Visit to the Doukhobors

Manitoba Morning Free Press

The year 1902 was a turbulent one for the Doukhobors in Canada. Disputes with government over homestead entry, internal dissension and zealot activity turned the tide of public opinion against them, prompting many wildly outrageous and grossly exaggerated reports. Despite this, some fair-minded Canadians continued to stand up unreservedly for the Doukhobors. One such citizen, E.H. Blow of Fort Pelly, Assiniboia, wrote a detailed and sympathetic account of the Doukhobors of the North Colony, extolling their prosperity and progress, social customs, skills, industry, work ethic, and charity, homes, buildings and yards, and other positive characteristics. Published in the Manitoba Morning Free Press on October 1, 1902, his message was simple and direct: Leave the Doukhobors alone. Give them a chance, and let them become Canadians on their own terms.

The peaceful, inoffensive, industrious Doukhobor has been the subject of much talk of late. This talk has been caused by the foolish utterances of idle and irresponsible people, and by the malicious statements of mischief makers. All the reports that have been spread abroad are either willfully false or grossly exaggerated. With the exception of his disinclination to observe three simple governmental regulations on account of his religious beliefs, there is no reason for complaint against him. He is a hard-working, uncovetous, and exceedingly charitable to all but when he has to rub shoulders with government, he becomes obstinate and fortifies himself with the instilled faith that God alone is supreme, and his laws only are to be observed. As the human Laws of all Christian nations today are based on God’s law, the Doukhobor cannot be regarded as other than an admirable character.

His present obstinate refusal to enter for his homestead, to register his vital statistics and to pay his road tax is no doubt annoying, but as some one has remarked “obstinacy is not to be commended but fidelity to what one deems to be right and proper is ever to be commended and recognized.” Leave the Doukhobor alone and he will soon became a citizen of Canada whose example in matters of industry and religious zeal will be worthy of emulation. The minds of the young men are turning in the right direction and victory will be with them.

It has just been my privilege to visit the thirteen Doukhobor villages in the Swan River valley, extending from Thunder Hill, eighteen miles along the Swan River, in Eastern Assiniboia, and the impressions that I formed from my personal contact with the Doukhobors and from my observations of their habits and customs is extremely favorable in their behalf. In the thirteen villages there are 2,500 souls, the population of the villages ranging from 100 to 250. These villages comprise what is known as the north colony.

Store Houses Filled to Overflowing

It is a little over three years since they settled on the land set apart for them by the Dominion government. They had no cattle, horses or implements to start with, but the good Quakers of the United States came to their aid and furnished them with means to purchase these necessary articles in a limited way. With primitive methods they went to work with characteristic energy and abounding patience and faith and today they have under cultivation an aggregate of 5,540 acres of which they have reaped this year a rich harvest of wheat, barley, oats, flax and vegetables, so that their store houses are filled to over-flowing, sufficient to place them, beyond all possibility of need for the next five years, supposing they did not wish to produce any more during that period. But they do intend to produce more, because they are now busy at work plowing the stubble fields and breaking new land. They had the wheat cut and stacked two weeks earlier than the English speaking settlers in the district and have a good part of their threshing done, not withstanding the fact that they have no modern machinery and do practically all their work by hand labor.

Village of Vosnesenya, North Colony, c. 1904.  Library and Archives Canada C-000683.

The Doukhobor Homes

The Doukhobor villages and the Doukhobor home life are picturesque. It is like a bit of the old world transplanted into the newest. The cottages are ranged on either side of an open street and are tastefully constructed, presenting an attractive appearance. The material used in the construction of the houses is un-sawn spruce timber. Both the exterior and interior are plastered over with a clay mixture and then painted with a wash made of white painted clay, the prevailing white being relieved by dadoes around walls and posts made from a wash of yellow clay. The roof logs project over the walls and form verandahs which are neatly ornamented with woodwork, in some instances carved and scrolled. Beneath the verandahs on the sides of the houses mostly used are plank, stone or earthen platforms. Erected over the gates are ornamental arches such as are common in Northern Europe and eastern countries. The home yards are kept as neat as a palace walk by means of sand spread on the ground and watered and swept every morning, and once or twice during the day. The interior of the houses, with scarcity an exception are spotless. The walls and ceilings are immaculately white, while the tables, benches, and chairs all made of lumber fairly shine with the constant scrubbing and polishing of the good housewives. Generally speaking the houses each have a living and sleeping room, kitchen, and work and store room. In some cases where families live together under the same roof, the living and sleeping rooms are duplicated, both families using the kitchen in common. Where two or more families live together, they are usually relatives, the parents and their sons’ wives and children. The son always takes his wife to his father’s home and there they live until the young folks build for themselves, or if the husband has to go away to work, his wife and children are under the care and protection of his parents.

The Sleeping Apartments

A number of the members of a family may and do sleep in the same room. Because of this fact, some people are disposed to harshly criticize the Doukhobors, but it must be remembered that this habit is customary among the peasant folk of other European nationalities and thee are many pioneers in this country who can recall the time when Canadian settlers in their first homestead shacks were compelled to live in a similar way. Some of these settlers today are living in houses that cost from six to ten thousand dollars, and they will tell you not with a blush, but with feelings or pride, of the inconveniences they had to put up with in the early days, and how they overcame them. The Doukhobor is a God-fearing good-living moral man. No one can deny that. He who says to the contrary speaks with a false or foolish tongue. While to those who know naught to the contrary it may appear that there is no privacy in the Doukhobor home; there is privacy and above all there is sanctity. The Doukhobor believes with Canon Farrer: “It may not be ours to utter convincing arguments, but it may be ours to live holy lives; it may be ours to be noble, and sweet, and pure,” and so he lives by day and by night.

Clean Barns and Stable Yard

As neatness and cleanliness is the conspicuous feature of the Doukhobor home, so is with all about the homestead. There is a place for everything and everything is kept in its place. The horse and cattle stables are warm and clean. The manure is not thrown out of the stable and left there to contaminate the air or to pollute the earth. It is hauled away to the fields or otherwise disposed of. When the cattle come home at night, they are corralled some distance from the house and the feed is not thrown to them on the ground, but placed in racks, so that there may be no waste and no litter. Everything is neat and tidy and thrifty-like. Some settlers could get many useful sanitary and economic pointers by a visit to the Doukhobor villages.

Evidence of Taste and Skills

The large oven found in every house is an interest object. In its capacious interior all the baking and cooking is done, while sufficient heat is radiated from its ample surfaces to warm the entire house. On top the little children and old women have their sleeping place. The oven is kept scrupulously clean, the same as every other part of the house. Stoves are now coming into use in most of the villages. In every house visited there were plants in the windows, curtain draperies and little ornamental knickknacks of silk and woodwork, giving evidence of skill and taste on the part of both men and women.

Will Build Better Homes

The Doukhobor house is of a character that no pioneer in a new country need be ashamed of, but the Doukhobors are not satisfied. They have already expressed their intention of erecting larger and more substantial homes as soon as they get more land under cultivation. Their new homes will be chiefly of stone and each man will build on his own farm. Many of the men are skilled in the art of stone masonry, and as the shallow river beds in the region where they live abound in boulder stone, it is natural that they should decide to build their permanent homes of this excellent material.

The Women Spin and Weave

The ancient spinning wheel is found in every home and with it the women make yarn from the wool of their sheep and also spin flax thread, from which they weave coarse, serviceable cloth and also make twine, etc. The Doukhobors appear to understand the manufacture of hemp, and the industry among them should be encouraged. With improved machinery they could manufacture a number of merchantable articles, such as binder twine, rope and linen. What they are doing in this line now is on a small and crude scale. The women are skillful with the needle, their lace and silk work being very artistically designed and splendidly executed. The women also excel in basket making, the fancy straw baskets made by them being equal to anything ever imported into Winnipeg from abroad. This work they do, it would seem, for amusement, and generally to present to friends as souvenirs, though they turn it to profitable account sometimes. Some of the men carve animals and birds, and all are handy with carpenters’ and smithing tools. They are able to make anything they want out of the most unlikely material. The Doukhobor is by no means the stupid being hat some people think. Necessity has made him a genius. It has sharpened his wits and inspired his hand, and as soon as he feels that he is an absolutely free man he will become a model citizen. He has no vices; his wants are simple, and he follows the Bible precept that it is more blessed to give than to receive. He gives away one-tenth of what he produces, here again showing his strict observance of Biblical teaching.

Doukhobor women baking bread in outdoor ovens. British Columbia Archives E-07248.

Everybody Works

I have seen the people in their homes, in the fields, in the towns and on the trail. They are always at work, and everybody from the youngest to the oldest, finds something to do. Many hands lighten the burden, and their work seems to be a pleasure. The household duties of the women are light, owing to the assistance they receive from the young girls, consequently they accompany the men to the fields and help with what work there may be there to do. The outdoor work done by the women is voluntary. They go with the men more as a matter of comradeship and as the men are kind to the women, the latter are anxious to help all they can in sewing, caring for and reaping the crops. Many of the women who go to the fields do not join in the farm work, but take their sewing and knitting, with them. I have seen several groups of women of the various villages sitting around the stacks while the sheaves were being hauled in, or at the winnowing grounds, busily employed with their fancy work, while the children played about or occupied themselves with light employment. These scenes were very pretty and reminded one more of a happy family picnic party than anything else. Yet the work of the harvest was going on unceasingly and it was wonderful what a few men could accomplish in a day. Three stone flour mills are being put up in the north and south colonies, and the rivers are being utilized for motive power.

How the Doukhobor Threshes

The Doukhobor threshes his grain in the fields either with flails or by horses attached to corrugated rollers, the tramping of the animals and the pounding of the rollers separating the wheat from the straw. The threshed grain is finally cleaned by throwing it into the air so that the chaff and light foreign seeds may be blown out by the wind. The grain is then passed through home-made sieves and is then ready for mill or market. The process is slow but with the number of winnowing grounds in a field a lot of grain can be harvested in a day. I saw in one field a party of fifty men and women standing in a circle threshing with flails. It was a pretty picture of industry, the effect being heightened by the quaint multi-colored garb of the women. They sang as they worked, and were apparently as happy as school children.

Social Customs

The community system prevails among the Doukhobors. All moneys earned by the members of a village are pooled and each village has a common storehouse in which provisions and supplies are kept. Individuals may contract debts, but the village to which they belong becomes responsible for payment. All debts are promptly met, so that no business man hesitates to give the Doukhobors credit for any amount. Those who have commercial dealings with these people hold them in high esteem for their unfailing probity.

The marriage ceremony of the Doukhobors is simple. It is merely a declaration made before elders, but it is to them just as solemnly binding as any rite, ritual, or sacrament of the great church denominations. The story that a Doukhobor may divorce his wife at pleasure is untrue. The Doukhobor who does not treat his wife kindly, who fails to provide for her properly or deserts her is excommunicated, as it were and becomes a social outcast. To the Doukhobor, so firm in his simple Christ-like faith, this is a severe penalty as is rarely if ever incurred.

Cleanliness of person is one of the cardinal principles of the Doukhobor doctrine. The first house built in a village is a Russian bath-house which is used daily and in addition to this, men, women and children are frequently to be seen bathing in the rivers in nature’s attire. For the benefit of those who think this a depraved or questionable custom, the well-known motto of the British royal coat of arms may be cited. However, as the district becomes settled up and the Doukhobors become familiar with the customs of the country they will, no doubt, perform their outdoor ablutions in a more conventional manner. They would not wittingly give offense to any person.

The Doukhobor is Sociable

To the casual observer the Doukhobor might appear sullen and distrustful. But such is not his nature. He is merely respectful among strangers and training refrains him from being familiar. When approached, however, in a friendly spirit, he warms up and becomes sociable. He is full of good humor and wholesome fun. He bubbles over with a happy spirit. Children and adults are the same. The youngsters romp and frolic in the villages and have their play things, always homemade, the same as other children.

The warmth of the welcome that a stranger receives to the Doukhobor home is marked. There is no doubt about the genuineness of the hospitality. Gate and door are flung wide open and food for man and beast in abundance is instantly forthcoming if wanted. To offer payment for the entertainment is to offer insult. They will give but not receive.

Deeds of Charity

To illustrate the great Christian charitableness with which these people are imbued, it may be mentioned that they have frequently made gifts of animals and provisions to poor English speaking settlers whom they had accidentally learned were in needy circumstances. It is not long since that some of the villagers in the South or Yorkton colony, hearing that the house of an English speaking settler had been destroyed by fire, went to the forest, cut logs, hauled them to the unfortunate man’s farm and built him a new house and offered other material aid. One village also gave to Mr. Harley, Dominion land agent and Post master at Swan River six cows, with the request that they be given to any poor settlers that might be in his district. Many similar instances of exceeding generosity and kindness are on record. Charity is one of the virtues that the Doukhobor believes in exercising freely, and his charity is dispensed unostentatiously. When he sees opportunity to do good he does it as a solemn duty and without expectation of worldly favor or reward.

The North Colony Reserve

The north colony reserve is eighteen miles long and twelve wide, comprising six townships of 188,240 acres. The soil is uniformly good, being a rich loan. The land generally is what is known as highland prairie, much of the tract being open, but there are belts of excellent timber along the Swan River and in the hills. The typography of the country is attractive, being a succession of gently rolling hills, scored with ravines, which run back from the valley of the Swan River and furnish natural drainage. The Swan Valley west and north of Thunder Hill, is very beautiful. The banks in some places rise to a height of 300 feet above the meandering serpentine stream, and with treeless buttes and wooded dales present as lovely a picture of nature in its wild state as one could wish to gaze upon. The villages extend along the river southward from Thunder Hill, and are nearly all situated on the river banks, some on the north and some on the south side. Numerous spring creeks rise in the hills and furnish the purest of water. Some of these creeks run all winter and have never been known to freeze.

What can be said of the Doukhobor reserve may be said of the entire Swan River valley, so that the Doukhobors have no monopoly of the good things. There are thousands of acres of the very best agricultural lands west of the Duck Mountains, extending north from Shell River to the Swan valley, and westward from there indefinitely to the Saskatchewan country. This vast territory will soon be open for homesteading. Some of it already is, so that the Doukhobor reserve is but a speck on the map. The land between Swan River town and the first Doukhobor village just outside the province is a splendid district, and the Canadian and other settlers who have located there consider themselves very fortunate. The Doukhobors are well satisfied with their land, their only regret being that they cannot grow fruit as they did in Russia; but they have decided that it is more profitable and less trouble to grow wheat and buy apples. The country is overrun with small wild fruits. The Doukhobors are good farmers. They are careful and study the nature of the soil. When they acquire machinery, as they assuredly will as they grow richer, they will be big exporters of all kinds of cereals.

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

Religious Zeal

The Doukhobors are intensely religious. Their zeal in this respect has recently created a nine days’ wonder for such it will prove to be. Some of the old men fearing that their sudden change from poverty to plenty might make them worldly, or that prosperity might cause the younger members of the community to relax in their faith, agitated for a thank offering to God, and advised that this offering should take the form of liberating their horses, oxen and cows. They also advised the renewal of vows not to kill or destroy life or use the product of any beast, bird or being that had been killed. The influence of the elders is strong. Obedience to the will of the elders is instilled into the Doukhobors from childhood, so it is little wonder that the strange propaganda had its effect. However, all the people were not carried away by the “craze.”, more than half of them refusing to give up their live stock or to follow any lead that made for retrogression. Less than 500 animals – horses, cows and sheep – were turned away from the two colonies of 4,500 people. A few sold their animals and bought implements. Those who declined to give up their live stock are among the most intelligent of the people, who recognize the advantages of having horses and work cattle for the carrying on of their agricultural pursuits. This faction will continue to add to their live stock and implements whenever they can afford it, and in fact were among the buyers at the sale of the Doukhobor cattle at Fort Pelly last Wednesday.

Will Result in Good

This wave of religious zeal will do good. It will probably result in the solution of the little difficulties that have been encountered with respect to the observance of the governmental regulations already referred to. There are already signs that this will be the effect. The factions are now at outs with each other, and the progressive spirits will break way from the prevailing communistic ideas and will strike out for themselves. When the others see how well these succeed they will fall into line. They are thinking and debating, and discussing and all will end right, because the young men who are breaking away are now just as stubborn as the elders, though it causes them many a heart pang and brings down upon them a species of petty persecution that under the circumstances requires a strong will and much moral courage to withstand. The two factions are known among themselves as the “bad Doukhobors” and the “crazy Doukhobors.”

The Passing of the Craze

When the Doukhobors became affected with the craze, they discarded their boots, woolen stockings and every article of clothing made wholly or partly of leather or wool. They bought rubber boots and made shoes of planed binder twine with wooden soles. They took the leather peaks and bands from their caps and replaced them with cloth, and took the place of the horses and oxen at the wagons and plows. They are getting tired of this practice now as it evidenced by the remarks that the “bad Doukhobors” let fall occasionally among their English speaking friends; and I saw myself people from one of the villages who had turned loose their sheep, hauling sacks of wool home from Swan River. This is indicative of a recantation which all who are in touch with the situation, believe will soon become general. They probably realize that their extreme self-abnegation before God involves altogether too much punishment of the flesh without corresponding benefits to the soul. No one minds if they do make cart horses of themselves. That is their own business.

Some may think it cruel to have the women helping to pull the wagons, but the women do this of their own accord and against the wishes of the men, and the loads are so light, compared to the number of men and women who do the hauling, that the individual work load is light. As they march along the road they sing joyful songs and laugh and joke one with the other. The women do not hitch themselves to the wagons in all cases. They accompany the men to town to make purchases and to prepare the meals at the roadside camps, and may frequently be seen on the trial, walking ahead while the mean pull the wagons and carts. No argument can convince the Doukhobor that he is wrong in giving up his horses and cattle. When cornered by a Bible quotation, he repudiates the Old Testament, falls back on the New, and finally tells you that he gets his teachings and inspirations from the Book of Life. The Doukhobors are not the only people who are carried away by religious fads. Only a few months ago in Winnipeg then were men and women who gave up all their money and land to join some Bible school that was conduced by a Yankee on Broadway and there are several other sects in the city whose religious practices are so emotional that they partake of the nature of mania.

Objections to Government

The Doukhobor does not believe in government. He recognizes but one ruler and that is God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” and therefore, he must not lay proprietary claim to anything in the earth, under the earth, or in the sky. Hence his objections to the making entry for his homestead, to pay road tax, and to the registration of vital statistics. He will build roads, but he wants no government supervisions; he is willing that the homesteads be entered for in the name of the village, but will not agree to individual ownership. He would also report the births, deaths and marriages, but fears that that means taxes and taxes mean government. He is afraid that compliance with these simple but important regulations would be the inserting of the thin end of the wedge and the end would be tyranny. He does not understand, but soon will. The government will find means to convince him that he has nothing to fear and the example of those of his brethren who have homesteaded, will have a salutary effect, though it may be slow. It took the children of Israel a whole generation to realize and appreciate the benefits of their release from thralldom, and so it takes time with all people who have been subjected for centuries to the falling yoke of despotism, and have learned to hate their oppressors with a bitterness that knows no bounds to get rid of their prejudices, their fears, and their doubts. It is safe to predict that before next spring the number of Doukhobors to take up their homesteads will largely swell the present list.

Doukhobors plowing, North Colony, 1905.  Library and Archives Canada A021179.

The Doukhobors Developing

The Doukhobors are developing. Those who saw them arriving in Winnipeg a little over three years ago would scarcely know them now. Many of them have laid aside their national peasant garbs and adopted Canadian attire. They young people want to get on: it is the elders who cling tenaciously to their old habits, customs and beliefs, just the same as the old men of those excellent people the Mennonites cling to theirs and urge the young people to do the same. But with the progressive influences surrounding them, neither the young Doukhobor nor the young Mennonite can be checked. The Mennonites have been in Manitoba nearly 30 years, but yet their advance towards that goal which Canadians desire to see them attain is only beginning to be noticeable. It will take another generation to evolve the real thing.

