a car of supplies here, and will ship it to end of Dauphin track Monday night, taking fifty men from Dauphin Shed. I have bought fifty pairs of heavy rubber boots, one hundred pairs of socks, fifty pairs of mits, and fifty pairs blankets…

The original intention seems to have been to settle the Doukhobors in Manitoba, which by that time was a well-organized province with schools, courts of law and other provincial institutions. In this regard, “When I learned that Hubbell was at the end of the Dauphin track,” Mr. McCreary’s letter continued,

I wired him to come down to meet Prince Hilkoff, as we wished to discuss Range 29 (in Manitoba), as I was having considerable difficulty over this matter … the Prince, after consulting with the Doukhobors has agreed to release this Range and will afterward select other three Townships … further west on the Saskatchewan.

… either the Prince or Sulerjitzky will go out with the deputation to select the villages, though, I imagine, for this winter at least, the houses will have to be erected wherever timber is found, and they can move the logs afterward to the village sites.

Now in regard to the East Selkirk Round House being ready, matters are not working very smoothly and have not from the first, for reasons which I need not explain here. I sent thirty Doukhobors down yesterday morning and wished Mr. Smith to go down with them, but so far he has not done so. I cannot possibly get away, and besides as the work is under his supervision, I could not give advice in the matter. I imagine these Doukhobors will be able to complete the building by Monday or Tuesday next, all except the roof, which Smith refused to repair, or, at least, says it cannot be done in the winter. I believe that, unless it is covered outside, or the building is plastered, or tar paper put on inside all the heat will escape through the roof and it will be impossible to heat it. We are going, however, to start all the caldrons and other stoves going and try it next week before the people come. I intend doing down on Saturday night to look over the situation there.

I presume that if these people leave [Halifax] on the 17th they will be here about the 22nd, so that we will have the work completed by that time.

Now in regard to supplies. There seems to be some hitch in the financial arrangements. From your letters I understand that the credit by the government was to be supplemented by contributions from various sources, including the Doukhobors themselves, Quakers and so forth, but so far they have not materialized. I discussed it with Prince Hilkoff tonight, and he himself is disappointed, he tells me that the money which they expected to be sent here, has to be used in paying transportation for the ‘Lake Superior’ party, which the Quakers refused to pay although they had promised. It would appear … the Government will either have to loan or guarantee a loan of seventy-five or one hundred thousand dollars to help these people out. …

Now I will send you a rough estimate of what, in my opinion will be required to feed these people, that is four thousand from now to the end of July, that will be five months…

Since fresh vegetables could not be shipped to the colonies in winter, McCreary suggested that the chief diet consist of bread, rice, barley, butter, sugar, tea, cheese, molasses, rolled oats, salt, “peper” [sic], and citric acid, “to sour their soup”. Meat was not needed as the Doukhobors were vegetarians. Their pacifist beliefs extended to the killing of any living creature, on the grounds that it was “brutalizing to the senses” as well as morally wrong. The list of foods was subject to change in different places, but it was not until they ran into trouble over some groups complaining that others were getting more variety that McCreary decided on a standard food list for all. Even at that he was sometimes over-ridden in the selections provided.

Doukhobors of the Thunder Hill Colony moving supplies from Yorkton to their villages. Library and Archives Canada C-005209.

His letter of February 9 goes on to list the staggering quantities of food that would be required, the household effects, the costs of each, plus freight costs. He figured out how much would be needed for each of thirteen different items and this is how he did it:

Each soul here is now consuming one loaf of bread per day, and this with a copious supply of vegetables, but putting one loaf as the quantity for each soul, and supposing each sack of flour will make sixty loaves of bread, … it would figure out this way, one sack of flour would feed two Doukhobors for one month … for five months, 4,000 Doukhobors require 10,000 sacks of flour. These 10,000 sacks of flour at $1.50 would mean $15,000.

He worked out each item in the same way until he came to the question of vegetables, at which point he threw in the sponge.

… It is useless to figure out these items, as, in my opinion we cannot buy them in [until] the spring but we could not freight them out [anyway]. But for the quantity we may have left on hand after feeding the people all winter, over and above what is required for seed, I think we can safely put down for this item $3,000.

This disposes of the whole supplies, although as you will notice I have not included cheese which we may have to buy, and many other items to be settled afterwards. This does not include all cooking utensils, stoves, hardware required for the buildings, such as sash and nails, farming tools, axes, hoes, farming machinery, such as mowers, rakes, plows, harrows, waggons, sleighs and so forth. Nor does it include the very large item for freighting all these goods over stiff trails to the colonies, nor the purchase of cows, clothing and so forth. I will endeavour to figure these out on a business basis and send you a copy, although it will be difficult to do so at the present time, as I pointed out before to Prince Hilkoff has not materialized the large amount of money that will be required, even to keep these people from actual starvation during the spring months. I told him to day, that there was one month last year, when every bridge in the Dauphin district was swept away, and close neibours [sic] were unable to get from [one] place to the other. The snow is now pretty deep up there and, at the Thunder Hill especially, we may expect just such a state of affairs so that a large quantity of these goods should be in there before the frost goes out, or I would not like to predict the result.

February 11, two days after his first long letter, McCreary, still labouring away without his secretary, wrote again to Pedley in Ottawa.

…I understand you have about two thousand people there, and my present idea is that you should send four trains containing about six or seven hundred people to East Selkirk, and a smaller train with from three to three hundred and fifty people, to the Dufferin School, Winnipeg, now occupied by those intended for Yorkton, who will go out on Monday or Tuesday, if we can get the temperature above forty five below, where it has been standing practically for the last three weeks. I may mention, in this connection, that these people are poorly clad for a cold climate — some of them froze their toes even sawing wood in the yard, and are laid up. I had to buy nearly two hundred pairs of moccasins, four hundred pairs of socks, and other warm clothing for the men that I am sending out to the colonies…

In regard to utensils, I presume you will have to buy some to replace those kept here. I think it should be arranged that these people should keep the utensils you buy for use on the train, as they will require them in East Selkirk. The only utensils they use here, where we have six hundred, are about twenty-four ordinary knives for peeling potatoes, many of which they have; a number of table spoons, and of these they have quite a lot made of wood; heavy iron pails for carrying up the soup and tin milk cans in which to place the soup, seven or eight people eat the soup out of one tin. The bread is also put in these tin dishes; forks they do not use at all, neither tin plates.

Owing to some of the Doukhobors at other points, getting food different from what they have here, they are making a rule that all should be fed the same – cheese is going to be cut off, as well as mollasses [sic], and fish, of which they are using some at Brandon and Portage. The regular diet is going to be potatoes, bread, cabbage where available, or if not, turnips or carrots, tea and sugar. As a substitute for vegetables, which we cannot get to the colonies, they will likely have to use cracked wheat, barley, rice or rolled oats, although they do not take kindly to porridge. Onions, of course, will be supplied to them, as well, but we cannot, I fear, get them out to the colonies, and of course they have to be imported from the south and are a little expensive.

But Frank Pedley had his own ideas. On February 15, 1889 Pedley sent off a note to R. E. Jamieson, a food merchant in Ottawa, as follows:

… the second party of Doukhobors … will … reach here next Monday or Tuesday and I would be glad if you would have the following provisions delivered at the Station here to be taken on board the several trains on arrival, the prices to be similar to those charged in connection with the provisioning of the first party: 7,500 loaves bread. 1,750 Ibs cheese. 75 Ibs tea. 160 gallons milk. 100 Ibs salt.

You will be wired when the trains leave St. John so that you will be able to judge when they will arrive in Ottawa. If any additional supplies are required you will be telegraphed to that effect.

The matter of where the Doukhobors would be settled seems to have been resolved. The only reference to it is in a letter from McCreary (sounding a bit tired and impatient by this time) to Pedley, dated May 25, 1899, when weather was no longer a problem.

Please let me know either by letter or by wire … what day you expect the Doukhobors to arrive, and will they all arrive at or about the same time, at Halifax or Quebec?

As already advised, I have purchased a large tent, 80 x 130, which I intended forwarding to Yorkton, but since Prince Khilkoff has an idea of starting a new colony up the Saskatchewan, I have held the tent here as, or course, it would not do to pull the people out to Yorkton if they were going up that line.

My intention now is to try and get rid of the 1400 Galicians who arrive tonight and who will be placed in the Round House for a time, before the Doukhobors will arrive, pitch the big tent down at Selkirk and if it is necessary to hold them over, place the entire party there. This tent will, I imagine, hold about a thousand, the Round House 1600, and, of course, if necessary, we could put three or four hundred at Portage la Prairie. …

The first year was difficult for any settler, as it was not possible to go onto uncleared prairie and turn it into a profitable farm at once. Most of the men worked for the railway, to get some cash income; and in the case of the Doukhobors the women put in the gardens, in some cases pulling the ploughs themselves, as they had no oxen or horses that first year. Those who needed help through the next winter got it from the government. When the Doukhobor men were settled into working for the railway, Mr. J. Niblock, Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Moose Jaw wrote to Mr. McCreary on June 30 forwarding a copy of the report made to him by J. Armstrong, Roadmaster, on June 29, 1899. The roadmaster’s report said in part:

The Doukhobors are giving very good satisfaction. … are doing very well and are improving … where you can keep them together and not mix them with other men. … our greatest trouble is taking care of them, keeping them from getting pinched or jerked off the cars when moving, or hurt with slides when at work in the cuts.

By August 1899 only a handful of Doukhobors were still at Selkirk waiting for their accommodations at the new settlements on the Saskatchewan River near what is now the Borden district, and one near Duck Lake. By that time most of the villages were built and their occupants “well pleased with the country and in good spirits now.”

Doukhobor women winnowing grain.  Library and Archives Canada C-008891.

Thomas Copland, the Land Agent in Saskatoon at that time, wrote to McCreary August 26:

I have wired you re Doukhobors and location of three Villages … we had a stirring time for a few days owing to a commotion among themselves through the drawing of lots for the first location, disappointing some of them. This is all got over now and so far has resulted in good as it [before that] had seemed impossible to get them to consent to less than 75 families in the large Village,, now that is divided into two, making a selection of lands near to each village more practicable and I would not be surprised if a fourth village branches out yet. If so all the better.

The rains have been very heavy and the Rivers are in high flood, – you will therefore not wonder if running of lines takes a little longer than expected. Mr. Batter will have returned to make his own report. He was very useful. Mr. Schultz is as you said, very good with a compass, needs setting right very seldom.

The first village located wishes to know the best terms the Government will give them for the North West ¼ of Section 19-39-7 – and exact acreage. I presume 160 acres. This is required for water, there are at least 2 good springs on it.

I have also to request that you will obtain the approval of the Department for my action in allowing them to have the homesteads on the west of Tshp. 39 Rg. 7 – viz: one ¼ of Sec. 30. – all of 20 – 18 – and 6 -. Being on the spot and seeing the necessity of adding these to the first village. … A full list of names with homesteads allotted to each, will be sent you as soon as possible.