Not a few of the Doukhobors can now speak English, especially the young lads. Several boys have been employed as store clerks in Swan River town, and a couple are engaged there now. The merchants speak highly of their ability as salesmen, and of their energy and faithfulness to duty. They are bright and quick to learn, mastering all the details of counter work in a few weeks. These lads are well dressed and if they were placed with a group of Canadians, any one who did not know them, would not be able to identify them. I have watched the immigration of foreign peoples since the arrival of the Mennonites, and in my opinion the Doukhobors are equal as agriculturists to the very best Europeans of the peasant class that have come to this country and much better than a good deal of it. They are self reliant, good providers, and will never cost the country one cent. Some of those who stubbornly cling to their belief may perhaps endeavor to seek an asylum where they will be allowed to follow their peculiar ideas regarding government without interference, but there will be few.

Not Illiterate

It is frequently asserted that the Doukhobors are illiterate. This is not a fact. The majority of them can read and write in their own language, even the young boys can read and I have frequently seen them reading letters and the tracts received from a Russian committee that has headquarters in London, England. They Doukhobors do not favor the establishment of English schools, but teach their children at home. Every father is the teacher at his own house, and also the preacher. The children are taught the unit system of reckoning by the use of the abacus, such as the Chinese use for calculating. The Bible is the only book seen in their homes, but they receive papers and tracts from abroad.

How the Doukhobors Came

An impression has gained ground that the Doukhobors were brought to the Northwest at an enormous expense to the Dominion government. This is erroneous, as most of the reports about these people are. The Doukhobors were sent to Canada by money provided by the Society of Friends in England, and the Quakers of the United States furnished money to buy them seed grain, live stock, and implements. In two or three trifling cases the government did advance money for implements, but on making inquiry I ascertained that the amount has been repaid. The per capita bonus paid to European steamship companies for promoting emigration, was given to the Doukhobors as the steamship agents had not worked among them and waived their claim. Part of this money was used in purchasing food supplies under the direction of a committee of local gentlemen. Considering the expenditure for advertising, agents, etc., the average British immigrant costs per head vastly more than the Doukhobors did. I am informed that all inducements given to the Doukhobors are open to any large bodies of desirable settlers from any other part of the world.

As to the character of the Doukhobor, his industry, his morals, his charity, I am glad to state that the opinion I have formed in respect thereto is shared by the business men of the towns where they trade and by those who have had occasion to come in contact with them in matters of business or otherwise. One business man said: “If they will only leave the Doukhobors alone until they get to understand things here. They will make a veritable garden out of this country.”

Not All Alike

The people in each village have their own little fads about dress and edibles, and sometimes the people of the same village hold diverse views about these things. Now, regarding the turning away of their live stock, only a certain percentage in each village have done this. Out of thirteen villages that I have visited there were only two that had no horses, oxen or cattle. In the others more than half of the live stock has been retained, and as I have said more will be purchased by the independent men as soon as they can get the money. In every field passed, I saw more men at work with oxen and horses. I saw no women pulling plows or wagons on the farms. Some won’t eat butter; others will, and I saw the women making excellent butter. Meat in all forms is tabooed, but fish has a place on the bill-of-fare in some homes. However, a straight vegetarian diet is the prevailing rule, and it seems to agree with these people, for they are stalwart, healthy and strong. The children are the picture of health. They would make fine illustrations for health food advertisements. Disease is rarely known among them. Both men, women and children are comfortably clad, and in all the colonies there is every appearance of comfort, happiness and prosperity. Leave the Doukhobor alone. Give him a chance and he will soon evolve into a sturdy, worthy Western Canadian citizen.

E.A. Blow

Fort Pelly, Assiniboia
September 26, 1902.

Special thanks to Corinne Postnikoff of Castlegar, British Columbia for her assistance with the data input of this article.

The Hyas Doukhobor Settlement

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Among the first settlers in the Hyas district of Saskatchewan were a group of Independent Doukhobors. Attracted by homestead lands and the promise of a railroad, the Russian pacifists arrived in 1902 to establish the village of Vozvyshenie. For five years, they lived, prayed and worked there under the motto of “Toil and Peaceful Life”, transforming the prairie wilderness into productive farmland. By 1907, however, the village experiment was abandoned, owing to the lack of railroad facilities and difficulty of getting goods to market. The story of Vozvyshenie illustrates the role of the traditional Russian village model, cooperative organization, homestead policy and the location and timing of railroad construction in the early settlement of Independent Doukhobors on the Prairies. The following article by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, a descendant of the Vozvyshenie Doukhobors, examines their little known contribution to the history and development of the Hyas district.

Origin and History

The Doukhobors were a religious group founded in 18th century Russia. They rejected the rites and dogma of the Orthodox Church and denied the authority of the Tsarist State, refusing to swear allegiance to anyone but God. Their practical, commonsense teachings were based on the belief that the spirit of God resides in the soul of every person; therefore, to kill another person was to kill God. The Doukhobors were frequently persecuted for their faith by Imperial Russian authorities and forced to live in the frontier regions of the Empire.

In 1895, the Doukhobors refused to perform military service and burned their firearms in a symbolic demonstration against violence. Their pacifist stand was met with renewed persecution by authorities and many were tortured, imprisoned or exiled. Their plight attracted international attention, and with the assistance of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Doukhobors sought refuge by immigrating to Canada.

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

In 1899, over 7,500 Doukhobors arrived in Canada, settling on three large blocks of land reserved for them by the Dominion Government in the Northwest Territories, in what are today the districts of Pelly, Arran, Kamsack, Veregin, Canora, Buchanan, Langham and Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. Following the motto of “Toil and Peaceful Life”, they cleared, broke and farmed the land and established over sixty villages, as well as flour mills, elevators, saw mills, brick factories, trading stores, roads, bridges and ferries in these areas.

During the first years of settlement, the Doukhobors adopted a communal way of life. Organized as the “Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood”, they held all land, livestock, machinery and other property in common. All work in the fields was performed jointly, all produce went into a communal granary and all proceeds, including outside earnings, pooled into a common treasury. Virtually all aspects of Community life – spiritual, social and economic – were organized according to the utopian communal vision of their leader, Peter V. Verigin.

As time passed, however, many of the younger Doukhobor men withdrew from the Community and entered for individual homesteads. These men had travelled around the country working for Canadian farmers and had imbibed some independent ideas. They came to resent the narrowness and rigidity of Community life and grew tired of throwing their wage labour into a pool and getting very little out of it. They retained the essentials of their religion, particularly pacifism, but rejected the central leadership and communal lifestyle as being not essential to true Doukhoborism. Most of these “Independents” settled on their individual homesteads after leaving the communalism of the Community villages. A few, however, sought to retain the traditional village form of settlement. Such was the case of the Independent Doukhobors who settled in the Hyas district.

Arrival and Settlement

In the spring of 1902, a group of twenty-nine Doukhobors in the Buchanan district broke away from the communal lifestyle to farm independently. As all of the desirable homesteads had been taken up in that district, they were obliged to search elsewhere for land. After careful investigation of the countryside, traversing it from west to east and from south to north, they chose lands situated twenty-five miles to the northeast – a day’s journey by horse and wagon – in the Hyas district.

The Hyas district was a wilderness of rolling prairie covered with scattered poplar and scrub, interspersed with spruce, when the Doukhobors arrived. Much of the land was still unsettled. It was unsurveyed and there were no roads save for a deeply rutted pack trail – a branch of the Fort Pelly Trail – which ran through it. Nonetheless, the land met the settlers’ essential requirements: excellent soil, a good water supply, and accessible timber to build. As well, many of the settlers were already familiar with the district, having founded a short-lived village in the vicinity between 1899 and 1901.

A significant factor in their decision to locate was the Canadian Northern Railway Company’s 1902 proposal to extend a branch line from Swan River, Manitoba west through the district. When the Doukhobors inquired with the Dominion Lands Branch office about homesteads in the vicinity, they had been promised the branch line within a year or two. It was well understood at the time that rail access to distant markets would be essential if they were to prosper on their homesteads and farms in the hinterland.

Map of Vovyshenie village site in relation to present-day village of Hyas, Saskatchewan.

To this end, the Russian speaking settlers filed homestead entries on Section 6 of Township 34 and Sections 30 and 34 of Township 33, all in Range 2, West of the Second Meridian along the proposed railway route. Under the Dominion Lands Act, they could obtain patent for the land provided they cultivated at least thirty acres on each quarter-section, became naturalized subjects and swore an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

Ordinarily, homesteaders were required to build a house on their quarter-section and reside there for a period of time, usually six months a year for three years. However, the Doukhobors were granted the modifications of the “Hamlet Clause” under the Dominion Lands Act which allowed them to fulfill the residence requirements in their traditional village form of settlement and fulfill their homestead obligations without actually living on their individual quarter-sections.

The Doukhobors thus selected a suitable place on the southwest quarter of Section 6 to establish a village. It was located so that it would be more or less central to their homestead entries to minimize the travel distance between their homes and their fields. It was adjacent to a small unnamed stream which offered a reliable source of water. Stands of spruce trees were situated nearby for use for building and heating. As it was built on a rise of land, relative to the swampy lowlands to the south, it was named Vozvyshenie, from the Russian for “elevation” or “rising ground”. It was the first organized settlement in the district, predating the village of Hyas by a decade.

The village initially consisted of five 18’ x 30’ houses constructed of hand-sawn logs with low-pitched gable roofs thatched with grass. They were built in two rows facing each other across a wide central street, laid out in the Strassendorf (street village) pattern used in Russia. Behind each house was a large garden plot for use by each family. Numerous outbuildings were also built, including barns, stables, granaries, a bathhouse (banya), blacksmith’s shop (kuznitsa) and outdoor clay oven (pech’). A row of spruce trees was planted along the central street of the village.

The original families comprising the village of Vozvyshenie were those of Wasyl Swetlishnoff, John Salikin, Alexei Barisoff, Peter Negraeff, John Rilkoff, Joseph Derhousoff, Peter Sookorukoff and Semyon Kalmakoff. In the ensuing years, they were joined by the families of Alexei Katasonoff, Efim Bedinoff, Alexei Derhousoff and Zakhar Derhousoff from the Arran and Runnymede districts. Most of the village families were related to one another either directly or through marriage.

Home of Syoma and Masha Kalmakoff, Vozvysheniye village, c. 1905.  This rare period photograph is the only one of the village known to exist today.

Village Life

The Doukhobors of Vozvyshenie lived together on a free and voluntary basis, without formal leadership or institutions. Village meetings (sobranie) were held from time to time at which women and men participated equally in the decision making process, which was similar to the traditional mir in Russia. The elders (starichki) provided advice and direction for the affairs of the village. Disagreements were rare, and the Doukhobor values of love, non-violence, hospitality, simple living and justice prevailed in day to day relations.

Agriculturally and economically, the villagers organized themselves along broad cooperative lines, as they had in Russia. Homesteads, village lots, buildings, livestock and machinery were considered the private property of each household. Each family worked its homestead independent of the others. At the same time, they cooperated in common undertakings, sharing labour, draft animals and implements whenever they could be spared from their own work. To some extent, such mutual assistance was a practical necessity in the early years of Prairie settlement, when survival was paramount.

The Doukhobors were almost entirely self-sufficient in food production. They grew potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and other vegetables in their gardens; picked wild berries, nuts and mushrooms in the forest; consumed meat and dairy products from their cattle; slaughtered their cows, pigs and chickens for meat; caught fish in the nearby rivers and streams; and grew wheat which was milled to produce flour for baking.

The villagers also manufactured most of their own cloths, tools and furniture. The women wove cloth and made garments, rugs, shawls, and hangings from homespun fabrics. The men produced furniture, boots and shoes, ladles, harnesses, horseshoes, spades, spinning wheels and various tools. Store-bought items consisted of those few items which could not be made, grown or produced in the village, such as salt, coal oil, glass, sugar, tea and soap.

As with all new settlers, the Doukhobors struggled to increase their cash income. In summer, the able-bodied men left the village to work as railway labourers and farmhands at subsistence wages while the women, children and old men managed the lands and households. It was this collective sharing of responsibilities which made their continued existence possible.

Doukhobors harvesting, c. 1907.  Library and Archives Canada C-009787.

Clearing and improving the homesteads was a slow, difficult process that took the majority of the villagers’ time and labour. Before crops could be sown, the settlers had to remove trees and scrub, drain sloughs and clear the fields of rocks. Using axes, hoes and sickles along with teams of horses hitched to walking plows, the Doukhobors could only clear ten to fifteen acres at the most in a year. All villagers old enough to work contributed towards this effort.

As parcels of land were cleared, the Doukhobors cultivated and sowed it to produce rye, barley and oat crops. They put much of it into grass for pasture and hay. As more feed was produced, additional livestock were acquired. At first, the villagers were limited to subsistence farming, with nearly all of the crops and livestock raised used to survive, leaving little, if any, surplus for sale or trade.

Diversions from the arduous work were few. Leisure was not a concept known to the Doukhobors since, according to their teachings, people were not supposed to be idle. All the same, the villagers socialized as they worked together in the village and in the fields. Work and leisure thus formed an integrated whole. Prayer meetings (molenie) were a major weekly social event on Sunday morning. Other less formal social gatherings were held from time to time.

Generally speaking, the Doukhobors shared many of the same experiences as other settlers. Isolation, loneliness, harsh weather, deprivation and adversity were met with persistence, optimism, thrift, resourcefulness and the acceptance of unremitting hard work. At the same time, their life was made easier in that they were a close-knit community and worked together, whereas a single homesteader often lived by himself, far from other neighbours.

Growth and Prosperity

In spite of the initial hardships of pioneer life, Vozvyshenie grew and even prospered. By the taking of the Census of Northwest Provinces in 1906, it was a bustling village of forty-five people living in eleven households. Now the villagers had eighteen horses, thirty-seven milk cows and forty-seven horned cattle. They had brought a large area surrounding the village under cultivation and had begun to produce a surplus of agricultural products.

By this time, the Doukhobors were no longer alone. Following the Dominion Lands Survey in 1904, in which sections and quarter-sections were laid out, hundreds of new settlers poured into the district. The vast bulk of these people were Galicians from Western Ukraine and Scandinavians – Swedes and Norwegians – who arrived via the United States. Other groups included English and Scottish settlers from Ontario and Russian and Ukrainian Evangelical Protestants who, like the Doukhobors, fled Tsarist Russia to avoid religious persecution. They all came seeking a better way of life, bringing with them a diversity of languages, manners and customs.

It was evident that the Doukhobor village was a gathering place for many of the newcomers where they met to discuss local news, weather conditions and matters relating to the land and its settlement. To some extent, the newcomers were dependent on more established settlers for advice and direction to start their own homesteads, and the Doukhobors were foremost in offering hospitality and generosity to all who came to them for assistance.

A line of spruce trees marks the central street of Vozvyshenie, a mile southwest of Hyas on Highway No. 49.

For instance, when the first groups of Russian and Ukrainian Evangelical Protestants arrived in the district, they stayed at Vozvyshenie for several days, and with the help of the Doukhobors, got to their homesteads. The two groups of settlers, being able to converse in their native language, remained on friendly terms, visited one another’s homes and engaged in lively philosophical discussions. Indeed, one Evangelical Protestant settler, Pavel Skripnik, was so impressed by the Doukhobor way of life that he converted to their faith and took the surname “Skripnikoff”.

With the influx of settlers, regular mail service became available in 1903 as the Plateau post office was opened on Fred Wright’s farm on Section 16 of Township 33. In 1905, it was moved to the general store belonging to Adolph Kennedy on Section 20 of Township 33 and renamed the Ulric post office. Then, from 1909 to 1911, it was re-opened as the Cokato post office on Tom Tetlock’s farm on Section 26 of Township 33. Mail was conveyed fortnightly by stage from Kamsack via Fort Pelly. With this convenience, settlers were better able to transact business and maintain correspondence with friends and relatives in outlaying parts of the country.

Despite the rapid growth of the district, however, the settlers were disadvantaged by the lack of accessibility and distance of markets. The main supply route, the Fort Pelly Trail, provided a tenuous link to the outside world and was often impassible by horse and wagon. Although supplies could be obtained locally at Kennedy’s or at the Hudson Bay Company store at Fort Pelly, fourteen miles to the east, the nearest market for livestock and grain was the town of Canora, located twenty miles to the south, which was too far away to be practical and economical.

The railway had been promised, but each autumn after the ground had frozen, when it came time for grain hauling, there was no sign of a railway and the settlers had to haul their grain to Canora. The Doukhobors hitched two teams of horses to a sleigh and hauled up to sixty bushels per load. The entire trip consumed two days. During the relatively mild winters of 1905 and 1906, the journey was bearable. However, during the severe winter of 1907, the heavy loads often got upset in the deep snow and it was several days before they got back to the village. Similar long and arduous journeys were made to drive the cattle the Doukhobors raised overland to Canora.

Abandonment and Dissolution

by the end of 1907, many of the Doukhobors had grown dissatisfied with the lack of railway facilities, the difficulty of getting goods to market and the resulting unprofitability of their farms. It was generally established that grain could not be profitably marketed if had to be hauled by horse and wagon for a distance greater than ten to twelve miles to a railway point.

After much deliberation, most decided that the economic benefits of relocating closer to the railhead outweighed the limitations of staying at Vozvyshenie. Consequently, eight of the eleven families abandoned their homestead entries, left the village and relocated to new homesteads which had been thrown open in the district north-east of Canora. Their partially improved homestead entries were eventually taken up by new settlers.

The departure of the majority of families led to the dissolution of the village. The remaining families – those who were unwilling or perhaps unable to abandon their efforts and relocate to another district – moved out onto their individual homesteads. As houses and barns were removed or dismantled for building materials, the physical structure of the village was reduced to the farmstead of the family homesteading the village quarter-section. Thus, the Doukhobor village of Vozvyshenie, which only a year before had bustled with activity and promise, disappeared from the map.

Log farmhouse of Alexei Barisoff – the last remaining building of Vozvyshenie.

New Beginnings

The families who stayed behind – those of Alexei Derhousoff, Zakhar Derhousoff and Alexei Barisoff – continued to prove up their entries on Section 6 of Township 34. In due course, they obtained patents to the land. They were joined by another Doukhobor family, that of Ivan Nahornoff, who arrived in the district from Russia in 1910 and purchased (desirable homesteads were now hard to come by so that new settlers had to purchase land) the southeast quarter of Section 35 of Township 33. The 1911 Canada Census reported twenty-one people in these four families. Their mixed farming operations were amongst the most prosperous and successful in the district.

Ironically, in the end, the railway eventually did arrive. In late 1911, the Canadian Northern Railway Company completed the final section of the Thunderhill Branch Line from Pelly, through the district, to Preeceville. Its construction made life significantly easier for the local settlers, ending their isolation, giving them direct access to markets, stimulating agricultural and economic growth and acting as a catalyst for local improvements, including the construction of a modern road system.

The following year, the railway company constructed a siding, with a boxcar station and loading platform, on the northwest quarter of Section 5 of Township 34. A hamlet was surveyed there, which soon boasted a post office, school, two general stores, restaurant, elevator, bank, hotel, blacksmith and livery stable along with numerous residences. It became a small commercial centre where local farmers came to ship livestock and grain to market, transact business and pick up necessary supplies and also collect mail. Thus the community of Hyas, as it came to be known, was established as it is today.

Ironically, the district’s earliest settlers, the Doukhobors, did not long remain to enjoy these modern developments. As land values soared and land grew scarcer along the new branch line, the Barisoff, Derhousoff and Nahornoff families, unable to expand their landholdings (following the arrival of the railway, the price of farmland per acre rose significantly), and desiring to live closer to their coreligionists, sold out in 1914-1915 and relocated to the Kamsack district, a predominantly Doukhobor-settled area, where they purchased new farms.

Conclusion

Time has erased most, but not all, traces of the Doukhobor village of Vozvyshenie. A line of spruce trees – now part of the shelterbelt surrounding the Serdachny family farm – still marks the central street of the village. A solitary log farmhouse nearby stares silently at the traffic passing by on the highway west of Hyas. Little else remains except in old records, yellowed photographs and in the memories of the villagers passed down to their descendants. Yet, the story of Vozvyshenie offers a unique perspective of the history of the district, the Doukhobor contribution to its development and the myriad factors which led to the founding of some Prairie settlements and the demise of others.