Those men who have come into this Colony from Yorkton, are delighted.

McCreary passed along this information to Pedley in Ottawa in a letter dated September 1.

You will observe that he [Mr. Copland] is making very satisfactory arrangements, and I think, while this will be a very small colony, they will get along all right. …

… Mr. Morrison … whom I have had for the last month at Duck Lake locating the large colony on the north side of the Saskatchewan returned this morning … They succeeded in getting most of the people across the River and about one half of their baggage, when the ferry broke away with the high water, and as but little could be done at present to complete the work, they returned.

There has been a great deal of trouble with these people; … each one wanting the same quarter-section, and the only way it could be settled was by drawing lots, and even then come of them would not abide by the land given them in this way – so that Mr. Morrison had to use a great deaf of diplomacy to get them settled at all.

It is difficult at present to state when the ferry will be replaced, as I understand the cable is buried in eight or ten feet of sand, and it will be useless for me to make a definite report until the matter has been finally adjusted…

In his yearly Report dated December 31, 1899, the Winnipeg Commissioner, W. F. McCreary said nothing at all of the turmoil involved in moving the Doukhobors across Canada, dismissing the difficulties by saying merely, “Public sympathy and attention have been so largely attracted by the settlement of this people … that little need be said … save as to their settlement.”

McCreary said the first group of 2,078 “souls” arrived January 27, 1899, followed by 1,973 in February; in May, 1,136 came, and July saw 2,335. Four more arrived in September and one in December. But his times and figures are inconsistent, as later in his report he speaks of the May group as the one which arrived in June. He reported the numbers variously as “7,427 souls”, and “7.354”; whereas if the above numbers are added up they come to 7,527. “There is thus,” McCreary concluded,

with some reasonable allowance for error, a total population of 7,354 souls, living in 795 houses, comprising 57 villages, and who, averaging 5 to a family, are settled on some 1,500 homesteads of 160 acres each.

The lands they have settled are fruitful, sufficient water is found in rivers, creeks, springs and wells, and the people are generally contented and satisfied with their prospects in their new home.

This article originally appeared in the pages of Saskatchewan History, an award-winning magazine dedicated to encouraging both readers and writers to explore the province’s history. Published by the Saskatchewan Archives since 1948, it is the pre-eminent source of information and narration about Saskatchewan’s unique heritage.  For more information, visit Saskatchewan History online at: http://www.saskarchives.com/web/history.html.

The 1899 Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Dispute with the Doukhobors

by Victor O. Buyniak

Upon arriving on the Canadian Prairies in 1899, the Doukhobors were obliged, like many other immigrants, to look for employment to supplement their income.  Railway construction was the major source of work for the majority of the able bodied men.  However, during their first summer of employment, disputes arose between the Doukhobors and railway companies, due to inadequate knowledge of each other and mutual mistrust.  This was exacerbated by those working on the Doukhobors’ behalf who had knowledge of the language, but not of the country, its laws, customs and ways of life.  The following article by Victor O. Buyniak, reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (40, 1987, No. 1), reveals that the Doukhobor railway workers were in practically the same position as any other new and inexperienced immigrants.  Once they became self-sufficient on their farms, they adapted to the rules and demands placed upon them and disputes with their employers ceased to occur.

By July 1899 most of the Doukhobor immigrants had arrived on the Prairies. A total of some 7,500 people settled in four colonies in what is now Saskatchewan. Some very influential individuals and organizations, including the writer, Leo Tolstoy, and the Society of Friends (Quakers), facilitated their exodus from Russia, and a number of prominent personalities accompanied the new immigrants to the land of their settlement. Among them were three men who became instrumental in arranging temporary employment for groups of Doukhobors at the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Company in the summer and fall of 1899.

Arthur St. John, a former captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was at one time in the Indian service. He resigned his commission, became a pacifist and Tolstoyan, and visited Tolstoy at his estate of Yasnaya Polyana in September 1897. Through Tolstoy he became acquainted with the Doukhobor cause, served as Tolstoy’s and the English Quakers’ envoy to them in the Caucasus, and brought the group, which was in dire material need, several thousand rubles that were collected for them by their sympathizers. The Russian authorities did not like St. John any more than they liked the unorthodox and non-conformist Doukhobors – he was arrested and expelled to Turkey for trying to cause foment among the group. Regardless of his unfortunate experience in Russia, St. John became a staunch supporter of the persecuted Doukhobors. He helped them at every occasion, interceded on their behalf vis-à-vis the British authorities regarding emigration from Russia, prepared the arrival of a party of Doukhobors in the summer of 1898 in Cyprus (their first relocation place), and, when this venture ended in failure, accompanied the Doukhobor exodus to Canada. He extended his unwavering support to the group at every opportunity in Canada, until his return to England.

Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky (1872-1916), became acquainted with Tolstoy through the latter’s daughter Tatyana. He was an aristocrat but also a convinced anarchist-pacifist who had served a term in prison for refusing to take the oath in the army. He became a Tolstoyan, and together with St. John he visited the Doukhobors in the Caucasus during November 1897. Sulerzhitsky greatly facilitated the arrangements for the departure of the first shipload of Doukhobors from Batum, and accompanied them to Canada. Later he became an active associate of the Director Konstantin Stanislavsky in the Moscow Arts Theatre.

Alexander Mikhailovich Bodyansky (1842-1916), was essentially a different personality. A Russian nobleman, too, he had distributed his lands to his peasants and became a practicing Tolstoyan. He became personally acquainted with Tolstoy in August 1892. He was arrested by the authorities for spreading unorthodox religious views, and was exiled to Transcaucasia where he became acquainted with the Doukhobors. For some years he was to play a controversial role in Doukhobor affairs. From the Caucasus Bodyansky found his way to the Tolstoyan colony at Purleigh in Essex, England, but his eccentricities proved unendurable to his colleagues there. He was persuaded to leave the colony and went to Canada shortly after the arrival of the Doukhobors there. He was always full of plans and projects and tried actively to work on their behalf, although not asked by them to do so, and he helped notably to crystallize their discontent vis-à-vis the Canadian authorities. Eventually, he was asked to leave Canada, and returned to Russia.

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

In brief, these were the individuals who directed the Doukhobor working parties for the railroads in 1899. To supplement their families’ income, the Doukhobors were initially obliged, like many other immigrants, to look for employment on various outside projects. An intensive construction activity by railway companies in the Prairies was an obvious source of work for the Doukhobors during their first summer in Canada. In June 1899 Sulerzhitsky helped a group of men to contract some work for the extension of the Canadian Northern Railway line.

At first both sides were content: management, as well as the workers. The Superintendent of Immigration in the Department of the Interior in Ottawa, Frank Pedley, was quite satisfied with the reports of the Doukhobors’ industriousness, adaptability to new conditions and their work ethics. In a letter to H. Harley, the Sub-Agent of Dominion Lands, Swan River District, Dauphin, Manitoba, dated 27 October 1899, he mentions, among other things:

It is gratifying to know that Mr. Charles McDougal, the Contractor on the Canadian Northern Railway, found the Doukhobors employed by him such good labourers, and I have no doubt but that they will prove very desirable settlers for our Western Country.

Other positive testimony came from the Land Agent John Ashworth, who wrote to William Forsythe McCreary, the Commissioner of Immigration in Winnipeg, on 3 November 1899:

I also made inquiries from settlers in the districts I passed through and with a few exceptions they were quite satisfied with the Doukhobors and found them willing to work, in most cases giving complete satisfaction, in fact some preferred them to the Galicians

But everything appeared to go well only for a short time. Soon the men began to leave the work, complaining that they were able to earn very little. Sulerzhitsky, who “set out to investigate the situation,” found that at some swampy stretches of the construction the men were indeed underpaid for their work, but that the main cause of dissatisfaction about insufficient earnings was really the men’s loss of communal spirit: instead of contributing their entire wages to the community as a whole, they individually charged various expenses from their earnings for themselves and for their families. Sulerzhitsky managed to rectify the situation and the men went back to work.

But, only for a while, because friction again developed. During the fall of 1899, a group of Doukhobors, working on the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Company of Canada’s extension west of Hamiota in Manitoba, felt that they had been mistreated by their superiors and began voicing their complaints. The leader of that particular group was Arthur St. John. Although he could easily communicate with the railway administration, the rules of employment were either not precise at the time, or he and his charges did not properly understand them. Moreover, working conditions in the swampy terrain were very hard and the pay was exceedingly low.

Since McCreary was from the start associated with the general planning of the Doukhobor migration to the Prairies, was always sympathetic to the new settlers’ needs and felt himself responsible for their well-being during the initial stage of their resettlement, their complaints and expressions of dissatisfaction about the working conditions were passed on to him first. He must have mentioned the complaints in a private letter to J. S. Smart, then the Deputy Minister of the Interior, because Pedley refers to this case in a letter he wrote to McCreary, on 23 November 1899. The letter in part stated,

… I beg to leave to say that the Doukhobors had better be given to understand that if they will not take the work that is offered them at fair wages for a fair day’s work, this Department does not propose to extend itself very much in giving them assistance during the coming year. There is no reason why the majority of the men should not, under present conditions, find abundance of work and thus be able to carry their families through the winter and be in a position to make a very satisfactory start on their homesteads in the spring. This should be made plain to them so that there will be no mistake whatever as to the position of the Department.

In December 1899 a dispute developed between Doukhobor workers and railway supervisory personnel, and the immigration officials were caught in the middle. McCreary got his information from J. S. Crerar, the Agent in Yorkton, the town nearest to the Doukhobor colonies. Apparently Crerar received a statement from St. John, registering the group’s complaint regarding the Hamiota incident. In the beginning of December, McCreary who had been notified earlier by Crerar, contacted the Office of the Engineer, Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Company of Canada, in Winnipeg, demanding an explanation.

This demand resulted in the Engineer’s ordering an investigation into the matter. The correspondence concerning this case is quite extensive: telegrams and letters from the Engineer, George H. Webster, to his Roadmaster in Portage la Prairie, Robert Walters, Webster’s communication with McCreary, McCreary’s with W. J. Pace, the Accountant to McGillivray and Company and to Pedley, and, of course, the most emotionally-charged part of the incident – the letters exchanged between McCreary and Bodyansky who was then in Yorkton.