As well, the story of Vozvyshenie offers an interesting counterpoint to previous interpretations of Independent Doukhobor settlement on the Prairies. In the past, scholars had interpreted the Independents’ abandonment of communal villages as an outright rejection of that form of settlement. In the case of Vozvyshenie, however, while these Independents rejected communal ownership and living, they did not abandon the concept of “community”. Instead, they sought to maintain a community in the context of cooperativism and individual land ownership. In doing so, they opted for a form of settlement more akin to that which they had left in Russia, than either the utopian communalism of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, on one hand, or the rugged individualism of “Canadian” settlers, on the other. It was only later, when increased wealth and economic opportunity made them less dependent on each other, that the Doukhobors of Vozvyshenie discarded the traditional Russian village model as being no longer necessary for either their physical survival or the preservation of their spiritual life.

Bibliography

  • Barry, Bill. Correspondence. May 13-19, 2006.
  • Barschel, J.F. Paul, “A History of Canora and District” (Canora, Saskatchewan: Canora Golden Jubilee Committee, 1960).
  • Belous, Wilf. Interview. June 15, 2005.
  • Canadian Genealogy Centre, “Post Offices and Postmasters Database”.  Retrieved June 1, 2006, from http://www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/post-offices/index-e.html.
  • Deduke, Dan. Interview. July 3, 2005.
  • Dobbyn, Ed & Gwen Palmer, “Lasting Impressions: Historical Sketches of the Swan River Valley” (Swan River: Swan Valley Historical Society, 1984).
  • Information Services Corporation of Saskatchewan: Certificate of Title No. MM94, dated October 25, 1910, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Zakhar Dergowusoff; Certificate of Title No. 228MQ, dated December 22, 1910, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Alec Dergowusoff; Certificate of Title No. 67OW, dated October 2, 1913, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Joseph Derhousoff; Certificate of Title No. 200PF, dated April 14, 1914, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Louie Slegel; Certificate of Title No. 37MS, dated January 27, 1911, issued for NE6-34-2-W2 to Alexey Dierhousoff; Certificate of Title No. 129OW, dated October 8, 1913, issued for NE6-34-2-W2 to Joseph Derhousoff; Certificate of Title No. 204PF, dated April 14, 1914, issued for NE6-34-2-W2 to Louie Slegel; Certificate of Title No. 370, dated 1908, issued for SW6-34-2-W2 to Alexey Barisoff; Certificate of Title No. 74PU, dated April 23, 1915, issued for SW6-34-2-W2 to Louie Slegel.
  • Library and Archives Canada, Census of Canada, 1911, Saskatchewan, Mackenzie District No. 210, Sub-district No. 25, p. 6.
  • Library and Archives Canada, Census of the Northwest Provinces, 1906, Saskatchewan, Mackenzie District No. 14, Sub-district No. 27, pp. 1-2.
  • Library and Archives Canada, RG 15, Department of the Interior, Vozsvishennie Doukhobor Village File, File No. 5404684.
  • Regehr, T.D. The Canadian Northern Railway, Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies 1895-1918. (Toronto: Macmillan, 1976).
  • Saskatchewan Archives Board, Edgar Bray, Surveyor’s Note Book, November 16, 1903, File I.73.
  • Saskatchewan Archives Board, Homestead Files: File No. 878895, Alexey Barisoff, SW6-34-2-W2; File No. 1390749, George Zadubriwski, SE6-34-2-W2; File No. 1416184, Alexey Dierhous, NE6-34-2-W2; File No. 1410052, Zakhar Dergowusoff, NW6-34-2-W2.
  • Saskatchewan Archives Board, Ulric School District No. 2432 File.
  • Statutes of Canada, 1903, Chapter 97.
  • Tarasoff, Koozma J. “Doukhobors” in Paul Robert Magocsi, (ed.). Encyclopedia of Canada’s People. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), pp. 422-435.
  • The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2000 edition. (Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1999).
  • The Norquay North Star, “History of Hyas Dates Back to 1910.” (May 20, 1955), p.5.
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  • The Norquay North Star, “The History of Stenen.” (May 20, 1955), p. 6.
  • Tracie, Carl J., “Toil and Peaceful Life: Doukhobor Village Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1899-1918” (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1996).
  • Woodcock, George & Ivan Avakumovic. The Doukhobors. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 240.

This article was reproduced by permission in:

Doukhobor Development in the Ebenezer District

by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

Few people would associate Ebenezer, Saskatchewan with the Doukhobors.  After all, no Doukhobors have ever lived in the small farm community located ten miles north of Yorkton.  However, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) played a significant, if little known, role in the history and development of the village.  Between 1910 and 1920, the CCUB built the first railroad through the district, which led to the formation of the village; constructed the village’s first grain elevator; owned a large portion of the village site; and erected a number of buildings in the village and surrounding district.  Drawing upon a broad range of unpublished sources, Jonathan J. Kalmakoff sheds light on the Doukhobor connection to Ebenezer.

Early Contact with Ebenezer District Settlers

In the early days of settlement in Saskatchewan, the CCUB purchased goods and supplies at the Town of Yorkton, the main trading and distribution centre in the region.  To get there, the Doukhobors followed the old Fort Pelly Trail which ran in a south-westerly direction from their village settlements in the Veregin district, through the Ebenezer district, to Yorkton.  As there were no roads and few bridges in the area at the time, the trail, with its deep ruts made by the Red River carts of Indians and fur traders, was an important transportation route.  The thirty mile trip by horse and wagon took a whole day each way.

While passing through the Ebenezer district, the Doukhobor teamsters became acquainted with many of the settlers living along the trail.  Oftentimes, they stopped at their farm houses to rest their teams of horses, and when night overtook them, to secure food and lodging.  Elder residents of the district still recall the fine horses used on the Doukhobor wagon teams.  

The Fort Pelly Trail circa 1907.  The ox-cart trail ran in a south-westerly direction from Fort Pelly, through the Doukhobor village settlements and the Ebenezer district, to Yorkton.

The Doukhobors developed a particularly strong rapport with the German Baptist settlers who had arrived in the Ebenezer district from Russia between 1885 and 1897.  Like the Doukhobors, the Baptists were persecuted by Tsarist authorities and many had fled Russia to avoid military service.  Most still spoke Russian and were able to converse with the Doukhobors in their own language.  Their relations were marked by mutual respect and cooperation. 

For instance, in October 1911, Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin donated land owned by the CCUB to the German Baptist congregation living in Yorkton for a church site at Betts Avenue and Darlington Street.  Prior to that, they had to travel ten miles by horse and wagon to attend services at the West Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Building the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway

In the fall of 1909, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway announced its plans to build a branch line from Yorkton, north through the Ebenezer district, to Canora.  The contract for the right-of-way clearing and grade construction of the thirty mile line, valued at over $70,000.00, was awarded to the CCUB in March 1910. 

The Doukhobors were well positioned to carry out the contract. According to the report of the general meeting of the Doukhobor Community held at Veregin in January of 1910, the CCUB had a workforce of over one thousand, five hundred men, four hundred teams of working horses and five hundred yokes of oxen living within a day’s travel of the work.  

In mid-May 1910, after completing their spring sowing, Doukhobor work crews assembled in Yorkton to commence construction of the line.  They supplied their own tools, equipment, horses and food for the work.  A portable camp was set up for shelter, cooking, eating and sleeping.  At the camp, Doukhobor women cooked for the crews and boys tended the horses.  Water was hauled from nearby wells and feed oats were purchased from settlers along the line for the horse teams.   

Doukhobor workers on the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway line between Yorkton and Canora, 1910. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Following the route surveyed by the railway engineers, the Doukhobors cleared the right-of-way for the grade.  This arduous work involved draining sloughs, filling in low alkaline areas, chopping out trees and stumps, moving large rocks and cutting through knolls and slopes over which to construct the grade.  Much of this work was done by hand, using spades, pick-axes, saws and hatchets. 

The Doukhobors built up the grade using two-horse slushers and four-horse fresnels.  These large scrapers had handles attached to the back end.  As the teamster drove the team, a second man held the handle allowing the sharp front edge to cut into the ground and fill the bucket or scoop.  This load was then hauled to the grade and dumped, gradually building the grade up and forward, resulting in a solid and level embankment above the ground surface on which to lay ties and rails. 

Grading the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway line prior to laying track, 1910. Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada.

Labouring from daybreak to dark, the Doukhobor grade crews passed through the Ebenezer district in early June and reached Canora by late July 1910.  The track-laying, fence-making and telegraph crews followed close behind.  The Doukhobors then returned to their villages for the harvest season.  Shortly thereafter, in mid-August 1910, the first steam locomotive rolled over the new line.  By June 1911, regular freight and passenger service was established.  The Ebenezer district was now connected by rail to the rest of the Province!

Establishment of the Village

The arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway marked the beginning of the village of Ebenezer.  Following its established practice of laying out townsites at regular intervals along the line, in early June 1910, the railway company purchased 24 acres for a village site on the NW 1/4 of 25-27-4-W2 located ten miles north of Yorkton.  Railway engineers then surveyed and subdivided the site into lots, which sold for $150.00 per business lot and $50.00 per residential lot.  A building boom followed, bringing goods and people into the village. 

Plan of the Ebenezer village site.

The village site was initially named “Anoka” by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, possibly after the city of the same name in Minnesota.  However, the German Baptist settlers preferred the name “Ebenezer” as taken from the Bible in 1 Samuel 7:12 meaning “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us”.  In the summer of 1910, they successfully petitioned railway officials to rename it “Ebenezer” to correspond with the name of the post office and church used west of the village since 1891.

Surrounded by a well-settled and flourishing agricultural district, the village experienced rapid growth, prosperity and development.  Within six months, the village boasted a railway station, two grain elevators, two general stores, two lumber yards, an implement dealership, two blacksmith shops, as well as rows of houses and outbuildings.

Ownership of Village Lots

Following the establishment of the village in 1910, the CCUB purchased eight residential lots (Lot Nos. 27 to 34 of Block 2) along 1st Avenue. They purchased an additional twelve business lots (Lot Nos. 1 to 12 of Block 2) on Main Street between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue. It would appear that the Doukhobors planned to resell the lots for profit. A 1912 advertisement by the CCUB in the Manitoba Free Press lists them for sale. Over the years, a number of the lots were sold. Those lots which the CCUB retained were eventually sold for taxes in 1938 to the R.M. of Orkney No. 244. Thereafter, they were resold for residential development.

1916 tax roll for the R.M. of Orkney No. 244 showing Doukhobor-owned lots in the Village of Ebenezer.

The First Elevator in Ebenezer

Ebenezer became a grain delivery point on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway when the CCUB built its first elevator in the summer of 1910.  In return for erecting a “standard” elevator, the railway company granted the Doukhobors free land rental along its right of way and a guarantee of a monopoly at that point.  The elevator would receive, store and ship grain in bulk quantities from the surrounding district.  Prior to that, local farmers had to haul their grain ten miles by horse and wagon to Yorkton. 

Unidentified woman and child sitting in front of Doukhobor-built elevator c. 1930.  It was the first of four elevators built in the village of Ebenezer.

A Doukhobor work crew built the 25,000 bushel capacity elevator of wood crib construction on a concrete foundation.  It was about 30′ x 30′ wide and 70′ high with a pyramidal roof and a centrally located pyramidal-roofed cupola.  Attached to the elevator was a driveway and receiving shed built of frame construction.   An office and engine shed was built about 20 feet from the elevator.  Near the office, the Doukhobors dug a bell-shaped well lined with unmortared brick for watering horses.

Once the elevator was operational, local farmers brought loaded wagons into the receiving shed where they were first weighed on the scale and then lifted using hand operated crank hoists to dump the grain into a receiving pit below.  The grain was carried from the pit to the top of the elevator by means of the “leg”, a continuous belt with carrying cups.  From the top, the grain was dumped into a bin.  To ship the grain, the bin was emptied into a hopper and back down into the pit where it was then carried back up the “leg” to the direct spout to the waiting rail cars.  The equipment was powered by a stationary gasoline engine in the engine shed.

Unidentified woman and children standing in front of the Doukhobor-built elevator in Ebenezer c 1930.

The CCUB operated the elevator for a short time and then sold it to the Minneapolis-based Atlas Grain Company in June 1911.  Later, in August 1917, it was bought by the Winnipeg-based N. Bawlf Grain Company.  The elevator ceased operation in 1932 at the height of the Depression.  Following its sale to the Calgary-based Alberta Pacific Grain Company in 1941, it was dismantled.  The concrete foundation still stands, a reminder of the structure that once dominated the Ebenezer skyline. 

Building Construction in Ebenezer and District

The village of Ebenezer experienced its biggest building boom from 1910 to 1920.  During this period, the CCUB hired itself out as a building contractor to local businessmen and residents.  The CCUB enjoyed a competitive advantage over other building contractors because it had a large, readily mobilized pool of free, willing labour and produced most of its own building materials, including lumber from its sawmill at Thunderhill and brick from its brick factories in Yorkton and Veregin.  Moreover, the Doukhobors’ reputation for fast, quality construction was well known and they were trusted for their fair and honest business ethics.  They were contracted to construct a number of buildings in the village and surrounding district, some of which are still standing today.

Doukhobors on construction work, circa 1910. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Interestingly, when the Census of Canada was taken on June 1, 1911, a work crew of eight Doukhobors were enumerated at the Ebenezer townsite. Headed by Alex Cheveldaeff, it included John Cheveldaeff, George and Alex Ostoforoff, Peter Zaitsoff, William Shishkin, Mike Zibin, William Sherstobitoff and Wasyl Dootoff. Their occupations were listed as carpenters and labourers.

The Border Block

In May of 1911, local businessman Robert Border contracted the CCUB to build a large general store, adjoining business building and residence on Main Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue.  All buildings were of wood frame construction with brick exterior.  The general store was approximately 30′ x 35′ with a flat roof and full concrete basement.  The adjoining business building was approximately 25′ x 25′ with a flat roof.  The residence was approximately 15′ x 25′ with a gable roof and full concrete basement.

The general store was leased to Mr. Wallman, then Mr. Fiddler, and later to Mr. Margulles.  The adjoining business building was a pool room and a restaurant.  The pool room was managed by Adam Lehman and Julius Wegner followed by Fred and Albert Betker.  The restaurant was managed by Mr. Malcolm from 1917 to 1926.  Robert Border lived in the residence, also the real estate office, until 1928 followed by Mr. Linden from 1928 to 1930.  A fire of unknown origin destroyed all of the buildings in 1930.

The Goulden Farm

In circa 1911, local farmer William Goulden contracted the CCUB to build a large residence and barn on his farm on the SE 1/4 of 4-28-3-W2.  The residence was of wood frame construction with a brick exterior.  It was 26′ x 26′ with a hip roof, verandah and full concrete basement.  The barn was 28′ x 56′ of cinderblock construction with a gambrel roof.  The Doukhobors also dug a bell-shaped well lined with unmortared brick for a water supply.

The Doukhobor-built Goulden residence c. 1942.

The Goulden family lived in the farmyard until the Thirties, when it was sold for taxes.  Thereafter, it was leased to several families.  In 1942, it was bought by Reynold and Edna Bohn who lived in the farmyard until 1947.  In 1949, the residence was dismantled and the materials were used to build several new buildings in the village.  The barn burned down in 1997. 

The Doukhobor-built Goulden Barn, c. 1990.  It was constructed of timber from the CCUB sawmills in British Columbia and brick and cinderblock from the CCUB brickworks in Yorkton, SK. Photo courtesy Al & Bernice Makowsky.

The Janzen Block

In June of 1920, local businessman Wilhelm Janzen contracted the CCUB to build a large hotel, two adjoining business buildings and residence on Main Street between 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue.  All buildings were of wood frame construction with brick exterior.  The two-storey hotel was 22′ x 35′ with a flat roof and full concrete basement.  The two business buildings were each 25′ x 25′ with a flat roof.  Finally, the two-storey residence was 15′ x 25′ with a gable roof and full concrete basement.

The Doukhobor-built Janzen Block c. 1940.  (l-r) residence, business building, hotel and second business building.

The hotel was originally leased to Toys Restaurant.  Later, Wilhelm Janzen operated a general store there.  In 1929, Wilhelm’s son Dave took over the store and one business building and operated them until 1967.  His son and daughter-in-law David and Betty Janzen then took over the business for one year.  In 1968, the buildings were sold to Martha Dreger who operated the store until 1988.  At this time, the business building was dismantled.  In 1992, the store was sold to the village.  The now-vacant building remains one of the most prominent structures on the village Main Street.

The Janzen Block today.  It remains one of the most prominent structures on the village Main Street.

Wilhelm Janzen and his wife lived in the residence until 1947.  His son and daughter-in-law William and Violet Janzen then lived there until 1999, when it was sold to Brenda Murray.  The second business building accompanied the property.  Both buildings are still standing and in use.

The Barn at Deckert’s Farm

In 1914, the CCUB obtained the permission of local farmer Samuel Deckert to build a barn on his land on the SE 1/4 of 27-27-4-W2 where the Fort Pelly Trail crossed the Little Whitesand River, a tributary of the Whitesand River.  The barn would be used as a stopping place where Doukhobors could rest their horses and take shelter while traveling in and through the Ebenezer district.

The Doukhobor barn in 2005.  It once served as a stopping place for Doukhobors travelling on the Fort Pelly Trail through the Ebenezer district.  The lean-to at the north end was used as an office of Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin.

The two-storey barn was built of timber frame construction on a concrete foundation.  It was 30′ x 45′ with a gambrel roof.  It had twelve box stalls for horses.  The loft provided overhead storage for hay and bedding.  A 15′ x 45′ lean-to attached to the west end of the barn was used as a blacksmith and tack room.  A 15′ x 30′ lean-to attached to the north end of the barn was used as an office by Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin when he travelled through the area.  Inside the barn, the Doukhobors dug a well lined with unmortared brick for watering horses.

By all accounts, Deckert was a good friend of the Doukhobors, particularly Peter “Lordly” Verigin. Fluent in Russian, German and English, he often acted as an interpreter for the Doukhobor leader during business transactions in Yorkton. As well, Deckert made regular visits to the Doukhobor settlements in the Veregin district.  

Violet Janzen, daughter of Samuel Deckert, recalls that Peter “Lordly” Verigin often visited the Deckert household, located on the adjoining quarter-section, when he stopped at the barn.  On one such occasion in about 1920, he brought the family a wooden barrel of apples from the CCUB orchards in British Columbia – a rare treat on the prairies in those days!

Another view of the Doukhobor barn in 2005.  Built in 1914, it is the oldest barn in use in the Ebenezer district until its destruction in 2009.

The barn was used regularly by the CCUB as a stopping place into the 1920’s.  Following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, the general managers of the CCUB offered to sell the barn to Samuel Deckert.  When he declined to purchase it, they abandoned it outright.  Thereafter, Deckert utilized the barn in his farming operation.  In 1946, his son Sam S. Deckert took over the farm and operated it.  In 1986, the farm was bought by Doug Fairhead.  The barn remained in use until 2009, when a “plough wind” blew through the yard, destroying it. The well, formerly within the barn, is still in use today. 

Conclusion

By the mid-1920’s, the commercial activity of the CCUB in the Ebenezer area came to an end.  The reasons for this are several.  First, following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, the CCUB organization went into decline, ceasing many of its commercial and trading operations.  Secondly, a post-war depression had set in, causing prices for lumber, bricks and other output of CCUB enterprises to collapse.  Finally, as Ebenezer’s building boom ended, the demand for construction materials and labour dropped sharply.  In the years that followed, the connection between Ebenezer and the Doukhobors faded into memory. 

However, looking back today, within a short space of time, the Doukhobors made a lasting contribution to the history and development of Ebenezer, helping to create the transportation, agricultural and business infrastructure that defines this small farm community to this day.