To become acquainted with the history and the individual facts of the dispute it is best to furnish some key correspondence or excerpts from all the sides concerned. First, the point of view of the Doukhobors will be presented, on the basis of St. John’s and the workers’ relation to Bodyansky, and the latter’s interpretation of the incident. Bodyansky sent the following letter from Yorkton to McCreary, dated 16 December 1899:

It is very painful to me to say what I want to tell you, but it will be much more painful to me if I keep silent. I and my fellow-believers, the Doukhobors, we left our native land with a feeling of disgust for the cruelty and injustice which the Russian Government allows itself to practice. With the hope that in Canada, we should meet better organization and better men, in a land, where reigns the most enlightened nation, we came here, but to our great regret and disappointment our hope is far from being realized. We have met not a few people from the class which has a greater power in reality than any Government. I mean the class of capitalists, who are capable of such inhuman deeds that even the Russian government is not capable of. The latter Government behaves cruelly with its opponents, but those who bring advantages to it, many rely on its help and protection, but those capitalists, I speak of, and whose names are known to you, have shown that they are even capable of starving and freezing those “cows from whom they have taken milk.” You know Sir, what I mean. You know, that in October 150 men, Doukhobors, driven by want, consented to accept the offer of the Manitoba and Northwestern, and started off for Rapid City and Hamiota. I saw myself the way they were packed in, they were huddled up on freight cars – 75 men in a car and they were obliged to travel all the way standing up, as they were too crowded and unable to move. It is known that necessity will force a man to accept the hardest conditions. But what name deserve these people, who take advantage of the helpless condition of others to suck from them as much blood as possible? Can these people number among the civilized and enlightened nations? Can they be Christians; are they really those who are so reverent that consecrating the seventh day to God they neither allow themselves, or others, to attend to business.

The Railway Company of which I speak, did not only send the workmen like cattle – they did more than that. As you know the Company promised to take the workmen and bring them back free of charge; you know that not only the Company did not fulfill its promise, but mocked them in a senseless way. They sent them on foot in the frost over 20 miles, telling them that on the station the train would take them on. But at the station they were sent on foot again, on to another station, and these unfortunate men were doomed to walk 100 miles in the frost without warm clothes, without a cent of money and without bread! On the way they had to leave the sick and slept on the prairie in a heap of straw. When their brothers in Yorkton heard of this, we at once begged the railway company through the agent of the place to take pity on them, and then only the company condescendingly consented to comply to our request and to take up the sufferers in the train, on condition that the fare for their transport should be paid in advance. We collected amongst ourselves whatever we could and presented the money.

Another instance. At the end of November another company with Mr. McGillivray by way of sympathizing with the hard position of the Doukhobors, consented to employ 150 men. They were sent. Once on the spot they were obliged to draw themselves and to carry the supplies at a distance of 25 miles. They fell into the water, and got drenched, both they and their supplies, and finally when they reached the place of work, they found everywhere continuous woody frozen marsh. They were not asked to work per day, but per yard, on condition that they took all their supplies from Mr. McGillivray’s store. For their transport they were in debt of $8 for each man and they had not a cent to return. Just think. Sir, if it is not moral to catch wild beast with traps, then how about enticing industrious people and to take advantage of their flesh and blood, their muscular work – betray the trust of strangers, who came to this country to seek refuge and protection – all this constitutes such cruelty that I do not know what to compare it with. Just think, Sir, how many lives will be shortened through these hardships! And yet men are hanged for manslaughter and murder.

I have only reminded you of two glaring cases – as for the others just as sad, but with a small number of sufferers, they are so numerous that one might write a volume about them. Many of these cases are known to you, and more known to your subordinates.

To sum up, I must tell you that at the present moment, there are many sick Doukhobors, suffering from exhaustion and cold, and over a thousand men in the South Colony are on the verge of starvation.

The following reply was sent by McCreary to Bodyansky, dated 22 December 1899:

… It is now almost a year since the Doukhobors arrived here, and during that period I have laboured hard and earnestly to do the best I could to make these people self-supporting. In the first place, I procured the contract for those in the North Colony for clearing the Right-of-Way on the Swan River Extension. They were allowed about $13.40 per acre for this work, and still were dissatisfied, notwithstanding the fact that the same work could have been contracted for with English-speaking people at about $11 per acre; and that is the price at which it is now being done on the further extension of the same road.

I am quite aware that the corporations in this country have no souls, and that they exert every means to get the most labour for the least money out of English-speaking people as well as Doukhobors. However, we have got to take the situation just as we find it, and I think the Doukhobors have had as much fair play shown them as any other class.

Now, unfortunately, instead of encouraging the Doukhobors to get over those difficulties, and do the best they can under their adverse circumstances, St. John, as you know, is a pessimist and aggravates their discomforts and discouragements instead of cheerfully trying to get over them…. While I admit the Doukhobors have been imposed upon in many cases, I am also personally aware of many cases where the Doukhobors have acted in an extremely dishonourable manner towards employers….

Now, fortunately, some time ago I have received the complaint from Mr. Crerar about these Doukhobors having to walk from Shoal Lake. I at once sent a communication to the Manitoba and North-Western Railway people and they have answered in writing, and I beg to enclose the copy of their reply, which I trust you will either be able to refute or admit.

When your letter arrived, there came on the same day one from Mr. Pace, who is accountant for Mr. McGillivray, where 116 Doukhobors went. I enclose a copy of his reply as to their statements concerning them, which would indicate that St. John had magnified the matter very much. It was never intended that these people should go down by the day, but were to work by the yard at 17 per yard; camps to be furnished by McGillivray. My letters to St. John as well as my telegrams pointed this out clearly; and I intend asking St. John, when he returns here, whether he misinterpreted this matter to the Doukhobors – if so, it was his fault. When Mr. McGillivray came in, after the first 60 Doukhobors had gone down by the day, he said that they were so slow in their movements he would take no more on those terms. Consequently, I notified Mr. Crerar, Captain St. John and Dr. Weletchkina that no more Doukhobors could get winter work there. They seemed very disappointed, and asked me to make another effort. I did so and secured five miles of work, or about 150,000 yards, at 17 c[ents] per yard; and St. John perfectly understood it.