Bibliography

  • Barry, Bill, “Geographic Names of Saskatchewan” (Regina: People, Places Publishing, 2005).
  • Barschel, J.F. Paul, “A History of Canora and District” (Canora, Saskatchewan: Canora Golden Jubilee Committee, 1960).
  • Bohn, Edna. Telephone Interview. July 11, 2005.
  • Celebrate Saskatchewan Committee, “Reunion ’80, A Time to Remember Ebenezer, Saskatchewan” (Ebenezer, Saskatchewan: Celebrate Saskatchewan Committee, 1980).
  • Donskov, Andrew (ed), J. Woodsworth (trans), “Leo Tolstoy and Peter Verigin: Correspondence” (Ottawa: Legas, 1995).
  • Fairhead, Clifford. Telephone Interview. July 11, 2005.
  • Hluchaniuk, Laurie & York Colony Research (Association), “Yorkton: York Colony to Treasure Chest City” (Yorkton, Saskatchewan: Yorkton Centennial Committee, 1982).
  • Janzen, Violet. Telephone Interview. June 24, 2005.
  • Library and Archives Canada, Census of Canada, 1911, District 210: Mackenzie; Sub-district 9; page 1.
  • R.M. of Orkney No. 244, Tax Rolls. 1916-1939.
  • Tarasoff, Koozma J., “Pictorial History of the Doukhobors” (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Modern Press, 1969).
  • The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2000 edition. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1999.
  • The Canora Courier, “G.T.P. Trains Are Now Running.” (1911, June 22).
  • The Manitoba Free Press
    • “Report of General Meeting of the Doukhobor Community Held at Verigin, January 25th, 1910.” (1910, March).
    • “The Doukhobor Community of Verigin, Sask., offer for sale” (1912, June 28).
  • The Yorkton Enterprise
    • “All the District Happenings.” (1911, May 26).
    • “All the District Happenings.” (1911, June 8).
    • “All the District Happenings.” (1917, August 2).
    • “All the District Happenings.” (1920, June 17).
    • “Doukhobors Are Busy.” (1910, September 22).
    • “G.T.P. To Canora.” (1910, March 31).
    • “Topics of Local and General Interest.” (1911, October 5).
    • “Train in Two Weeks on G.T.P.” (1910, July 28).

This article was reproduced by permission in the following publications:

  • ISKRA, No. 2018 (Grand Forks: USCC, May 4, 2009).
  • Ebenezer Book of Memories, Centennial 1905-2005 Centennial (Ebenezer, Saskatchewan: Ebenezer Centennial Committee, 2005).
  • The Dove, Vol. No. 69 (Saskatoon: Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan, Jan. 2002).

The Mounted Police and the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, 1899-1909

by Carl Betke

With the arrival of the Doukhobors on the Canadian Prairies, the North West Mounted Police were assigned to assist the immigrant settlers in adjusting to their new environment. In doing so, they were expected to demonstrate tolerance towards the settlers’ diverse habits so long as they proved to be successful agricultural producers. In documenting Mounted Police confrontations with the Doukhobors during their first decade in Canada, from 1899 to 1909, historian Carl Betke demonstrates that the disruptive activities of a minority of the Doukhobor immigrants were handled very gently by the force in order to assure the agricultural production of a massive number of effective farmers. Reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (27, 1974, No. 1).

After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, settlement in the prairie lands of western Canada increased gradually and the Indian and Metis population came to be regarded as a lessening threat to agricultural development. In the Canadian House of Commons critics of the government began to insist on reductions in the size of the North West Mounted Police force. In answer Sir John A. Macdonald, though he admitted that the previous principal purpose of the force, “to protect the few struggling settlers who were going in there from Indian outrages,” might now have ceased to exist, contended that the police were still required to keep the peace. He alluded to the influx from below the border of “people with all kinds of habits” including raiding, stealing of cattle and smuggling of liquor. His listeners, however, were not long satisfied, for what sort of advertisement was Macdonald’s description for intending immigrants? Every increase in western immigration and settlement ought to reduce the need for a special police force.

Full dress mounted parade by members of the North-West Mounted Police, Calgary, Alberta, c. 1901. Library and Archives Canada PA-202180.

Some reductions were made in the size of the force but, even before the accession of the Laurier government, a new justification of the North West Mounted Police was developed. From the early 1890’s until the advent of the first World War, supporters of the force argued that increasing settlement required greater distribution of the police to perform new services for the struggling pioneers. Besides protecting property and watching the normally docile Indians, the police were now required to take responsibilities for prairie fire prevention and suppression, quarantine enforcement during times of epidemic and quarantine enforcement at the border to prevent the spread of contagious animal diseases. As the North West Mounted Police Comptroller at Ottawa, Fred White, remarked in 1903, ” ‘Police’ is almost a misnomer . . .” But, White assured Laurier, should their services be administered separately by the different government departments, not only would the cost rise but the country would be deprived of the presence of a disciplined force ready for instant mobilization.

Importance was now attached to those police duties which increased the “comfort and security of the settler” who was unaccustomed to the pioneer life and required not only information but also assistance, even to find stray animals. The police often provided relief to destitute farmers or those overcome by winter conditions. New patrol procedures initiated in the late 1880’s, while intended to prevent crime by circulating police officers visibly throughout the countryside, were in fact used to watch over a remarkable range of pioneer activity:

In each District a number of small Detachments are placed at convenient points, each, immediately under a non-Commissioned Officer, or senior Constable. These detachments patrol all the time, and carry patrol slips with remark columns, which are signed by all the settlers they call upon, and every week each of these detachments send in their slips, with a report on the state of the country, crops, crime, settlers coming in and stock they bring, disease, if any, among stock; Indians seen, etc., etc…

The police often encountered the immigrants as early as at their first disembarkation from the train: the police would even sometimes drive them “over the most desirable districts for settlement,” providing not only transport but also “cooking utensils, and giving advice and information.” In special cases the police were asked to supply transportation to foreign immigration promoters: one Berliner was driven “to see the German colonists near Regina, who have made the best progress in farming, as he proposes to take letters from them to further his work in Europe.” Once settlers were established countless police reports on their progress were submitted to the offices of the Commissioner and the Comptroller, for referral to the appropriate officials should action seem necessary.

Instructions to patrolmen emphasized that reports should include fairly detailed information about the agricultural progress of the settlers but they did not normally require comment about the ethnic background of the settlers. Among patrolmen it was common, nevertheless, to identify ethnic groups in reports, so that the relative suitability of different groups was thus incidentally compared. One report, for example, stated that:

the majority of the settlers who are in reduced circumstances are Austria-Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians and Russian-Germans from the Black Sea District, but few of whom appear to have brought a single dollar with them into the Country. With the British and German settlers it is otherwise.

While the British, American, Scandinavian and German settlers were generally believed superior acquisitions, other groups distinguished themselves with the police by their unacceptable behaviour. In police reports it is difficult clearly to distinguish personal antipathies to “foreign” elements from legitimate careful judgments of the limits of their agricultural suitability. Ultimately, however, the most important criterion of a settler’s merit was the measure of his self-sufficiency and prosperity, despite any patrolman’s private feelings about a group. So, for example, early doubtful expressions about the desirability of the “unclean” Galician settlers were eventually replaced by grudging approval of their productive success. In fact the police were often called upon to produce reports to counteract sweeping condemnations levelled at the “Galicians” by fellow settlers. Similarly, a distaste for allegedly isolationist habits among Mennonites was overridden by evidence of obvious agricultural ability. On the other hand, disapproval (sometimes accompanied by overtones of personal prejudice) of certain Belgian, French and Jewish colonies in police reports was never reversed, at least in part because those colonies quickly proved to be economic failures.

In only two outstanding cases did alien habits threaten to overshadow productive expertise in importance. In the Mormon example, police attention to the settlers’ supposed polygamous propensities was discontinued in order that Canada might reap the benefits of their irrigation experiments; in the Doukhobor example, the Canadian government waited in vain for disturbances to subside, repeatedly pointing out their remarkable farming progress. In these situations, in which the police sense of outrage was not matched by that of the government, we see most clearly that the police were meant to minimize alien social variables while maximizing agricultural expertise in their evaluations of immigrants. They were to assist the settlers in adjusting to the new environment.

A constable of the North-West Mounted Police, c. 1890. Library and Archives Canada PA-122660.

By describing a most extreme case, the following account of Mounted Police confrontations with Doukhobors in Saskatchewan illustrates the tolerance with which settlers of diverse habits were treated as long as the majority proved to be successful farm producers. One must keep in mind that Doukhobor demonstrations never involved a majority of the Doukhobor settlers and that, as a rule, the demonstrators did not employ violent tactics. The police were not, that is to say, confronted with anything like a Doukhobor “uprising”. It is remarkable, nevertheless, that despite some animosity on the part of neighbouring settlers and despite the limits to which police patience was occasionally driven, the demonstrators received exceptionally benign treatment. Much more serious aberrations would have to have been displayed to undermine the Canadian government’s determination to fill the west with good farmers.

Doukhobor immigrants to the North-West Territories began arriving at Winnipeg on January 27, 1899; by September, 7,427 Doukhobors had entered the area. 1,472 of them shortly established themselves on the North Saskatchewan river west of Carlton near Battleford; 1,404 settled in the “Thunder Hill” or “North” colony on the border of Manitoba and the Territories, and the largest group, some 4,478, located in the vicinity of Yorkton. Occasionally the North West Mounted Police would refer to members of the last group as “Cyprus” Doukhobors because about a quarter of them had been temporarily situated in Cyprus. Canadian officials had accepted from Russia’s Count Tolstoy and other Russian and English patrons recommendations of the moral uprightness and agricultural ability of the “Russian Quakers”. Upon their arrival even their appearance fostered great expectations:

. . . their fine physical appearance . . . coupled with the not less important fact that they are skillful agriculturalists, thrifty and moral in character, affords good grounds for congratulations to those who have been instrumental in their coming to this country, especially when it is considered that this has been brought about without incurring any expenditure of public moneys, other than about the amount usually paid in the form of bonuses for continental emigrants.

The police found much to admire in the Doukhobor pioneer operations. They showed unique skills in breaking horses, constructing ovens of “home-made sun-dried bricks” and building clean and sturdy though dark houses and stables of sod, mud and logs. They were orderly, quiet, well-organized, “patient, industrious and self-supporting;” the women proved equal to the men in strength and skill at manual labour and attended to household duties besides. From the Yorkton area nearly seven hundred Doukhobor men left to work for wages during the first summer, principally at railway construction. Some of the women supplemented their income as domestic servants. It was true that the police learned of one case of collective “indecent exposure”, that many were slow to depart from their vegetarian principles and that “their communistic way” would prevent them from quickly assimilating Canadian customs, but no objections had been noticed to the announcements which the police made to various Doukhobor assemblies about the ordinances relating to prairie fires, game regulations, registration of births and deaths and control of contagious diseases. The signs in general were of peaceful and successful adaptation to western Canadian life. The greatest excitement was provided by the efforts of California land agents and speculators to lure several hundred Doukhobor families to California, efforts vigorously and successfully resisted by Canadian Immigration officials. They were not willing to give up so easily a people as productive as the Doukhobors were showing themselves to be.

Doukhobor family, Saskatchewan, c. 1903. Glenbow Archives NA-2878-15

But it soon became evident that not all of the Doukhobors were happy with the laws requiring individual registration of land holdings and registration of the births, marriages and deaths among their people. These requirements evidently violated an ingrained Doukhobor tradition to submit to no human authority. The federal government officials, according to one recent analysis, had three alternatives open to them: they might immediately have insisted on total compliance with the laws (but the cause of the “Russian Quakers” was popular abroad and, to a degree, in Canada), or they might have effected a clear special set of compromises with the laws for the Doukhobors. Instead, they elected to follow a third course, evading the issue and hoping that the conflicting demands of the Doukhobors and the State would work themselves out without any irrevocable government intercession. Officials were optimistic “that as they come to appreciate the benefits of Canadian laws and customs, the prejudice will gradually disappear, and they will gladly comply with the requirements of the government. ” It was a plausible course of inaction, but it left the Mounted Police to oversee the “gradual” but turbulent transition stage. There was no set strategy for such an operation and Christen Junget (later Assistant Commissioner Junget), the North West Mounted Police Commanding Officer at Yorkton in those years, recalled in his retirement that Mounted Police policy with respect to the troublesome Doukhobors in his district amounted to the single catchphrase: “Leave it for Junget.”

Some remarks of Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, illustrate the ambiguity of the police role in relation to the Doukhobors. On February 15, 1902 two delegates from the Thunder Hill colony presented to Sifton the Doukhobor claims for communal exemption from registration of land tenure, births, deaths and marriages. In the manner of a teacher setting school boys straight, Sifton suggested that if the Doukhobors would simply get on with registering their homesteads individually they would be permitted to live and work together in village communities and would not be compelled to fulfill homestead requirements individually. Aside from that concession, though, Canadian laws (which, Sifton was sure, had proven universally beneficial) would be “carried out in every case without fear” by “the strong hand of the law which protects you and your families from danger . . .” Of course, the Doukhobors were to rest assured that the officials of his department would “willingly do no injury to your conscience or your principles.” Perhaps this position, which required the police to be simultaneously not only the “strong hand of the law” but also sympathetic to unique Doukhobor principles, justified the police in referring to the Doukhobors as “Sifton’s pets”.

A massive Doukhobor demonstration took place in the fall of 1902. The recruits, most of whom came from the villages just to the north of Yorkton, undertook a somewhat undirected march. This phenomenon has been attributed to a combination of factors arising from the adjustments necessary for the Doukhobors to live in this new setting and from the erratic leadership of Peter Verigin. In the first place, the pressure to have the Doukhobors register their land individually exacerbated divisions within the Doukhobor communities. Those inclined to obey the law were joined, in the eyes of zealous traditionalists, with those heretics who had worked on the railways and adopted other such non-Doukhobor habits as wearing “English” clothes and eating meat. In addition, though, the entrenchment of the traditionalists were strengthened by their desire to please Peter Verigin upon his expected imminent arrival among them: Verigin had been sending fancifully philosophical letters condemning the use of cattle in such a paradise of easily cultivated vegetation and speculating about the benefit to the brain of “solar heat” in some haven “near the sun.” Thus, mystical Doukhobor claims to be searching for this kind of hot paradise during their marches were joined to that desire of some to embarrass the government and force concessions to their demands on the issues of land and personal registration.

At first Corporal Junget registered some alarm. On October 22, 1902 he reported that there had recently been considerable missionary movement amongst them. From the Kamsack and Assiniboine villages they have walked in bands of several hundred (men and women) visiting other villages holding meetings and trying to make converts to their very extreme and somewhat dangerous views.

Doukhobor pilgrims leaving Yorkton to evangelize the world, 1902.  Note the mounted escort of N.W.M.P. special constables in the upper left foreground. Library and Archives Canada C014077.

But the march was soon recognized to be non-violent and Junget’s concern changed:

. . . the Doukhobors themselves are quite harmless, but they carry no provisions with them whatever, and their number increasing every day, it will be impossible for them to find shelter and food in the villages they go through, and no doubt many of the women and children will perish if a snow storm sets in. I have reported the above to the different officials of the Department of Interior up here …

North West Mounted Police Commissioner Perry detailed Inspectors D’A. E. Strickland and J. 0. Wilson with a party of men to afford protection to settlers along the Doukhobors’ way if the need should arise and to give any assistance Interior Department officials might ask. When the marchers reached Yorkton on October 28 the enormity of the situation appalled Junget: there were about 1,800 of these “Doukhobors seized by religious mania” for whom shelter had to be found and special guards posted to prevent disturbances in the town. The “pilgrims” were judged “peaceful and law-abiding” but “the immediate assistance of three or four constables is required to assist Dominion officials in their treatment of the people and for patrolling of abandoned villages” to “protect property.” Perry sent the desired four constables and wired Comptroller White in Ottawa for instructions, but was advised only to continue assistance to the Immigration officials.’ Colonization Agent C. W. Speers posted a “public notice” warning that all persons interfering with or appropriating any property of the marching Doukhobors “without legal right” or without giving notice to Inspector Strickland or his officer in charge would be prosecuted according to the law.

Efforts to disperse the missionaries back to their villages failed; the Doukhobors determined on October 29 to push on in a south-easterly direction. On November 2 Speers asked Inspector Strickland for a police escort to accompany the “pilgrims” in order “to prevent any inconvenience or annoyance to the other inhabitants of the Country, and avoid as far as possible, any breach of the Peace or collision which would be likely to result in violence.” On November 4 an officer and twenty non-commissioned officers and constables were placed under instructions from the Superintendent of Immigration, Frank Pedley. As this force travelled to catch up with the marching Doukhobors, a comical incident illustrated the extent to which the Department of the Interior (and, therefore, the police) were willing to take care of the stubborn “fanatics”. “We came to Birtle, Manitoba,” recalled Junget later,

and we heard that they were short of diapers. 1 told Jim Spalding to go to the departmental store and buy up a lot. And he blew up: “I didn’t join the Force to buy diapers for Doukhobors!”

Nevertheless, the diapers had to be obtained: Junget bought them himself.

Wintry conditions were setting in; it was decided the zealots should be stalled at Minnedosa, Manitoba, then returned to Yorkton and thence to their homes. At noon on Sunday, November 9 the wanderers were located in the Minnedosa rink with a Mounted Police guard at the door. At 5:00 p.m. a special train arrived to take them back to Yorkton but, upon leaving the rink, some 200 of the Doukhobors seemed determined to resume once more their eastward journey. Inspector Wilson’s report indicated only that “a few of the leaders” offered resistance “and had to be carried. About one hundred would get in a bunch and lock their arms and then bunches had to be broken up. which took considerable time.” The Yorkton Enterprise, however, provided a more graphic description: after the Doukhobors’ way had been blocked by the townspeople,

Agent Speers grabbed a fussy pilgrim by the arm and proceeded with him toward the cars, at the same time saying the others must follow. Some seemed inclined to do so, seeing which the spectators encouraged their wavering inclinations by vigorous means. Many of them, when seized by the arm, walked quietly to the cars, and were there received by the policemen in charge and placed in the cars. Others required vigorous application of Manitoba muscle, in the form of shoves and pushes, to make them at all inclined to obey the voice of authority. Others, resisting stubbornly all attempts to guide them in the desired direction, were unceremoniously downed by the more athletic of the spectators, and bodily carried to the train.

Once this minority was aboard, the others, who had remained in the rink observing the disturbance, resignedly followed and there were no further incidents during the train trip back to Yorkton. From Yorkton they were the next day escorted on their final foot journey to their villages; some had just thirty miles to walk, others as far as Swan River. The presence of crowds of spectators encouraged the Swan River men to hold back for a mile or two but they too soon followed the police lead, in fact developed a readiness to “do anything” for the police, as it was “snowing very hard and cold.” One escorting patrolman found it “very difficult to get information from the Doukhobors, as very few of them could or would speak English,” but they “all seemed to pay the greatest respect to the police, and at all times during the trip would do anything you told them to do.” Moreover, they were “a very clean people, their houses, stables, etc., being far ahead of the majority of settlers that I have seen in the country.”

The Doukhobor pilgrims carrying their helpless on their trek, 1902.  Library and Archives Canada C009784.

It subsequently became North West Mounted Police policy to “arrange for patrols to visit their [Doukhobor] villages occasionally, and keep an eye on them generally.” If pilgrimages occurred police were directed to assist Immigration officials “towards persuading these people to remain at their villages.” Coincidentally Peter Verigin’s impressive arrival at Yorkton in late December, 1902 convinced most officials that their troubles with the Doukhobors were at an end. Whether, as Junget originally thought, Verigin controlled and quieted the majority of the pilgrims, or the police patrols created the entire effect despite Verigin, in any case no further mass wanderings occurred. Instead the police were involved with fragmentary groups of two or three dozen demonstrators who began to develop some highly embarrassing tactics. The first report of nudity came at the end of November, 1902 from the Rosthern area in Battleford district. The Doukhobors in question were evidently naked at their own meetings, not particularly in revolt, but Commissioner Perry thought it opened “a very large question as to our treatment of the Doukhobors.” Clearly they were “not conforming to the laws of the country,” but Perry hesitated to enforce them without specific authority from the Interior Department, “as in all cases of infractions of the law it is on account of their religious belief.” No such specific instructions were forthcoming.

Soon the demonstrations and the nudity coincided; it is to be suspected that the curiosity and discomfiture with which certain police officers investigated meeting-house nudity simply demonstrated to the Doukhobors how effective public nudity might be. Enterprising newspaper and private photographers then increased the temptation by “offering inducements” to encourage Doukhobors to pose in a nude state. Heading off a march by a group of determined nudists took some ingenuity. One naive young constable in the Battleford district was forced to desperate measures:

I told a Doukhobor girl to tell the others that if they would stop and not march, but get their picture taken I would send it to the papers. They stopped and asked me to stand alongside of them. I told the photographer not to show the photograph or plate to anybody until I had seen it. … It was my intention to destroy the plate. …

Needless to say, his trust in the photographer was misplaced: information about the circulation of a photograph of nude Doukhobors flanked by a strapping North West Mounted Police constable reached Inspector Parker at Saskatoon by way of a Toronto Globe reporter who saw a copy in Moose Jaw. Constable Melanson was found guilty of disgraceful conduct, fined $5.00 and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. Two weeks later the Commissioner was still sending out confidential letters trying to retrieve circulating copies of that photograph.

Punishment of nude pilgrims refusing to be dispersed to their homes was never very effective. They would be charged under the Vagrancy Act for indecent exposure and incarcerated in the Regina jail for several months. In jail, however, they were no less uncooperative than outside, refusing to eat regularly, carrying vegetarianism to the extremes of eating grass and refusing to work. Sifton believed it useless to flog them or to apply other normal disciplinary measures; surely a period of time on a frugal diet of bread and water with minimal special attention would bring them around. Rather than to free them all at the same time, the policy was to release them in “batches”.

By 1905 the Interior Department concluded that the Doukhobors had been in the country too long to remain in the position of special wards of the government; the Deputy Minister announced that henceforth they should be treated “exactly as other members of the community.” The police took that to mean much more harshly than previously and were delighted to see a Yorkton magistrate recommend that the men in a marching party apprehended in August, 1905 should be committed to Brandon Asylum. Unfortunately the North West Territorial Government refused to send the men to the Asylum, doubting that they were in fact insane. The police expressed disappointment: “if we are permitted to deal with them with a firm hand,” thought Comptroller White, “they will soon become reconciled to obedience to the laws of the country.”

But Junget did not consider this occasional restlessness “to be any trouble compared with what may arise between the Community and Non-Community Doukhobors,” that is, between those who wished to keep to the traditional communal style of life and those who wished to register their own homesteads. By February, 1905 Junget had lost all faith in Peter Verigin; he now believed Verigin’s influence to be instrumental in inciting dedicated “Community” Doukhobors to intimidate and even occasionally to assault prospective independent Doukhobor settlers, particularly in the northern villages near the Swan River. The police strength in Yorkton sub-district was increased to permit a strong detachment at Kamsack for constant patrol of the troubled area, evidently with good calming effect. The most worrisome villages were those near Fort Pelly, where the police kept anxious watch in order to try to prevent recurring incidence of “Community” Doukhobors taking forceable possession of or burning down the houses of “Independent” Doukhobors.

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

In April, 1906 the Interior Department inaugurated special investigations in areas of Doukhobor concentration of “unpatented homesteads entered for prior to September 1, 1905.” The purpose was to have all entries of Doukhobors in the community cancelled and then to ask the displaced Doukhobors to indicate their intention to become British subjects and conduct semi-regular homestead operations. If they did not re-enter the homesteads before May 1, 1907 they were to be placed on “reserves” of fifteen acres of land per occupant, the vacated lands to be opened for homestead application. Communities on non-registered land were no longer to be tolerated; the new Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, wanted them treated as any other squatters, to be served notices to vacate by the police. This news alone caused great excitement in the Fort Pelly area in early 1907; the tension was increased by orders to the police to put an end to the traditional illegal cutting of timber in that area and to seize the timber already cut. Further confusing the Doukhobors, Verigin had left them to their own devices since late 1906. The Fort Pelly police detachment expected another pilgrimage in the spring; Junget fretted that, as usual, “I presume we can do nothing with these people except watch their movements closely.” He worried that “the Doukhobor fanatics who have been repeatedly sent to prison from here” were once more gathering together, numbering near sixty in March. He would have liked to round up the leaders and have them “given the limit under the vagrancy act,” but was permitted only to give his detachments orders “if it should come to the worst to have them shut up in some uninhabited village and placed under guard.”

Constable Ross, N.W.M.P. holds this crowd in Yorkton, Saskatchewan during the 1907 Doukhobor homestead rush. Library and Archives Canada PA-022246.

The police presence seems to have delayed the group’s journeys’ meanwhile Junget was occupied with the land rush which resulted from the opening of Doukhobor lands in May. He had “never experienced a meaner job,” he wrote, than that of preserving order in the struggle for position at the land office in Yorkton. Then there was the associated problem of removing resistant “squatter” Community Doukhobors near Yorkton, an operation also necessary to some extent in the Prince Albert district. No sooner were the difficulties of these transfers cleared away than the anticipated pilgrimage from the Fort Pelly and Swan River areas got underway, triggered by the final dispossession. Over seventy strong, these Doukhobors proceeded in July in an easterly direction, rapidly passing from the jurisdiction of the Royal North West Mounted Police.

It was not long before they were back. Wintering at Fort William, they thoroughly alienated the populace of Ontario and were shipped by the Ontario government to Yorkton in late April, 1908. Junget, still having his troubles with the occasional local case of assault by Community Doukhobors on their independent neighbours, was in no mood to welcome them. The “seventy-one religiously demented Doukhobors, vagrants, consisting of men, women and children” were “absolutely destitute, have no homes to go to, most of them are nude and committing indecent acts already,” he reported. Verigin was typically unwilling to help and Junget, once the police did manage to get them off the train, struggling and disrobing, could not get any room for them at the Immigration Hall. He was ordered to see that they did not suffer or walk the streets nude; a disgruntled Junget would have preferred to send the worst of them “to a lunatic Asylum, and [have] the remainder of them charged with vagrancy, and . . . divided up between [sic] the different jails throughout the province.” The townspeople continued to resist Junget’s efforts to find lodging for the Doukhobors, but he finally succeeded in securing the Exhibition Building of the Agricultural Society and in having the naked Doukhobors carried in one by one. On May 18 they were moved, in the 1:00 a.m. stillness, to a house just outside the town.

The Saskatchewan government rejected Junget’s suggestion to commit the “worst” eighteen men and ten women to Brandon Asylum and the other thirty-one adults to jail as vagrants. Saskatchewan jails did not have the room and idea of such a concentration of Doukhobors in Brandon Asylum was not likely to appeal to the Manitoba government. Instead, on June 5 the Doukhobors were placed, again by a pre-dawn surprise manoeuvre, in a compound featuring a seven foot board fence three miles from Orcadia. An attempt to separate the men and women was soon abandoned; simply to prevent them from breaking out proved to require fifteen to twenty constables. Junget’s suggestion to remove eleven leaders in a body to await proceedings in a guard house, thus defusing the risk of an uprising in the enclosure, was evidently followed. The result, though, was unexpected: the remaining group went on a hunger strike, the adults preventing the children from eating. The children were removed, but the starvation continued, raising the spectre of embarrassing deaths in the compound. The police were therefore greatly relieved when Verigin was finally induced to take charge of the children and use his influence to bring the hunger strike to an end. The Doukhobors became sufficiently orderly that the camp was broken up in September.

Six men and six women identified as the “worst” ringleaders had in July been sentenced to six months in jail pending further proceedings. Junget would still have liked to see all of them incarcerated in Brandon Asylum and the rest of party jailed in order to avoid recurrences of the march but only four of the men were sent to Brandon, one by one to avoid too great a collective shock to their followers, and the others were released. This precipitated a re-congregation in an abandoned Doukhobor village; there followed continual reports that they intended marching to Brandon to demand the release of their leaders. A constable was placed on constant watch. Although he once had to bury a corpse left by the nude “fanatics” to decompose in the sun, his presence seemed to prevent any march. By the end of the summer some of them were departing from tradition to look for work.

At this time Verigin’s plans to locate a true Doukhobor community in the Kootenay area of British Columbia were maturing and a new chapter would soon be inaugurated in the history of relations between the Mounted Police and the Doukhobors. On the prairies the disruptive activities of a minority of the Doukhobor immigrants had been handled very gently in order to assure the agricultural production of a massive number of effective farmers. The police had been asked repeatedly to forego punitive measures to let the new settlers find their way to an acceptable mode of behaviour.

Group of Doukhobor pilgrims followed by small boys, Kamsack, Saskatchewan, c. 1909. Glenbow Archives NA-2878-17

The police did not act out of personal sympathy for the demonstrators. One may search Mounted Police records in vain for information which will lead to at least understanding of the motivations of the discontented Doukhobors. Police reports referred repeatedly to “Doukhobors seized by religious mania”, “fanatics”, “religiously demented Doukhobors” and “lunatics”; the police did not begin to exercise the considerable patience necessary to discover explanations for the Doukhobors’ unusual behaviour. Total lack of perception only increased police irritability, particularly when the activities of a small band of Doukhobors could command the attention of nearly a like number of policemen. Responsibility for the nature of the Mounted Police response to the Doukhobors rests elsewhere: with the federal government.

It is true that 1906 had marked a change in federal government policy: Doukhobors ignoring prescribed homesteading regulations were thereafter to be treated more harshly. It must be remembered, however, that those refusing to re-enter for homesteads according to the letter of the law were not quite summarily evicted: they were conceded reserves of land, even though this was at the inadequate rate of fifteen acres per occupant. The police, moreover, received no revised instructions for disbanding the ensuing Doukhobor march more roughly than they had preceding ones. Nor did that march involve massive numbers of recalcitrants reacting against harsh police treatment.

The very fact that so few Doukhobors (less than one percent of the Doukhobor population of Saskatchewan) participated in that final demonstration, despite its genesis as a result of what might easily have been described as a treacherous reversal of government policy, is significant. It sustains the argument that the peculiar indecisive course prescribed for the Mounted Police in this situation was justified. Nearly 2,000 had participated in the first march in 1902; it is remarkable that only a handful found sufficient reason to demonstrate thereafter. The police themselves apparently provided no cause. The adjustment of the great majority of the Doukhobors to peaceful agricultural pursuits represented a gratifying conclusion to the efforts of the Mounted Police and the government that directed them. That the policy they had enacted was not altogether successful would be proven in British Columbia, not in Saskatchewan.

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.

Pacifism and Anastasia’s Doukhobor Village

by John W. Friesen

Following the death of Peter “Lordly” Verigin in 1924, his companion Anastasia F. Holuboff (1885-1965) was recognized by several hundred Doukhobors as his successor. The majority of Community Doukhobors, however, proclaimed Verigin’s son Peter “Chistiakov” Verigin as their leader. Disappointed, Anastasia and her followers broke away from the Community and in 1926 moved to the Shouldice district of Alberta where they established a break-away village. The following article by John W. Friesen, reproduced by permission from Alberta History (41(1) 1993), recounts Anastasia’s communal experiment in social, geographical and economic isolation. A combination of factors, including leadership style, internal dissension, land shortages and crop failures led to the eventual dissolution of the village in 1943.

The Doukhobor belief in pacifism originates from a conviction that every creature of God has a right to life. Doukhobors are fundamentally Russian in origin, and their beginnings were formalized in 1785 when a Russian Orthodox Archbishop named Ambrosius, called them “Doukhobortsi” or “Spirit Wrestlers.” He argued that their protestations against the state church were tantamount to fighting against the Spirit of God. The Doukhobors adopted the name, insisting that their interpretation of a living faith required a constant “wrestling in the Spirit.” Their orally-perpetuated belief system evolved, rather than being formally articulated, and consisted of communalism, pacifism to the extent of being vegetarians, an hereditary system of selecting leadership, a complete rejection of the written word, and a rejection of all forms of institutionalized religion including the priesthood. Doukhobors believe that each individual has a “Divine Spark” within them which entitles them to equality in the community and a right to life.

Doukhobor origins in Canada go back to 1899 when 7,500 souls immigrated from Russia and settled on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border west of Winnipeg. During this time Canada was actively recruiting immigrants through the office of Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, and from 1890 to 1914, settlers from many parts of Europe and the United States took advantage of the generous invitation to receive title to free land. The Doukhobors established their first homes in the Kamsack-Yorkton district of Saskatchewan and built a series of 61 communal villages under one managing body. Four of the villages were temporary sites and 57 became functional. For a few years all went well, but the Canadian government became uneasy about the communal governance of the settlements and took steps to dismantle the organization.

Anastasia Holoboff (1885-1965). Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

After attacks by the Federal government and strong local community opposition to their communalism, the Doukhobors relocated to British Columbia in 1907. Their refusal to register communal property individually meant that their Saskatchewan lands were confiscated and assigned to incoming settlers. Their refusal cost them a total of 258,880 acres, of which 49,429 were cultivated. It was a boon for new immigrants to occupy lands already tilled, and in the frenzy of settlement no one paid much attention to Doukhobors.

As a token concession, the government made some of the lands available to the Doukhobors as a reserve, on the basis of fifteen acres per person. A total of 236 Doukhobors opted for individual land registration and thus became known as “Independent Doukhobors.” A smaller, more aggressive faction objected to their treatment and staged a public protest against the “militarism” of the government in the form of a march. Thereafter, they became known as the “Sons of Freedom.”

In British Columbia, Doukhobor life took on an entirely different format. Grain farming and cattle-raising were replaced by fruit-growing and the operation of sawmills, a brick factory and two jam factories. Some of the men worked for non-Doukhobor neighbours and contributed their earnings to the community – the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) – through their leader, Peter V. Verigin. New homes were built comprising a total of 90 villages, each containing one or two large houses, each accommodating 30 to 50 people.

In 1915, an Alberta base was added to the CCUB. Verigin saw the advantage of establishing an Alberta “depot” to provide grain and flour to British Columbia members who in turn would furnish garden produce and other supplies to the Alberta farmers. He purchased 12,000 acres of farmland in the Cowley-Lundbreck area and placed three hundred people on the land. Verigin also supervised the building of a flour mill and two elevators.

The Alberta connection functioned effectively until the dissolution of the CCUB. There were occasional incidents of protest against the Alberta Doukhobors during the years following the First World War because of their pacifism, but for the most part there was little disruption of life in the community over such matters.

The CCUB was dismantled in 1938 due to a sudden and unprovoked bank foreclosure on the organization. Although the community had nearly $8 million worth of property, two business firms – National Trust and the Sun Life Assurance Company – held a series of demand notes worth four per cent of their total worth, or $319,276. The notes were called and the British Columbia Supreme Court allowed foreclosure action to commence. The way was then clear for the British Columbia government to take title to Doukhobor lands and properties. When the CCUB was dismantled, some lands were sold to Doukhobor adherents on a crop-share basis and the rest were liquidated to pay off the bank debt. The story of the foreclosure is a blot on Canadian history.

Residents of Anastasia’s village: Polly Verigin, Dunya Anutooshkin (seated) and Nastya Verigin, c. 1927.

On October 24, 1924, the revered leader of the CCUB, Peter the Lordly, died in a mysterious train explosion when he was travelling to Grand Forks. A much respected man, Peter the Lordly virtually ran the CCUB single-handedly, even though a board of trustees legally existed.

It is a Doukhobor custom that when a leader dies there is a six-week period of mourning. When the mourning is over the community reconvenes and a new leader is elected. After Peter the Lordly’s death, his longtime female companion, Anastasia Holuboff, wanted to be the next leader but she was defeated. Instead, the congregation chose Peter’s son, Peter Petrovich Verigin, who was living in Russia. He was subsequently contacted and moved to Canada to take over the CCUB. Anastasia was deeply offended; after all, it was she who had lived and travelled with Peter the Lordly for twenty years and she knew all of his teachings.

She reacted to the rejection by forming a breakaway group called “The Lordly Christian Community of Christian Brotherhood” and in 1926 she moved to Alberta. Anastasia purchased 1,120 acres of land near Shouldice and subsequently supervised the building of the first homes. From a small beginning, the village population eventually peaked at 165 souls with twenty-six separate homes on site.

From the very beginning, Anastasia’s village functioned quite differently from other Doukhobor settlements. Always there was an element of uncertainty about its stability and an atmosphere of mistrust prevailed. Administratively, Anastasia was never Peter Verigin’s equal, so she was constantly working to keep the community together. She lacked the dignity with which Verigin had carried himself, and she never gained the measure of respect that he had commanded.

Anastasia’s method of governance was to insist on respect from her villagers. On moving into the village, each resident was asked to sign a membership form with the following rules called, “Principal Points of the Doukhobor Religion”: Doukhobors do not have mortiferous firearms; do not kill animals for food; do not use intoxicating liquors; and do not smoke or chew tobacco.

Anastasia’s governance style revealed itself in numerous other day-to-day affairs as well. One former village resident suggested that when the first garden produce of the season was brought in, Anastasia insisted that she be the first to partake of it. She also saw herself as the principal spiritual resource for the village and personally took to teaching Doukhobor philosophy and community regulations to the children. She gathered her young charges together in the early hours of the morning and taught them to sing Doukhobor psalms and memorize the main tenets of Doukhobor ideology. Herself once a member of Peter Verigin’s travelling choirs, she placed considerable stress on music. She also decried materialism and militarism and originated a series of strict regulations in this regard.

This large barn served the whole community at Anastasia’s village. It was built in 1927 and is still in use.  Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

She was known to mete out lengthy sermons to offenders who often escaped her diatribes simply by leaving the scene.

Following Peter the Lordly’s example, Anastasia originally purchased the farmlands for her settlement in her own name. Verigin said he would do this for the protection of the community when they first migrated to British Columbia, and true to his word, he did set up a board of directors for the CCUB and eventually turned all properties over to the organization. Anastasia also established a board of directors (consisting of three members) but she never signed the lands over to her community. Thus at her death there was a legal question about ownership. The actual village site and surrounding farmland were willed to her niece (recently deceased) who, along with her husband, maintained the village buildings and grounds to the present. Although resident in British Columbia, they spent summers at the village site to undertake maintenance work.

Anastasia’s board of directors was elected for one year terms and were primarily charged with looking after agricultural activities. Despite many attempts to live according to the spirit of brotherly love extolled by Doukhobors, there were frequent disputes (even fist-fights) among members of the village and Anastasia was not always able to successfully intervene. As a result there were frequent departures as people moved to more desirable places. When this happened, in most cases they forfeited their goods to the village and left with only the clothes on their backs. Some demanded a share of the goods and argued until some kind of settlement was made. This constant turmoil reflected badly on Anastasia’s abilities as leader and did little to maintain the morale of the membership or attract other Orthodox Doukhobors to the settlement. It also reflected poorly on a community allegedly bound by the principles of rationality which was to result in respect for one another by living in harmony. Despite this, the community became skilled at growing garden produce and contracted with members of the nearby Blackfoot Indian Reserve to trade these for coal supplies. They also obtained permission to do berry-picking on the reserve.

Doukhobor pacifism was internally put to the test when Anastasia appointed a close friend of hers, Wasyl (William) Androsoff, to run the village farm. The irritation caused by the appointment increased when Androsoff refused to move to the village. In addition, he and his brother, Ivan, also used community machinery to farm their own land. At William’s death, Ivan (also called John), took over farming operations until Anastasia’s passing. Her brother Michael is also reported to have helped with farming operations and as a reward Anastasia signed a quarter section of land over to him.

In some ways, Anastasia’s village was a communal experiment in isolation. It was an isolation from social interchange, and an isolation of economics and belief. In the first instance, village members were encouraged to have little to do with outsiders even though a certain amount of trade went on with neighbours. Also, when times were tough, Anastasia assigned certain men to work for neighbouring farmers. When work was done a strict reporting of activities away from the village to Anastasia was required. The philosophy of “them and us” was adhered to, which meant that everyone outside the village was considered an outsider – including other Doukhobors. Since Anastasia’s group was considered a renegade faction by mainline orthodoxy, there was an unspoken regulation about having too much to do with them. There were exchange visits between Anastasia’s people and those in the Alberta settlements near Lundbreck, but these were intermittent and basically social in nature.