Now, if the Doukhobors are going to dissatisfy the Railway corporations in the manner shown in these communications, then do not be surprised if the Railway companies agree among themselves next year not to employ one single Doukhobor on all their works. Two years ago the Galicians commenced making the same complaints. The C.P.R took the matter up and told their Foreman to employ no more Galicians, and not to allow one of them to work between their rails all along their lines. I saw this was practically going to mean their starvation, because the Railway companies in this country employ most labour. I represented this to the Galicians, and they asked me to intercede to be given another chance. I saw the C.P.R. President, and he said that if they would agree to work as other men were working without continually leaving their employment and complaining without real cause, he would try them again. I then sent a letter to all the Galician Colonies, stating these facts. The consequence is that the Galicians have turned out to be better men and, as you know, are getting along well. It is surprising that some of these people who have only been in the country to a year and a half, and who came with no means whatever, have been able, out of their earnings, besides supporting their families, to accumulate five or six cows. I regret to say that they make much more progress than the Doukhobors.

One of the greatest drawbacks to the success of the Doukhobors is that some of the men in charge of them are not practical, and although they are supposed leaders, they do not know as much about work as the Doukhobors themselves. For instance, St. John, educated as a soldier, knows nothing about manual labour. How can he instruct others?

Now, the Doukhobors have got to be told, and told very plainly, that they have to take such work as is offered them and be content with the same treatment as is being given to English-speaking people. You know, if you know anything about railroading, that 17 c[ents] a yard, is a good price for station work. They can board themselves; be their own bosses, and work as they desire. What more can I do? I am about tired and sick of fighting with contractors and others in the interests of these people, and if they are not satisfied with my exertions, then I will just wash my hands off the whole lot, as there are occasions when forbearance ceases to be a virtue….

St. John will be here in a couple of days, and I intend reading him your report, and, if necessary, I will go back with him to this work, inspect it myself and take sworn affidavits from the Doukhobors themselves, as well as from the other English-speaking men working along the line, and endeavour to get at the actual facts. I trust, however, this will not be necessary….

The following letters or excerpts may serve as supporting material representing the side of railway companies and contractors. In a short letter, dated 16 December 1899, the Engineer George H. Webster asked Robert Walters, the roadmaster for a detailed explanation of the incident. He received the following reply,

Regarding the attached, Mr. Crerar seems to have only one side of the story. These men in question were kept after the rest were laid off and I arranged with St. John and the men, to stay until the work was completed and he would give them transportation to Yorkton. The men did not fulfill their promise, but quit their work of their own accord, and left me without a man to fix the track. They stopped the work-train coming in from the front, and got on her and rode to Hamiota. I arrived in Hamiota the same night from the East and saw Duncan, the Foreman, and Martin, the Interpreter, and both told me that the men would work no longer, but wanted to go to Yorkton. Both Duncan and Martin told me that the men would do just as they thought fit, work as they chose. Eight and ten of them would be in the Scrub at a time, three and four times a day. If the Foreman told them to hurry up and get ties packed and dirt cast into the tracks, they would offer him the shovel and tell him to hurry up. They told the Foreman and the Interpreter that they have nothing to do with them. I wanted these men in the worst way, at that time, and I felt as though, walking to Yorkton was too good for them. They should have been horsewhipped for leaving this work and acting the way they did. I consider them the worst lot of men I have ever had, and have had more trouble with Doukhobors and their Interpreters, this summer, than I have had with Galicians for three years. Doukhobors expect a Railway Company to nurse them and feed them with a spoon, let them do as they choose, stand, sit and lay down on the work. I consider them the most expensive men in the Railway Company ever employed and will be, until a change is made in them.

Allowed to walk to Yorkton will do them good, and if we are not upheld in this, we had better not employ any more of these men. The men were well treated by us under the circumstances. They had plenty to eat, tents and stoves, and everything necessary for their comfort at this time of the year.

This man St. John is doing a great deal of harm among these men. He is or pretends to be one of themselves, in religion and all other acts, sleeps and eats with them, advocates for more wages for them, board for less than $5.50 per week, wanted men to be boarded on wet or stormy days when they were not working, for half rate, whereas it would take a bushel of grub to fill one of these big Doukhobors. This man St. John is the most useless man I ever ran across. He will cause an endless amount of trouble among these men for some one. I have had the same kind of trouble with Galicians and I found that walking to Yorkton once or twice, did them good, and I know it will do the Doukhobors a great deal of good also. It will also have a tendency to stop them from leaving work before it is completed, same as it had with Galicians.

Regarding these men walking across country to Shoal Lake, I told the Interpreter to tell them they would get no transportation and they have better walk across the Shoal Lake and from there to Yorkton, or get tickets the best way they could. These men in question were not discharged, but the men that went away with St. John, were laid off work, and were entitled to free transportation.

Grading railway prior to laying track. Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada.

In view of this information, Webster wrote a letter to McCreary on 16 December 1899, excerpts from which are quoted below:

I am sorry to say that the general opinion of our Roadmaster and all Foreman who have had the Doukhobors employed this summer is not at all favourable to these men, in fact they bitterly oppose having to take these men on to their gangs. It is quite evident from the actions of the Doukhobors themselves, that they are labouring under the delusion, that Public work in this Country were being arranged for their special benefit and that they can desert employment and behave in any manner which seems fit.

These remarks of course do not apply to all of these men, as I have heard some of them praised very highly, but it was a very small proportion of the total number we had employed last summer.

Regarding complaint against Mr. St. John made by Walters in his letter of the 9th, Mr. St. John may endeavour to justify his action on the grounds that he is endeavouring to get as much as possible for his men, but he should not forget that the men are quite inexperienced, and until they learn to speak English and have a couple of years experience in track work, that they are not worth as much per day as men who have this experience, and it is a mistake to lead the Doukhobors to expect that they should be as well paid as more experienced men. Owing to the shortage stringency in the Labour Market this fall, we have paid these men as high as $1.75 per day, and I can safely say that at least 75% of them were not worth half that much….

The Accountant W. J. Pace sent the following report to McCreary on 21 December 1899,

Referring to that portion of Bodjansky’s letter dated the 16th instant, in reference to the men who went to work for McGillivray and Company on the Rainy River Railway, I beg to state that in regard to the statement made by Mr. Bodjansky that the men had to transport themselves and their supplies twenty-five miles, such is not the case. The men with their supplies, clothing etc., were moved to Shebandowan Lake by McGillivray & Company, and their camps were built – one camp a mile and a half and the other four miles and a half beyond the lake.

The Lake being frozen at the time, it was deemed advisable to move their supplies by sleighs this four miles and a half on the ice — on account of one portion of the ice being bad and the Doukhobors congregating round the sleigh, the ice broke and let them into about two feet of water, but there was only one Doukhobor of the lot who got at all wet. The rest of them were moved on to their camp, and were perfectly satisfied there, and are at work.

Captain St. John, the man in charge of the Doukhobors says that they are perfectly satisfied.

As regards $8 for the fare, this was agreed on before they left Yorkton.

I might say that the fifty men who came down previously are more than satisfied with the treatment they received from McGillivray & Company, and for the month of November they each averaged a net amount of $31.00.

All this prompted McCreary to write his own letter of complaint to his superior Frank Pedley. This communication is dated 22 December 1899, and it reads:

I wrote the Deputy Minister a few days ago enclosing copy of a communication I had received from the Manitoba and North Western Railway Company about a complaint as to how certain men were treated on their line. Since sending that communication I have received a long letter from Mr. A. Bodyansky, one of their leaders at Yorkton, dealing with the same subject, as well as with some men who went down to work on the Port Arthur and Rainy River Road. I beg to enclose copy of Bodyansky’s letter, as well as of Mr. Pace’s reply — the Accountant for Mr. McGillivray, the Contractor on the Prince Arthur and Rainy River, and also copy of my reply to Bodyansky.

I regret to say that no more vexed question ever came before me than this whole Doukhobor business. I do not know what the result is going to be, unless they will agree to work as other people do. Unfortunately, the public sentiment will not permit us to allow them to starve. The newspapers and others would take it up in such a way that the Government would be bound to come to the rescue, as they had to do with the Galicians two years ago. Sensational articles would appear, and special correspondents sent out, which, of course, would not be a wise policy. Certainly if we are going to have this same trouble, I would ask you to send up a man, or get one here, who would take entire charge of the Doukhobors and their management, as my time will be fully taken up with other immigration in the spring and I cannot possibly give the attention to the Doukhobor matters that I have had to do during the last year.

As can be seen from the above presentation, the Doukhobors who worked in closely-knit groups during their first year in Canada and who were directed and helped by individuals equipped with a knowledge of the language, but not of the country, its laws, customs, and ways of life, were in practically the same position as any other new and inexperienced immigrants, working in groups or individually. It takes time to adjust to new circumstances. In the initial period, mistakes and false accusations are likely to be made by both sides. Due to inadequate knowledge of each other, mutual mistrust and inborn racial and ethnic preconception are very strong during this time. The railroad continued periodically to employ the Doukhobors during the next year or so until the latter became self-sufficient on their farms. Once the situation became clarified, the men adapted to the rules and demands placed upon them, and we do not hear any more of any glaring cases of disputes with their employers.

This article originally appeared in the pages of Saskatchewan History, an award-winning magazine dedicated to encouraging both readers and writers to explore the province’s history. Published by the Saskatchewan Archives since 1948, it is the pre-eminent source of information and narration about Saskatchewan’s unique heritage.  For more information, visit Saskatchewan History online at: http://www.saskarchives.com/web/history.html.

How Doukhobors Build Railways, 1906

Manitoba Morning Free Press

In the early 1900’s, many hundreds of Doukhobor men worked as “navvies” or manual labourers in railroad construction to earn much-needed income for their community. At first, they were hired individually by railroad companies to perform this demanding and difficult work. Eventually, the Doukhobor “Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood” (CCUB), on behalf of its members, entered into contracts directly with railroad companies to carry out the work. The CCUB was awarded its first contract in September of 1905 to construct 17 miles of grade on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP) line in the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle River valleys near St. Lazare, Manitoba. This contract involved some of the heaviest work on the GTP line and took the CCUB nearly a year to complete. To carry it out, the CCUB mobilized over 1,000 men and 300 teams of horses and supplied all its own tools, equipment, food, fodder, supplies and shelter. The following article, published in the Manitoba Morning Free Press on June 30, 1906, describes a correspondent’s visit to one of the Doukhobor railroad construction camps near St. Lazare. It describes in detail the orderly and efficient manner in which the camps were operated to support the Doukhobors’ railroad building. 