Non-Doukhobor neighbours who still reside near the former village tell of sitting listening to Doukhobor singing emanating from the village. It was a beautiful and haunting sound, but carried a message of social distance in philosophy and practice. It was certainly difficult to operationalize the principle of loving one’s brother if social isolation was awarded such prime billing.

There is no indication that members of Anastasia’s village experienced public censure because of their pacifism during the period of the Second World War. On a national scale there were many Doukhobors who resisted participation in any alternative service program such as that yielded to by the Mennonites and Hutterites. Although some Doukhobor leaders in Saskatchewan tried to cooperate with the government push for alternative service, many young men resisted and at one time nearly 100 of them spent four months in prison in Prince Albert. In British Columbia, resistance was much more pronounced and the Sons of Freedom particularly gained press for staging public demonstrations. Inexperienced with this kind of upheaval, government officials tried to downplay the problem. Countless meetings were held and finally it was agreed that the Doukhobors should be disfranchised. On November 2, 1944, a form of taxation for Doukhobors was devised with monies derived therefrom going to the Red Cross. With the war nearly over, the proposal received endorsation by the majority of Doukhobors and additional conflict was defused. In evaluating the entire episode, one would have to praise government officials for their patience, dedication and long suffering in trying to accommodate Doukhobor beliefs.

Besides the question of the quality of administration in Anastasia’s village was the matter of institutional connection. With only limited social and economic ties to the local community, residents of the village also functioned with memories of having been forced to leave the membership of mainline orthodoxy when they sided with Anastasia after Peter the Lordly’s death. Combined with Anastasia’s inability to run a tight ship, this lack of institutional affiliation created an island community in an alien society and its demise was almost certain from the beginning. After all, who in Alberta, in a period of wartime, could really become concerned about the inner struggles of a remote pacifist, communal, renegade, Russian-derived group of people? Without vital connections, the experiment could not last.

When the Doukhobors first came to Canada they were seen as a very appealing kind of immigrant. They knew how to farm, they promised not to engage in any acts of civil disobedience, and they asked for little from the Canadian people. As time went on, however, a very negative image of Doukhobors evolved, partially brought on by the “leave us alone” philosophy of the Doukhobors themselves and Canadian suspicions of their pacifist, communal lifestyle. It did not help that the militant Sons of Freedom faction which originated after the seizure of Saskatchewan lands received so much publicity. In their zeal to discourage a growing materialism among their orthodox counterparts they sometimes engaged in acts of civil disobedience and violence to make a point. They set fire to buildings to illustrate the fleeting security of material goods. They burned schools in order to express their disdain for public education which they saw as part of the process of yielding to the Canadian value system of materialism, consumerism and militarism.

Undoubtedly the apparent inconsistency between what was promulgated as pacifist ideology, and demonstrated in acts of aggression (even if only against one’s own colleagues), drew little public support for the Doukhobor cause. An even more isolated and eccentric experiment (such as Anastasia’s village), would almost certainly be bypassed or stretch Canadian tolerance to its very limits.

Sources contend that the village never formally died; instead it simply dwindled away. By 1945, only Anastasia and her companion, Fedosia Verigin, remained on site. They lived alone there until 1960 when they moved to Calgary and spent their summers at the site. Anastasia died on November 24, 1965, and Fedosia on October 26, 1981. They are buried side by side in the cemetery located at the north end of the village.

Anastasia’s original house (and attached bath house). The structure is still standing.  Photo by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Physical reminders of the former village structure are numerous and include Anastasia’s original house (and attached bath-house), her newer home (built in the 1950s), a big barn and grain bin, the prayer home, and a several other buildings. Memories of life in the village also remain, locked in the inner recesses of the hearts of older Doukhobors who were once a part of this experience.

About the Author

John W. Friesen is an ordained clergyman of the United Church of Canada. He is Minister of Morley United Church near Calgary, Alberta. He also holds a joint appointment as Professor in the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He has published several articles on the Doukhobors. His book with Michael M. Verigin, The Community Doukhobors, A People in Transition (Borealis Press, 1996) is a detailed examination of the history of the Doukhobors in Alberta.

Early Doukhobor Experience on the Canadian Prairies

by Jeremy Adelman

The prairie frontier is usually seen as an open society. Yet as historian and scholar Jeremy Adelman contends, the settlement of over 7,000 Doukhobors asks us seriously to challenge this view. Despite an agreement between Dominion authorities and Doukhobor leaders to respect the claims of the refugees regarding the pattern of land tenure, protection was slowly rescinded. Under pressure from non-Doukhobor settlers and fueled by the conviction that independent ownership by male homesteaders was the best way to effect colonization of the west, the government withdrew land from the Doukhobor reserves. In response, Doukhobors who wanted to preserve community-based proprietorship fled the prairies. In the following article, reproduced by permission from the Journal of Canadian Studies (1990-91, Vol 25, No. 4), Adelman redresses the view that Canada’s first attempt at coordinated refugee settlement ended in failure because of the “fanaticism” and “zealotry” of the Doukhobors; rather it was a disaster, largely due to cultural insensitivity.

I

In early 1899, having fled Czarist Russia, some 7,400 Doukhobors arrived in North-West Canada. Under the rule of Nicholas II they were forced into exile in the Caucasus region, but even internal exile within the Czarist empire did not exempt them from official military conscription. As pacifists they refused to bear arms for the State. Their leaders were exiled again, to Siberia, while devout followers were forced to eke out a living in adverse circumstances. Constant persecution made escape from Russia their only option. The need to find a new home became evident by the mid-1890s. Count Leo Tolstoy then took up the cause of the Doukhobors. Seeing an affinity with his own pacifism and Christian anarchism, Tolstoy set out to find a suitable place for the dispirited refugees. After a failed attempt to resettle some of them in Cyprus, Tolstoy and his followers learned of the vacant Canadian prairies. A quick exchange of letters started a process which would see many thousands embark on the first refugee venture to Canada and one of the largest single voluntary group settlement schemes in Canadian history. It ended in disaster.

Our interest in the fate of the Doukhobors addresses various themes in Canadian historiography. The experience on the prairies reveals much about the cultural intolerance of the supposedly open-frontier society. The episode also saw the region’s police forces deployed for the first time in systematic repression of an ethnic minority. But our concern here is primarily with the clash between a group seeking to preserve its traditional form of property relations based on collective ownership and a State intent on populating the frontier with independent, owner-occupant farmers. The confrontation exposed the ideological substance of the homestead model so long eulogized as forward-looking and progressive.

Friends of the Doukhobors, 1899.  Standing (l-r) Sergei L. Tolstoi, Anna de Carousa, Leo A. Soulerjitsky. Seated (l-r) Sasha Satz, Prince Hilkov, W.R. McCreary, Mary Robetz. Library and Archives Canada C018131.

In portraying the struggle between Doukhobors and the State as one over land ownership, my purpose is also to redress an ingrained view of the Russian refugees as “fanatics” or “zealots.” This view is especially proffered in a popular, controversial book by a Vancouver Sun journalist, Simma Holt. Holt argued that the Doukhobors were the masters of their own fate: their failure to integrate and their determination to ward off outside influences alienated them from an otherwise benevolent Canadian society. The author’s case is full of distortions, and it is not helped by the penchant to use sources without offering citations. Therefore, it is worthwhile to try to set the record straight about the Doukhobors, who are otherwise noted mainly for their nudism and atavism.

This essay also redresses a second problem. The failure of Doukhobor settlements on the prairies is usually explained either through Doukhobor misunderstanding of the land laws, compounded by eccentric behaviour, or, as in the case of works by Doukhobors themselves, by glossing over the problem. One exception is the work of Koozma Tarasoff, who does attempt to explain the source of discord and rightly distills the problem to the conflict over land. But Tarasoff does not study the episode within the context of State-promoted development of the West. Consequently, the conflict is not seen by him as a clash of models of economic development.

In the last few years of the century, the settlement of the prairies was still disappointingly slow. The Dominion Lands Act, passed in 1872, was designed to attract farmers to free parcels of land. Transcontinental railways had reached into the prairies since the early 1880s. But settlers still refused to come. Tolstoy’s plea to help the Doukhobors came to the attention of Clifford Sifton in late 1898. The energetic Minister of the Interior found the proposal to settle such a large group of potential farmers from Russia attractive and he acceded.

The Doukhobors, however, were not, and could not be, typical homesteading farmers. Sifton’s concern was not with the past plight of the refugees, but with their potential role in populating the prairies. Dominion authorities seemed willing to protect traditional religious custom and belief. However, the identity of the Doukhobors also included the tradition of collective ownership of property. Under pressure from Czarist authorities, Peter Verigin, the spiritual leader for most Doukhobors, urged his followers to reconsolidate their meagre holdings into common units and abolish private property. Many obeyed. Verigin advocated a “highly ascetic” world-view reminiscent of the creed followed in the early nineteenth century called the “New Doukhoborism.” The “New Doukhobors” were especially singled out by Czarist authorities. It remains unclear whether collective ownership was indeed a “traditional” mode of proprietary relations for the Doukhobors. As George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic argue, collectivization was often a measure taken by this ethnic minority to protect its identity when under siege by a dominant State; it was also a means to ensure group cohesion in moments of acute internal fragmentation.

Collective land ownership was the nub of the discord between the Doukhobors and the Canadian State: although officials were eager to see staple-producers populate the grasslands, which was why the refugees were offered land in the first place, these same officials would not countenance a system of property relations which did not cohere with the homestead model.

II

In the summer of 1898, the anarchist Prince Kropotkin contacted James Mavor, then professor of Political Economy and Constitutional History at the University of Toronto and Canada’s leading social scientist of the day. Working in conjunction with a group of Tolstoy’s followers in Britain, Prince Kropotkin was responding to a personal suggestion made by Tolstoy that the prairies be considered as a possible refuge. In his appeal for help for the Doukhobor cause, Kropotkin argued that settlement on the prairies could only proceed if three conditions were granted: that the pacifists be exempt from military service; that the internal organization (principally educational matters) of the sect not be interfered with; and that lands be allocated to the Doukhobors in block reserves so that they could till the soil collectively.

Mavor was converted to the cause and contacted Clifford Sifton, spelling out the Doukhobor plight and making clear the conditions under which they would agree to come to Canada. The government agreed to the conditions. On October 25,1898, James Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior, wrote Aylmer Maude, the Doukhobors’ main advocate in England, to inform him that the Ministry was especially willing to help the Doukhobors.

According to Doukhobor belief, all land belonged to God: no single individual could claim rights to the exclusion of any other individual. Exclusive proprietary claims were avoided since decisions about the use of land were vested in village elders who represented collective interests. Absolute collective proprietary rights seldom obtained; to a great extent individual Doukhobors had enjoyed exclusive privileges while in Russia. But in times of acute need or scarcity of resources, villagization of property was reinstituted. Tolstoyans and Doukhobor leaders wanted to maintain the collective hold on land as a means of preserving the group’s identity in the New World.

Making Doukhobor proprietary beliefs fit with the Canadian legal system was not easy. The 1872 Lands Act provided for the allocation of 160 acre, quarter-section lots for an administrative fee of $10. Initially a homesteader was required to “file for entry” (register his claim), occupy his land at least six months of the year for three years, and break a certain portion of that land. After three years, if the farmer could demonstrate fulfilment of the criteria, he would be awarded his “patent” (title) to the homestead. The Act encouraged the allocation of land to modest producers who wanted to cultivate their crops on an individual basis. Given these stipulations, how were the Doukhobors to be allocated land communally?

Last night camp before arriving at Yorkton, Saskatchewan, 1899.  Library and Archives Canada C-008889.

Sifton and Smart came up with a solution. Doukhobor military and educational demands were met entirely. Regarding land, Doukhobors were required to file for entry individually for quarter-section lots, but were not required to meet the criteria
normally demanded of homesteaders: they did not have to live on the individual quarter-section and till that specific lot. They were allowed to live in villages and “to do an equivalent quantity of work on any part of the township they took up, thus facilitating their communal arrangements.”

This seemed a sensible arrangement. By filing individually, Doukhobors could expect the government to defend their claims, but they were not required to abide by the stipulations which enforced individual division of the territory. However, there were several flaws in this arrangement. First, the Lands Act included a stipulation that title or patent could only be earned if the applicant swore allegiance to the Crown. If this provision was not waived, and in this case it was not, the government could be accused of conferring special treatment on the Russian refugees. Swearing allegiance to anything but God was a direct infringement of Doukhobor beliefs. Second, and most importantly, there was no clear guarantee that the terms for the filing for entry would also apply to the receipt of patent. Filing for entry only ensured that the applicant would be given the exclusive right to till the land during the three-year “proving-up” period. Even if the Doukhobors fulfilled all the requirements of the compromise, there was no guarantee that the same conditions would obtain when they applied for their title several years later. In other words, they would be allowed to cultivate collectively in order to file for entry, but would collective cultivation allow them to receive their absolute title after the proving-up period? Nothing of this was mentioned in the compromise. Perhaps the government gambled on the hope that eventually the Doukhobors would abandon village life and till the land in severally before the three years had elapsed. The thoughts of the government in this case are unknown to us, but whatever the consideration Sifton did not seem concerned that requirements for entry and for receipt of patent were inconsistent. This oversight proved costly.

Leopold Sulerzhitsky, Tolstoy’s personal envoy who helped coordinate the initial establishment of Doukhobor villages on the prairies, counted the Doukhobors by reference to the regions they came from in the Caucasus. He estimated that 1,600 Doukhobors came from the Elizabetpol region; 3,000 from the Kars district; and 2,140 from Tiflis province (sometimes referred to as the Wet Mountain region); another 1,126 had been relocated in Cyprus. Those from Elizabetpol and Kars were better off than those from Tiflis; the Cyprus refugees were the worst off.

The Wet Mountaineers were the first to arrive, in January 1899; the last shipload, from Cyprus and Kars, arrived in June. Lands had already been set aside for the new arrivals. With the support of the Dominion Lands agents in the North West, Aylmer Maude chose three tracts in the districts of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia.” The two major colonies were located near Yorkton: the North Colony, seventy miles north of Yorkton, encompassed six townships (216 square miles); while the South Colony, thirty miles north of Yorkton, included fifteen townships (540 square miles). The Yorkton colonies were “reserve” lands. According to the agreement struck with the Dominion government to stimulate railway construction, the Canadian Pacific Railway had been granted all odd-numbered sections in arable tracts (amounting to a total grant of 25 million acres). The CPR now ceded their claim, thus allowing the Doukhobors to settle on both odd and even numbered sections. The same concession was not made for the third colony near Prince Albert, where the Doukhobors were allocated twenty townships. Here they were allowed to take up only the even numbered sections, and it was not long before non-Doukhobors bought the odd-numbered sections from the CPR. This mingling of Doukhobors and non-Doukhobors was one of the features which distinguished the Prince Albert Colony from the colonies of the Yorkton area.

The colonies also differed in the groups of Doukhobors represented. The North Colony included mainly Wet Mountaineers previously exiled in Georgia and noted for their impoverishment; the South Colony was a mixture of exiles from Elizabetpol and some Kars, as well as Wet Mountaineers previously exiled in Cyprus; and the Prince Albert Colony was populated mostly by prosperous Kars. Difference in group representation in part explains the different behaviour patterns in each colony: Prince Albert colonists, as a result of their mingling and their comparative wealth, more readily accepted Dominion regulations, while the North colonists were the most uncompromising.

III

By June 1899 communities were beginning to form, and Doukhobors began to move out of their barracks in order to build villages. The first year — a difficult one — was made somewhat more tolerable by donations: English Quakers provided $1,400; the Tolstoyan community in Purleigh, England sent $5,000; and Tolstoy himself gave $17,000. The Doukhobors put together $16,500 out of their own pockets. The Canadian government contributed another $35,000, which normally was paid as a bonus to shipping agents. In a matter of months these funds were exhausted, and the settlers still had not made even the most elementary purchases of livestock, agricultural machinery, or building materials. Additional money was raised among American Quakers and by the Dominion Council of Women. James Mavor began negotiations with Massey-Harris, the agricultural implement manufacturer, to provide ploughs and harrows on credit. But these united efforts were not sufficient. In mid-May William McCreary, the Dominion Colonization Agent in charge of the Doukhobors, wrote a confidential letter to Smart warning of the real danger that if the crops were not put in (which was likely given the handful of old walking-ploughs at their disposal) the Doukhobors would surely starve over the winter.

An early Doukhobor village with houses and animal shelters constructed of prairie sod, 1900.  Library and Archives Canada C-008890.

In July the elders of the sect appealed to the government for a loan. The government was put in an awkward position: it could only issue credit on the security of land; since their titles had not yet been granted, the Doukhobors were technically landless. The government pondered the issue, but in November a decision had still not been made. Herbert Archer, a Doukhobor sympathizer, wrote Sulerzhitsky from Ottawa informing him that no loan could be issued until all entries were filed: “The loan is still in the cloudy, unsatisfactory region of hopes and fears,” Archer confessed. In the end, the Canadian government offered $20,000 at eight percent, on the condition that the settlers file for entry. The offer was turned down by the Doukhobors, partly because the need for funds had passed, and partly out of reluctance to be pressured by the State. The episode was an indication of future complications.

The first summer was bad, but in order to make up for the shortage of funds male Doukhobors “worked out” in sawmills, threshing gangs, and construction companies. Mostly they worked for the railways. One contractor was so pleased with his economical Doukhobor workers that he wrote to the Department of the Interior, praising them as “crackerjacks, and superior to any other class of foreign settlers I know of.” The income earned, an average of 50-60 cents per day, was pooled in a common account and used by the colonies to make appropriate investments.

While the men worked out, the women “worked in.” They built the houses and schools. They also broke the prairie sod. With the scarcity of draught animals, women were called upon to pull rudimentary walking ploughs by hand. One observer noted that “all people except very old and young works very hard. They pull plough theiself — 24 men or women in every. Somebody works with spade.” Women were often admired by outsiders for their toil: William McCreary wrote Prince Hilkoff, another Russian notable who had taken up the Doukhobor cause, that the progress of the enterprise rested on the shoulders of its women folk. A contemporary article entitled “The Doukhobor Woman” claimed that “she has muscles instead of curves,” and that, when angered, Doukhobor women act like “infuriated Amazons.” To this day, photographs of Doukhobors portray women drawing ploughs in gangs of sixteen as testimony to either exploitation by men or sectarian atavism. In fact, the only recorded incidents of hand-pulled ploughing occurred during the summer of 1899 when machinery and livestock were not available.

During the winter of 1899-1900, roaming officials reported back to Winnipeg and Ottawa with stories of widespread disease, some cases of hunger, and general demoralization. The men continued to work on the railways, but their income bought only the bare necessities. The deprivation of the first year was to reinforce the collective nature of the enterprise. The Doukhobors could aspire to nothing more than self-sufficiency. Unable to buy implements, they made their own; unable to buy clothes, they made their own with the spinning and sewing machines donated by the Dominion Council of Women. The scarcity of resources at the early stages made pooling indispensable. Collectivization was also reinforced by the nature of outside assistance. Donors gave money to centralized committees who accordingly made spending decisions. Few Doukhobors would want to forgo the benefits of these handouts — a potential loss which village elders held over the heads of would-be individualists. One obvious exception was the Prince Albert Colony: because the Kars had more funds available for investment, they filed for entry individually and homesteaded in the same way as non-Doukhobors.

IV

In the North and South Colonies, poverty and Peter Verigin’s message (though he was still in exile in Siberia) tipped the scales in favour of collective property ownership. But this was not unanimously approved. As early as July 1899, some members of the Yorkton colonies began expressing a wish to till their own quarter-sections.