Foxwarren, Man., June 27 – Your correspondent was one of a number that took a drive out from here to the Doukhobor railroad construction camps, a distance of about eleven miles to St. Lazare, where the road is first seen, and then four miles up the Qu’Appelle River to the end of the Doukhobor contract, which is seventeen miles – thirteen miles in the Assiniboine valley and the above four miles in the Qu’Appelle valley. This last is all completed but a few days’ work at each end; consequently, all the outfit but two camps have moved down into the Assiniboine valley on the east side of the river.

The most westerly camp was the first one visited. Here the first man interviewed was the man who goes back and forward to see that the grade is kept straight. The Doukhobors have no boss and no man gets more wages than another. This man proved to be a very amiable host, as his English was very good and consequently a lot of information was gathered.

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

“How many men have you here?” was the first question asked this well-built, fine-looking man. “About eighty,” was the reply, and in answer to the question, “How many camps are there along the seventeen miles of your contract?” his reply was, “Eleven, with a total of about 975 men in all.” It was also learned that they expect to finish their contract in September.

The visitors were then asked if they would like to see through the encampment, which consisted of seven camps for the men to sleep in, one for the women to sleep in, one for the women, a store tent, besides kitchen, blacksmith shop and stables. When an affirmative reply was given, this Canadian Doukhobor kindly consented to show the party through, and we were soon escorted to the cook house, where the cook (who was also a fair English-speaking man) explained how his work was accomplished. He has a separate store for baking and another for cooking. His baking stove is made of stones and clay, the under part of both with a large dome-shaped top of clay above. A large fire is put in this rude [simple], but nevertheless cleverly-built stove, and made to burn till everything is thoroughly hot. Then it is taken out and the bread is substituted. Three hours are taken to cook after the fire is removed, owing to the loaves being so very large.

Grading railway prior to laying track. Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada.

The stove where the soup (which, with bread, is their chief food) is prepared, is built up square with small, short poplar logs, and this is filled in with earth. Next stones about 10 inches in diameter are placed all around the edge, excepting the front, and on them is laid a large, heavy piece of sheet iron, on which the kettles are set to boil. About eight or nine large kettles will heat at once. Then the genial cook exhibited a loaf of his bread, and although not so light as other bread, it to all appearances would be quite eatable. The tables were constructed after the style of picnic tables, and were out in the open air, but a tent is being made to put over them.

From the cook house to the blacksmith shop, and here was met another sociable Douk[hobor], who explained how he made his own coal. He excavates a large hole in the ground, in which he puts a balm of gilead [a variety of poplar tree] poles. Over this is built a roof, practically air-tight, excepting enough draught to keep the fire burning. This is left till there is nothing but charred coal, which is used profitably instead of the real article.

Doukhobor railway construction crew, 1910.  Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Next, the interesting guide took the party to the tent where the women lived – four of them – fine-looking, clean, jolly women, busy making the tent for the tables. They could speak comparatively no English, so the escort did the talking, but that made it no less interesting. The women do no cooking or anything connected with the eatables; their work is to wash and sew, and when the four women do this for eighty men, they have not many idle hours. Their style of sewing is entirely different to the Canadian style, as they hold their needle point back and their thimble on the first finger. The Doukhobors have their own cows and the above work and milking the cows completes the duties of the women.

The party was then taken up to the grade, where the carts and wheelbarrows were working, and this scene closely resembled a hive of bees. The wheelbarrow men have plank walks built up to the dump, and there is a continual stream upward and back, passing on to the wagons. It was here where one got an idea of the care given to the horses. Everyone is in fine shape, the dapples showing plainly on their glossy hides, and this in an outdoor stable, with no sides and only tent cloth for roof. The work of one man is to prepare food for these horses. The baled hay is chopped and soaked, and this, with about a gallon and a half of oats, comprises the diet of the equines. The road here, four miles up grade, is barely one-third of the way up the hill.

Leaving the foreign friends, the party drove down the Qu’Appelle valley, along the completed grade, and to say that these uneducated Russians are good road-builders is putting it mild – they are simply experts. Large cuts and big grades are all built with the same accuracy, and are as level and straight as the sight. There is no carelessness or recklessness among these men, none whatsoever. Arriving at the camp, on the banks of the Assiniboine, the same busy spectacle was witnessed. The men were just completing a grade 15 or 20 feet high and about a quarter of a mile long, reaching right to the waters of the murky Assiniboine.

The Doukhobors are a clever, clean class of people, and all they require is to intermingle with the many other nationalities of this broad land, and in time there will be nothing but Canadians for Canada. The interesting pictures mentioned above can be seen all along the river valley, and with the completion of this national transcontinental railroad, this country will undergo a complete transformation – thanks to the Dominion government and the G.T.P.


For More Information on Doukhobors as Railway Builders

For information on the difficult working conditions of Doukhobor navvies on the Manitoba and Northwest Railway near Swan River, Manitoba in 1899, see The 1899 Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Dispute with the Doukhobors by Victor O. Buyniak. For a story of how one French-Canadian family obtained extra income selling foodstuffs to Doukhobor navvies on the Grand Trunk Railway near St. Lazare, Manitoba in 1905-1906, see the Belhumeur Homepage by Larry Quinto. To find out how the Doukhobor Community built a 30-mile grade between Canora and Yorkton, Saskatchewan for the Grand Trunk Railway in 1910, see Doukhobor Development in the Ebenezer District by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. Finally, for a list of 86 Doukhobor navvies constructing the grade for the Canadian Northern Railway between Hudson Bay Junction, Saskatchewan and The Pas, Manitoba in 1911, see the 1911 Canada Census District 212, Sub-District 1, pages 2122.