The division was especially clear in the South Colony where well-off Elizabetpol Doukhobors were mixed with the Wet Mountaineers, the former wishing to detach themselves from the latter with whom they were forced to share assets. Less debate occurred in the North Colony where all the impoverished Wet Mountaineers endorsed collective enterprise. Leopold Sulerzhitsky attended the first meeting, held on July 16, 1899, to address the issue. The discussion, which saw wealthier Doukhobors arguing with the poorer, was profound and endless. Unable to reach a common agreement, the elders went back to their villages where they took up the issue on their own. Some, especially those in the North Colony, voted to keep all holdings together; others did not. Thirteen of the North Colony villages even experimented with a common exchequer. During that first summer most Doukhobors were caught up in an internal debate about how to organize their settlements. It did not help that many of their leaders, including Verigin, were still trapped in Siberia. They were unable to arrive at a common solution and the divisions remained. So while it is fair to say that penury reinforced collectivization, it is also true that the divisions would have been considerably worse if poverty had not been an issue.

When Sulerzhitsky and Archer were commissioned by the government to draw up a map of each village, the elders asked that the land be identified as belonging to villages, and that individual quarter-sections not be itemized. Prince Hilkoff, who was overseeing settlement efforts in Yorkton, wrote to Deputy Minister Smart and specifically asked that lands only be identified in township units (36 sections). The cartographers turned to the government. In reply, the Department of the Interior insisted that a quarter-section be identified by the name of the Doukhobor who filed for entry on that lot, but that the land on which the village was built need not be registered as homesteads. The Doukhobor elders were “saddened” but did not protest. Sulerzhitsky left the finished maps for the Dominion surveyor and registrar, but the officials did not arrive. In the meantime, the Doukhobors discussed the problem over the winter, and by the spring of 1900 they were less willing to tolerate what they considered to be incursions on their collective way of life.

Doukhobors plowing, North Colony, 1905.  Library and Archives Canada A021179.

That winter was tough, but the return of good weather brought promise of better times. However, imminent prosperity generated more problems. Better-off villagers wanted out. Aylmer Maude, who was closely involved in establishing the villages, observed the discord. He believed that most Doukhobors wanted to hold their land individually, but that early scarcity, and directives from Peter Verigin dating from the early 1890s, prevented more rapid disintegration of the collectivity. The biggest obstacle to individual homesteading was “that it was evident… that the communist villages generally prospered more rapidly than individualist villages.” Collective villages proved a highly successful way of organizing production given scarce resources. Increasing prosperity revealed the internal fissures within communities. Village elders struggled to maintain the collectivity, first to avoid material deprivation, then increasingly to smooth over the cracks. The pressure to dismantle collective villages came from within as well as without.

In June, the Trustees of the Community of Universal Brotherhood (the umbrella group of elders) posted notices in villages proclaiming strong opposition to enforcement of homestead regulations. Through the summer of 1900, the government debated what to do. Its position gradually became clearer. The Deputy Minister of the Interior wrote to Aylmer Maude and spelled out the official line: “It will be necessary for the Doukhobors to make individual homestead entries, in accordance with the Dominion Lands regulation, but upon getting their patents there will be nothing to prevent them from conveying their lands in one common trust. They will thus be able to carry out their ideas with regard to community of property without requiring any alteration to our rules.” The government thus made it clear that titles to Doukhobor land would only be guaranteed individually: not only did entries have to be filed individually, but patent would be issued individually. The latter had not been spelled out in Sifton’s initial compromise with the Doukhobors. Doukhobor leaders feared that, by allowing community members to receive individual title, nothing could prevent them from seceding from their village while maintaining rights over their quarter-section. In the words of James Mavor, “the old peasant feeling came out. The only way to oppose the oppression of the Govt. was for the community to hold together.” Agitation in the communities, rumours, declarations by leaders, and especially the antics of a non-Doukhobor anarchist, A.M. Bodianskii, prompted the government to harden and enforce its position. In the spring of 1901, the Commissioner of Crown Lands posted notices advising that lands within the reserves which had not been filed for individually by May 1, 1902 would be thrown open to non-Doukhobor homesteaders. This notice, together with a lack of diplomatic negotiation, had the effect of a bombshell.

By the end of 1901, the debate within and without the communities reached a fever pitch. In February 1902, Clifford Sifton wrote an open letter to the Doukhobors to prevent any doubts about official policy and to try to heal some of the wounds of mistrust and Doukhobor feeling of betrayal. Sifton stressed for the first time the threat of pressure by non-Doukhobor homesteaders: if titles were not registered individually according to the Dominion Lands Act, federal land agents would have “no power to prevent these strangers or any other person from taking the land.” The Doukhobors had to make individual entry, and serve the proving-up period, as Sifton told the refugees, “for your own protection against outsiders.” Sifton reiterated the deadline, but by May 1 so few Doukhobors had filed their homesteads at the Lands Office that the deadline was waived.

At the request of the government, Joseph Elkinton, a Quaker from Philadelphia. who helped organize relief efforts funded by the American Society of Friends, agreed to try to explain the land laws to the Doukhobors. The Dominion Colonization Agent, C.W. Speers, wrote his Commissioner that Elkinton’s efforts induced more Doukhobors to take an interest in homesteading. Elkinton personally considered official efforts well intentioned, but he could not understand why the government insisted on seeing the Lands Act fulfilled to the letter: “no great harm could result from granting the Doukhobors the privilege of possessing their lands in common.” When Elkinton wrote his book on the Doukhobors in late 1902 and early 1903, he feared that the debate over land would be the ruin of the Doukhobor villages.

The tension and uncertainty mounted through the summer of 1902. In October a group of Doukhobors embarked on the first of a series of “pilgrimages.” Thousands abandoned their villages and marched, with children but without provisions, to Yorkton and beyond. This demonstration brought the Doukhobor plight to the attention of the entire country; all across Canada people discussed this strange peasant march towards Winnipeg. It proved to be a turning point in the popular image of the Russian refugees. Once considered the victims of Czarist oppression in need of help, they were now increasingly characterized as “fanatics.” While they explained their pilgrimage in messianic and spiritual terms appropriate to their world view, there was little doubt as to the source of the problem. As far as the Land Agent for the Yorkton area, Hugh Harley, was concerned, the pilgrimage was just the first outburst of frustration created by official pressure to file individually for land.

Coincidentally, Peter Verigin, the Doukhobors’ spiritual leader, was released from Siberian exile in the autumn of 1902. Dominion officials awaited his arrival in suspense: they hoped that a strong hand would bring the unruly refugees under control. They expected Verigin to recognize the wisdom of abiding by the Lands Act, for even as late as April 1903 only 596 entries were registered in the North Colony, while 874 were registered in the South Colony.

Verigin’s task was not easy. Taking up the issue in early 1903, he decided that entering for land should be considered a mere formality in the spirit of the agreement of 1898. Doukhobors should file for entry, but should nonetheless treat land as the common property of the community. Like Sifton before him, Verigin used the grace period before patent to delay a lasting solution: the conflict over who should hold ownership titles once the time for patent came was still not resolved. Verigin’s apparent compromise only temporarily restored a semblance of peace.

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

Respite from the tension allowed Verigin to initiate a process of large-scale material expansion. Through extensive borrowing, soliciting of donations, and the pooling of earnings from “working out,” Doukhobors accumulated large investment funds. In 1903 alone, their earnings from “working out” brought in $215,000. They made heavy investments. The Immigration Commissioner counted 4 grist mills, 3 sawmills, 8 steam threshers, and 2 steam ploughs in 1904, at a time when few homesteaders operated mammoth steam engines to pull gang-ploughs. In August 1903, the Doukhobors bought 4 more steam threshers and 500 horses (300 in a single day). While investigating for the British Board of Trade, James Mavor found signs of intense investment: in the North Colony (population 1,369) he counted 54 horses, 16 ploughs, and 18 wagons, while among Kars colonists (population 1,442) he counted 88 horses, 28 ploughs and 34 wagons. Evidently the days of penury were past, but the disparity between the richer Kars and the North Colonists persisted.

Verigin tried to calm the “fanatics,” but his success was limited. In May 1903 rumours circulated about another pilgrimage. The government was increasingly aware of the bad press which roaming “fanatics” brought upon an administration keen to be viewed as smoothly bringing about prairie prosperity. On May 11, James Smart asked the North West Mounted Police to begin regular patrols in the villages. Referring to spontaneous pilgrimages, Smart claimed that the presence of red tunics would “give the people the impression that we do not intend to allow anything more of this kind, and no doubt it will also give them respect for the authority of the police.”

The move backfired. The presence of police only reminded Doukhobors of the oppression suffered at the hands of Czarist police. They resisted by stepping up their protests. When the police solicited the help of Verigin, he explained that he was helpless to control the zealots in his sect. Verigin must have recognized the pointlessness of condoning police patrols in villages. Two weeks after Smart’s request, the first Doukhobors were arrested for plotting a demonstration. Twenty-six men were picked up. One man, who refused to comply with the order, stripped in full view of onlookers. For his pathetic act he was immediately charged with indecent exposure and sentenced to four months in prison without trial.

One nude demonstration had been held before May 1903. The gesture was meant to signify Doukhobor rejection of material possessions. Such naked marches through the countryside were rites performed only by the “fanatical” Sons of Freedom group to bring believers in closer contact with God. The arrests changed the nature of the rite from one of worship to one of defiance of authority. Thereafter, Doukhobors stripped regularly. Upon the sight of an approaching police patrol whole groups would undress. Displays of nudity, sometimes on the streets of Yorkton or smaller towns, terrified authorities. Pilgrimages were bad enough, but naked processions created a sensation in the Victorian press. Whatever charity was left in the government quickly vanished and the arrests were stepped up.

Confrontation sometimes brought comic incidents. In one case a patrolling officer stumbled upon a group of women who promptly changed to their “prayer meeting attire” by dropping their clothing in a heap beside them. As the young officer tried to talk the women into redonning their clothes, a photographer arrived on the scene. They struck a deal: the women promised to get dressed if the officer would have his photograph taken beside the naked women. The hapless mountie agreed, and when the scandalous photograph hit the front pages of prairie newspapers, the Prime Minister ordered the head of the NWMP to explain. The plates of the photo were chased down and destroyed, and the officer was fined $5 and sentenced to a month of hard labour.

As if police-Doukhobor relations had not soured enough, the villages came under assault from non-Doukhobor settlers. The prosperity of the Doukhobors, the filling in of land elsewhere on the prairies, and the construction of the Canadian Northern Railway, and later the CPR’s North-Western line, brought the region to the attention of prospective non-Doukhobor homesteaders. Land around the reserves was being taken up; the villages were no longer isolated in the way their creators had wanted. Through Peter Verigin’s efforts, the Doukhobors had filed for entry on about half the total land allotted to them. This left a sizeable area vacant, but also beyond the legal claim of land-hungry settlers. Letters began to arrive at Land Offices in Yorkton and Winnipeg complaining of favours accorded to the “fanatics.” One prominent Winnipeg correspondent slammed the government’s treatment of “Sifton’s pets”: “The main question in settling up the vast west is not so much to run in a horde of people as it is to get the right class of people. Settlers are to a large extent born and not made, if I may use the term, and the Doukhobor as he is today in the neighbourhood of Yorkton does not come up to the lowest qualification of a settler.” Pressure mounted as neighbouring settlers coveted the unoccupied Doukhobor lands. The government felt the need to deal with the unruly, albeit prospering, refugees.

VI

In December 1904 the government revoked the original agreement and redefined Doukhobor lands as those falling within the territory which had been filed for entry. This measure aimed to allow homesteaders to develop unoccupied land. This it did. Hundreds of squatters quickly took up lots. In 1905 the Territories became the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the same year Clifford Sifton, architect of the flawed Doukhobor settlement compromise, quit the Liberal cabinet over the language provisions of the new provinces. He was replaced by Edmonton MP Frank Oliver, an irascible champion of the quarter-section homesteader. As the prairie economy took off, the fate of the Doukhobors was sealed. They were no longer seen as necessary in populating the vacant land. They certainly no longer induced the pathos of the government.

Communal harvesting, c. 1910.  The women ride the binders and the women stook. Library and Archives Canada C-009787.

The North West Mounted Police, not accustomed to mass arrests and systematic containment of non-native or non-Metis ethnic minorities, asked the Minister of the Interior for guidelines. The new Deputy Minister, Cory, instructed the Comptroller, Fred White, to defend Doukhobors and other settlers who took up quarter-sections. The police should desist from protecting the collective rights invoked by village elders: “As you are aware, they are living on the communal plan, but most of them have now taken up homesteads, and as they have been over seven years in the country it is felt that they should not be considered as wards of the Government any longer. I think if your police should merely see that they are protected in their personal rights, … the matter will be settled quite satisfactorily.”

The police and the Ministry did more, however, than just rescind an earlier commitment to protect the community. They openly encouraged individual Doukhobors to leave the community and take up homesteads elsewhere. This was the last straw for Peter Verigin, who had hitherto helped quell unrest. By speaking out against the police and in favour of collective property as the only true Doukhobor economy, he fired up his followers. Fred White became alarmed by the turn of events. Writing to the Minister, he confessed that “at one time we were anxious to have Peter Verigin arrive from Russia. It now looks as if we shall be compelled to take drastic measures to repress him.”

The concept of property relations was the wedge which, by 1904, divided the Doukhobors into three general factions: the wealthier “Independents” concentrated in the Prince Albert Colony, with some in the South Colony; Community or traditional Doukhobors, taken mainly from Tiflis and Elizabetpol emigres, concentrated in both the North and South Colonies; and the Sons of Freedom concentrated in the Yorkton Colonies. The latter took a much more militant stance in the ensuing conflict with the government. There was also a class dimension to the fissures: wealthier Doukhobors, it seems, were more disposed to accept government rulings and to go the route of the “Independents.” Where Peter Verigin’s allegiances lay is not clear, though they were most likely linked with the Community Doukhobors.

It is impossible to estimate how many Doukhobors sympathized one way or the other with Verigin. No observers were impartial, and certainly official reporting inflated the numbers who dissented from Verigin’s preachings. Corporal Junget, the officer in charge of the Yorkton battalion, reported on the open confrontation between those whom he called “Community” and “non-Community” Doukhobors. Some members asked for permission to withdraw from the community, but they wanted to take with them their share of what was by now a considerable amount of capital tied up in land, machinery and livestock. Dissenters were reported stealing away from the villages in wagons loaded with animals and implements, heading for the nearest police or land office to file for entry on land elsewhere. They were sometimes caught en route by “Community” Doukhobors. Roadside battles were fought with axes and pitchforks, and local police officers on occasion had injured Doukhobors stumble into their station after encounters with their brethren-foe.

Repression intensified during the summer of 1905. After a demonstration in Yorkton, the now promoted Sergeant Junget condemned sixteen male Doukhobors as “lunatics.” He ordered their wives to return to their villages and shipped the “criminals” to the Brandon Insane Asylum. According to the Medical Superintendent of the Asylum, the Doukhobors were not “insane”; they were merely “religious fanatics.” The Asylum was no place for them. In one of its last acts, the North West Assembly refused to commit the sixteen to the Asylum and they were discharged. Junget responded by sending a party of officers after the sixteen and re-arrested them on vagrancy charges and sentenced them himself to six months in the Regina gaol. Throughout the summer Junget had his officers chase down uncooperative Doukhobors. Dozens spent nights in prison. In the autumn, several interned Doukhobors went on a hunger strike to bring attention to the official treatment inflicted on them. By this time they had few supporters outside the community: the Canadian press played up the confrontation with headlines of “Demented Lunatics” and “Religious Fanatics.” In November, despite attempts to force-feed the strikers, one of them died of starvation.

VII

The death of this hunger-striker made it clear that the government could not hope to alter the situation with the carrot of a quarter-section of land and the stick of a night in gaol. Not only was it costly in human terms (the demonstrations continued through the winter of 1905-06), but settlers in the area were calling for the removal of the Doukhobors and the opening of their tracts for homesteading. Frank Oliver, as Minister, was inclined to oblige.

Not only had the reserves been abolished, which opened unoccupied tracts to non-Doukhobors, but in 1906 squatters also began to occupy land for which the Doukhobors had filed for entry under the compromise reached with Sifton. About half the sections in the reserves had actually been claimed, but under the agreement, Doukhobors were not required to cultivate a portion of the quarter-section, as stipulated by the terms of the Lands Act. Instead they could cultivate an equal portion elsewhere in the collective, say, closer to the village. Squatters refused to accept these terms: untilled land, in their eyes, meant that the Doukhobors were not living up to the terms required of all settlers. These quarter-sections were up for grabs and the government was reluctant to defend the rightful claimants, the Doukhobors.

Doukhobor village group in Saskatchewan, c. 1905. British Columbia Archives D-01139.

Nervous about possible confrontations between non-Doukhobors and Doukhobors, the police did what they could to keep them apart. In one incident, a group of Doukhobors went to Yorkton while the town was celebrating a summer fair. When the Doukhobors entered the town, they were said to have attracted the attention of the townspeople with their “singing and queer actions.” To prevent the Doukhobors from “interfering with the sports … it was decided by the Town authorities to run them in.” No criminal offence had been committed so the Doukhobors were charged under a town by-law. They were held in custody for several days and then released — “the object” of this authoritarian exercise, in the words of the commanding officer, “being merely to keep them away from the public and not injure the town during the Fair.” Officer Junget expected that eventually he would have to “take action against the whole outfit… and have them deported either to prison or [the] Lunatic Asylum.” Later, in July, another sixteen were arrested for “parading around town… at times in a semi-nude condition….” They served six months in the Regina gaol.

The situation did not improve. In late 1906 Oliver commissioned the Reverend John McDougall to report on the problem and to propose a solution. In what must be one of the most scandalous official reports submitted to a responsible government, McDougall called for a hard line. He reminded the Minister of the great strides made by the prairie economy. Amongst other things,

… everywhere land values have appreciated in rich measure and prices for land are from $200 to $500 more than they were five or six years since. Alongside of and in some instance cutting right through the midst of this development have been large areas of land known as “the Doukhobor Reserves,” and omnipresent in the minds of settlers and business men and transport officials was this stupendous lot of reserve land constituting as it has a most serious block impediment to the natural and righteous growth of the country.

McDougall celebrated the Anglo-Saxon settler and excoriated the disturbingly unconventional refugees from Russia. The former developed the country, the latter did not. To make matters worse, the Doukhobors openly contravened the law and then made unreasonable demands on the State to uphold special privileges. McDougall paid no heed to Sifton’s agreement or the reminders of non-Doukhobors like Herbert Archer that the Dominion government had made a deal with the Doukhobors. McDougall rested his case on the juridical point of the Doukhobors’ refusal to swear the oath of allegiance. To be sure, Sifton had overlooked this aspect of the Lands Act as a precondition to the receipt of patent. Doukhobors would not swear their allegiance to the Crown because they felt their only allegiance was to God.

Using this pretext, argued McDougall, they should be stripped of their land except for the belts around the villages. Accordingly, Doukhobors were to be granted fifteen acres per person. With a population of 7,853 “Communist Doukhobors,” the settlements would be left with 117,795 acres; they were thus to be dispossessed of 303,360 acres (they had already lost half of what the Reserves originally comprised in 1904). Oliver chose to implement the McDougall recommendations.

In a letter to James Mavor, Herbert Archer acknowledged the stickiness of the problem: “Squatters began to appear on the unimproved land. The Doukhobors tried to evict them & revolvers were produced. A state of violent anarchy threatened. And the squatters rightly charged the Government with protecting Doukhobor illegalities.” Archer was not entirely opposed to the McDougall solution. He thought it might bring peace to the region. But it didn’t. Furious, Mavor wrote the Prime Minister on behalf of the Doukhobors, explaining the long story of the Doukhobor settlement and appealing for a more sympathetic solution, though agreeing in principle that the Sifton compromise was entirely untenable. Laurier replied, saying he would give Mavor’s appeal due consideration and confer with his Minister of the Interior. In the meantime, Laurier received a memorandum from a member of the McDougall Commission, E.L. Cash, accusing the Doukhobors of occupying “the very best land in Saskatchewan,” and of being “foreigners” uninterested in the welfare of the Dominion or the Empire:

I would suggest… that these people should be given a fair chance to become Canadian Citizens, and cultivate their individual 1/4 sections. If it were an American Settler, and he refused to do this, his land would be cancelled without further consideration; then why should the Doukhobor be placed on a higher level than the American, who certainly would make more desirable citizens than the Russians…? If they refuse the offer made to them by the Government, they should receive only such an allowance of land as will be necessary for their subsistence.

The Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, fully cognizant of the history of the Doukhobors in Canada and the provisions made for them under the agreement struck by Sifton, and also aware of their material advances, decided to restrict their claim to fifteen acres per Doukhobor. Perhaps this decision was affected by the wave of squatters who seized unoccupied Doukhobor land in January, and was adopted in order to avoid a dangerous situation. In February John McDougall, now Commissioner for Investigation of Doukhobor Claims, posted notices giving Doukhobors three months to pledge allegiance. Those wanting to acquire quarter-sections more than three miles from the village had to show intent to abide by the terms of the Lands Act. Otherwise, they could only claim title to village land: fifteen acres per person.

Doukhobor land rush in Yorkton, 1907. Library and Archives Canada PA-022232.

In a last ditch effort to save their land, the Doukhobors sent a delegation to Ottawa to meet with Oliver. The exchange was testimony to Oliver’s determination to distance himself from Sifton’s original deal:


Doukhobors: The Doukhobors made entries in accordance with the agreement which the Government made before they came from Russia.

Oliver: I cannot tell them [the squatters] that the Doukhobors are holding land in accordance with an agreement made before they came from Russia because that is not true.

Doukhobors: We think it would be true because if the Doukhobors had not had such a promise they would not have come to this country. If the Government of Canada had suggested before the Doukhobors left Russia that this would not be carried out, they are sure they would not have come at all.

Oliver: If the Doukhobors had suggested the same terms which you suggest now, the Government would have said they could not come on those terms.

Mavor, in anger, wrote Oliver and accused him of stealing Doukhobor land with this “thoroughly unwise action.” Oliver merely observed that the Doukhobors failed “to live up to the technical requirements of settlers.” Mavor felt impelled to write to those who had contributed so much in aid of the Doukhobors in the early years: Elkinton, Vladimir Tchertkoff, Prince Kropotkin. To his friend Kropotkin, he wrote that Canada should no longer be considered a place for the settlement of Russian emigres: “Why not try the Argentine?”

Matters soon came to a head. Verigin wrote Mavor in April appealing for help. To complicate matters, the community had invested a great deal of money in machinery and livestock with the expectation of having more than a mere fifteen acres each. The debt-load was worringly high, and Verigin asked Mavor whether the machinery ought to be sold given the reduced size of their tracts. In June, the Doukhobor lands were thrown open for settlers. The day before the Land Office was due to open its doors, prospective homesteaders began lining up outside at 9:00 a.m. Policemen were stationed in the queue to keep the peace and prevent the over-anxious from queue jumping. Violence was narrowly avoided during the night, but the next day saw a rampage at the Land Office such as had never been seen before on the prairies.

VIII

Almost a decade after the Doukhobors had begun to flee their exiled homes in the Caucasus, they once again began to contemplate leaving the homes they had created on the Canadian prairies. Not all of them were dissatisfied. The so-called “Independent Doukhobors” had taken up quarter-sections and were prospering. The numbers who did so are not known, though Herbert Archer estimated that between 12.5 and 15 percent split from the collective. Woodcock and Avakumovic estimate that there were over 1,000 Independents.

The new solution did not quell Doukhobor protests. In July, 35 “fanatics” started a march to Winnipeg, thus setting off another round of demonstrations and arrests which lasted well into 1908. In May 1908, 31 men, 29 women, and 16 children started another trek. When apprehended by the police, they stripped. They were promptly arrested and sent to the Brandon Asylum, though the police report failed to say whether the children were also deemed insane. In July a whole village went on a hunger strike: a dozen were arrested and the village elders were packed off to the Asylum.

In the Spring of 1908, having selected a site in remotest British Columbia, Verigin began moving his followers to their new home. Those who remained continued their protests to the last. In July 1909, residents of the village of Hledebarnie set out on a protest march. They continued to give the North West Mounted Police trouble until they were relocated in 1912. By 1914 the Doukhobors had lost 2,300 quarter-sections upon which they had filed entry — 368,000 acres of improved land valued at $11,000,000. By moving to British Columbia, they also left behind sixty villages, complete with stores, roads, telephone lines, and trees. The Doukhobors estimated their total losses to be $ 11,400,000.

The Doukhobor experience on the Prairies sheds light on the extent to which the police were deployed by the State to put down an ethnic minority choosing to live with an alternative pattern of property relations. If the Mounties were often seen by destitute homesteaders as primitive social workers, as Carl Betke has argued, their relations with the Doukhobors demonstrate that there were very clear limits to their charity.

More seriously, there is a tradition of writing about the homestead model which celebrates its visionary and progressive accomplishments. A vacant land, save for the occasional native or Metis, was to be colonized, and the Lands Act of 1872 provided the framework. Homesteading, as it was envisaged in North America, was a specific process of agricultural settlement rooted in a clearly individualist heritage of agrarian practice. The law was meant to enshrine the process of settlement by private property owners. It served to exclude any other variation, including village-based agriculture. Since then, historians have often written as if homesteading was the only path to agrarian development.

Consequently, many historians have thus far accepted individual homesteading as the “necessary” approach to settlement simply because no other existed. Although alternatives were not explored, this does not mean they did not exist. Politics, more often than not, seals off alternatives. In the case of the Doukhobors on the prairies, officials at the very highest level of political authority chose not to tolerate the alternative structure of property relations. As a result, they broke an obviously badly drafted agreement, and instead denied the refugees their legal and economic rights.

The Doukhobors in 1904

by Patricia L. McCormick

The early years of Doukhobor settlement in Canada were turbulent and emotional.  But by 1904, much of the dissension and disorder of the early years, caused by lack of leadership, the fear of governmental interference and the activities of radicals within the sect had been replaced by a firm sense of purpose under the leadership of Peter “Lordly” Verigin.  The following article by Patricia L. McCormick, reproduced from Saskatchewan History (31, 1978, No. 1) outlines how in 1904, under Verigin’s leadership, the traditional Doukhobor qualities of thrift, industry, self-discipline and hospitality were concentrated on building a thriving community with good and modem equipment and enough stock and necessities to give them hope for a more comfortable life in the villages and an economic surplus for the community as a whole. By the end of 1904, however, this spirit of hope was again lost.

In 1899, over 7000 Doukhobor settlers arrived in Canada and travelled overland to the Districts of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. The Doukhobors had been living in exile in the Caucasus for over half a century, but renewed political harassment and religious intolerance prompted them once again to seek a new home. Canadian officials were at the same time anxious to settle the vast prairie with experienced farmers, and quickly acceded to the Doukhobors request for reserved land, the right to live in villages and exemption from military duty. These concessions to the Doukhobors were similar to the terms granted to the Mennonites when they formed their reserves in Manitoba in 1874 and 1876, and in Saskatchewan in 1895.

The four boatloads of Doukhobors which arrived in Canada in the spring and summer of 1899 were directed to three separate reserves: the North Colony or Thunder Hill Reserve; the South Colony, with its Devil’s Lake annex to the west; and the distant Prince Albert or Saskatchewan Reserve. The North and South Reserves were both situated in the Yorkton area, and they came to form the core of Doukhobor settlement in the Territories.

The first group of settlers to arrive in the North-West travelled to the Thunder Hill or North Colony, and settled mainly near the Swan River valley. These people came from the Wet Mountains in the Caucasus. They were poor and their fares to Canada had been subsidized by the federal government. The second boatload of Doukhobors came from the Elizavetpol and Kars regions of the Caucasus. They settled in the South Colony, particularly in the Devil’s Lake annex. These settlers were relatively prosperous; they brought many of their belongings from the Caucasus, and most of them paid their own fares. The third boatload, however, brought to Canada Doukhobors who had already spent a distressing year in Cyprus, due to an ill-advised re-settlement scheme. These families, who were destitute and in poor health, settled in the main South Colony. In July 1899, the last group, made up of well-to-do Kars Doukhobors, arrived in the Canadian west. They were directed to the Prince Albert Reserve, situated along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River between the Elbow and Blame Lake. The geographical isolation of this colony from the main body of Doukhobors in the Yorkton area emphasized, from the very beginning, their desire for cultural and spiritual independence.

When the Doukhobors started to organize their new settlements, they adhered rigorously to instructions issued by Peter Verigin from exile in Siberia. They were to establish small villages composed of 40 families, and situated two to four miles apart; maintain communal production and distribution of all goods; try to keep self-sufficient and isolated from other groups; and, in their personal habits, be abstemious and rigidly vegetarian. To begin with, most of his disciples conformed to these strictures, but there was a rapid falling off of enthusiasm. As Maude noted:

Now in Canada, the time had come to live a ‘Christian’ life, and to show the advantages of communism over individualism. The various forms their attempt took, and the continual drift from communism towards individualism that occurred as a result of practical experience, until Verigin arrived and established a communist despotism based partly on moral coercion, furnish an interesting study.

It is not surprising, given the origins of the various groups, that the colonies which held most tenaciously to a communistic form of life were the main South Colony and the Thunder Hill or North Colony, where the poorer Doukhobors lived. Most villages attempted various compromises between the two extremes. However, two settlements, the Devil’s Lake annex of the South Colony and the Prince Albert colony, showed rampant individualism. Herbert Archer, a Quaker, estimated in August 1900 that in the Prince Albert colony only one village in ten was communistic.

When Peter Verigin arrived in the Yorkton colonies in December 1902, his immediate objective was to crush the individualistic tendencies of the Doukhobors and to re-impose communism on the more recalcitrant communities by moral and economic force. His success was dramatic. Most villages returned to a communistic organization, although pockets of disaffection with Verigin’s rule remained in the Prince Albert and Devil’s Lake colonies. When Mavor visited the colonies in 1904, at a time when defections from communal village life were few, he estimated that non-community Doukhobors numbered only one-fifth of the total.

Verigin, nonetheless, decided to cut his losses and early in 1904, he concentrated his attention on the South and Thunder Hill colonies where the “truest” Doukhobors lived. It was there that he demonstrated his flair for organization and his shrewdness in business and financial matters. Under the strict control of the Committee of three, made up of Verigin, Zibarov and Planidin, all aspects of the Yorkton colonies were supervised, and the economy was shored up by keen management.

In the accounts for 1903, presented at Nadezhda in the South Colony on February 28, 1904, Verigin itemized his purchases: 4 portable steam engines and 2 traction engines with threshing machines; 2 saw mills (to be driven by the steam engines); 50 binders; 32 mowers; 45 disc harrows; 20 seeders; 16 wagons; 109 ploughs; 234 sections of harrows; 12 fanning mills; and 152 sleighs. In addition to the equipment, Verigin also bought 370 horses for $36,765.00 and sheep for $1,461.00.

Although one of the avowed aims of the community was self-sufficiency, it is evident from the accounts that many goods still needed to be imported, either from Yorkton or Winnipeg. Almost $30,000 was spent on dry goods, and wheat, oats and flour cost the colonies $9,720. Other bulk items, such as leather goods, salt, coal oil, glass, sugar, tea, wool and soap were also purchased, although there was some debate at the meeting that they should abstain from such luxuries as tea and sugar in 1904.

Doukhobors plowing, North Colony, 1905.  Library and Archives Canada A021179.

The Doukhobors, then, started the year 1904 with firm leadership, good and modem equipment and enough stock and necessities to give them hope for a more comfortable life in the villages and an economic surplus for the community as a whole. And, according to the minutes of the meeting, Verigin was deeply preoccupied with plans for future improvements and purchases. The Doukhobors resolved to set up a brickyard so that the log and sod houses might be replaced by brick structures. Verigin proposed to buy a hundred milk cows, more seed drills and 2000 puds (i.e. a traditional unit of weight in Russia equal to 16.38 kg) of wool for homespun cloth. He wanted to construct a new saw mill for each of the North and South colonies and to build a large warehouse near Verigin on the new main line of the Canadian Northern Railway. The Doukhobors also decided to build their own roads in the future and to permit no schools on the reserves unless they themselves wished to establish them.

Although ambitious, these plans turned out to be realistic. In 1904 a brick-making machine was bought and set up near good clay in section 26, township 35, range 30, W.I. A hundred purebred Ayrshire cattle were purchased so that the Doukhobors might vary their vegetarian diet with more dairy products. In the summer they bought a steam-plough, and Mavor reported that it was used on the reserve that autumn. In July 1904, C. W. Speers, an official of the Department of the Interior, observed that there were ten miles of graded road in the Yorkton district reserves and 20,000 acres of crop “looking excellent”. He also stated that:

They intend to cultivate a large area next to the railway and go extensively into wheat-raising … They have every material want supplied and excellent equipment for their work in their district. There is an air of prosperity among the people and great promise for the present year.

When the 1904 crop was finally in, the Doukhobors enjoyed for the first time in Canada a small grain surplus. The statistics for the Yorkton reserves were as follows:

  South Colony Devil’s Lake Annex North Colony
wheat 40,261 bushels 10,317 bushels 17,085 bushels
oats 49,948 bushels 12,131 bushels 16,569 bushels
barley 23,396 bushels 5,646 bushels 10,673 bushels
flax 3,584 bushels 895 bushels 975 bushels

In a letter to Alex Moffat, dated January 17, 1905, however, Verigin lamented the fact that the Doukhobors were unable to sell their wheat, which they offered at 85 cents to 40 cents a bushel, depending on the grade. And of the 17,000 pounds of seneca root gathered by the women of the reserves in 1904, only 4,000 pounds had been sold for the small sum of $2,600. This letter underlines the precarious financial position that confronted Verigin. His attempt at deficit financing depended on a great increase in the production of grains and the sale of grains and the sale of agricultural surpluses outside the reserves. At this stage he was helped by the money brought into the colonies by men who worked as navvies grading railways, as mill-hands and as harvesters on neighboring farms. But, as Mavor cautioned in his Report, “It is clear that when external earnings diminish, as after the construction of the railways they must, the exports will have to be increased, or their external purchases diminished.”

The population of the three Doukhobor colonies in 1904, according to Mavor, was between 8,000 and 8,500. Most of the Doukhobors lived in villages, and each village accommodated an average of 40 families or 200 persons. Not surprisingly, though, the sizes of the villages varied. In a list of villages in the Yorkton reserves drawn up by C. W. Speers, only 7 of the 45 villages conformed to the ideal size. In the Prince Albert colony the largest village was Spasovka with 190 inhabitants; the smallest of the 13 villages was Uspenie with 65 inhabitants. The average population for the 13 villages in the Prince Albert reserve was only 115, but there the Doukhobors were allowed to settle only on even-numbered sections, and their density was thus lower than in the Yorkton reserves where they had been granted both odd- and even-numbered sections.

The villages in the Doukhobor reserves were laid out in the Strassendorf pattern, so familiar then in the Mennonite settlements, with a wide central street lined with shade trees and houses aligned perpendicular to the street. A visitor to the South Colony in October 1904 brought back a detailed description of a Doukhobor village and the interior of a Doukhobor house:

The houses of this village were all built of small logs, roofed with poles and sod. They were neatly plastered with clay, and I was told that this work was done by the ‘girls’. Some of the buildings were whitewashed, and then looked very well. All the houses were set back fifty or so [feet] from the fence bounding the road, but these spaces were not used as gardens, though perhaps that was the intention.

When the visitor entered a Doukhobor house, he found everything “spotlessly clean”. The entry room was bare of furniture. The living room measured approximately twenty feet square, and in the middle of it was a post which supported the roof. The log walls and roof poles were plastered with clay.

The floor was also of clay mixed with straw, and perfectly level and smooth. The big clay box-stove was built in one comer, but the door for feeding the wood into it was in the other room… Around three sides ran a bench – one side very wide, forming a bedstead on which two beds were made up covered with patchwork quilts… Above the bench, half way to the ceiling, the wall was covered with newspapers.

In the Yorkton reserves the major departure from the existing Mennonite model of village settlement was the central location of communal facilities such as granaries, stables and, in some cases, prayer homes. In contrast to the individual houses, these buildings were usually aligned parallel to the central street and situated on larger lots. In October 1904, the visitor observed the men of the village thatching the barn roof, which projected over the ends of the structure by five or six feet. The bam itself was built of logs and the exterior plastered with clay. It was set back 200 yards from the road, and the large stable had room for nine teams.

I was told that there were eight teams in the village, which was a small one of only thirty-five families. All the animals were in splendid condition, showing good care. They were of no one breed, but all large and shapely, good general purpose horses.

James Mavor noted another characteristic structure of Doukhobor villages, small bath houses, or saunas, built behind the homes.

In the Prince Albert or Saskatchewan colony many Doukhobors farmed individually on their own quarter-section. Where the farmers lived in villages and farmed individually, there was no sharing of common implements, nor was the crop divided up according to need. Their independence was also reflected in their houses. They adopted the traditional house-bam combination, a one-story structure aligned perpendicular to the central street. In addition to his own house and stable, each farmer had a granary on his own property. As a result, there were few communal buildings in the Prince Albert villages, and no prayer homes.

Village of Vosnesenya, North Colony, c. 1904.  Library and Archives Canada C-000683.

Sgt. Major Schoof, who visited two Doukhobor villages in the Saskatchewan reserve in June 1904 remarked, “Their houses are so perfectly weather tight and withal thoroughly clean,” and added that the gardens were “flourishing with all kinds of vegetables” and that “He enjoyed the luxury of a Turkish bath, one of which is built in each village with a competent assistant in attendance.”

In many ways the village life was attractive and admirably suited to the rigors of pioneer life on the prairies. The needs of the old or the sick were always taken care of by close neighbours and by the communal distribution of goods and produce. Mavor described, somewhat romantically, a summer scene in a Doukhobor village.

Men and women worked in the fields together, and they adhered to the pleasant Russian custom of marching in groups from the village to the scene of their labour, singing as they went. The earliest risers began to patrol the village street singing a hymn to the rising sun, and their voices aroused the others. When the band was completed, the workers marched away, their voices gradually becoming more distant. They returned in the evening in the same manner.

Even though 1904 was probably one of the more constructive years in Doukhobor history, there were portents of future confrontations with the federal government and of strong dissension within the community itself. Early in 1904 Peter Verigin started to prepare for some of the problems which were to emerge from the Department of the Interior’s inconsistent interpretations of the Homestead regulations as they pertained to the Doukhobors. In March or April, Verigin bought 13 square miles of land from a land company for $10,000, and three quarter-sections of partly improved land for $360.

His seeming prescience was confirmed by government action on December 15, 1904. In flagrant disregard of promises given to the Doukhobors by Sifton, the government served notice that only 180,000 acres of the 722,000 acres in the reserves had been legally taken up, and that the balance would subsequently be disposed of by the government to new settlers. The Saskatchewan Herald reported that the land office in Battleford was “besieged” when the Prince Albert Doukhobor reserve was opened up: “Some 60 entries were made, several of the applicants having waited outside the office several hours in order to put in their claim.”

With the extension of the Canadian Northern line past Buchanan, in the Devil’s Lake annex, in the autumn of 1904, the Assiniboia colonists also began to feel hostility and public pressure from the new settlers pouring into the area. The isolation the Doukhobors had sought and cultivated was irretrievably lost. This external pressure only exacerbated the resentment building within the communities of the so-called “true” Doukhobors for their more independently minded brothers. These they ostracized from the community and called “No-Doukhobors”. Early in 1905 Verigin urged all his loyal followers in the Prince Albert colony to come to the Yorkton reserves. The siege mentality which characterized the Doukhobor settlements on the prairies for the next three years was just beginning.

The history of Doukhobor settlement in the North-West was turbulent and emotional. But by 1904 much of the dissension and disorder of the early years, caused by lack of leadership, the fear of governmental interference and the activities of radicals within the sect had been replaced by a firm sense of purpose. There were, of course, occasional outbursts of frustration and fanaticism, but the years 1903-1904 represented a time of relative order and harmony in the colonies.

Under Verigin’s leadership all the traditional Doukhobor qualities of thrift, industry, self-discipline and hospitality were concentrated on building a thriving community. James Mavor’s observation in the spring of 1904 was that: “The people were in good spirits, and … adjusting themselves cheerfully to the country and the climate.” By the end of 1904 that spirit of optimism was again lost.

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.