A Roundtrip to the Homeland: Doukhobor Remigration to Soviet Russia in the 1920s

by Vadim Kukushkin

Following the Russian Revolution, an increasing number of Doukhobors in Canada began to turn their eyes to their homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Many had never completely abandoned the dream of returning to the land of their birth. To this end, between 1922 and 1926, forty Independent Doukhobor families from the Veregin, Kamsack and Pelly districts of Saskatchewan remigrated to the Soviet Union. Their aim was to help their homeland to establish the new life following the Revolution. Settling in the Melitopol district of the Ukrainian province of Zaporozhye, they established two villages and formed the Independent Canadian Doukhobor Collective Farm, using modern farm machinery brought from Canada. The resettlement flourished until 1927, when the young men received calls to serve in the Soviet army. Refusing to bear arms, the Doukhobors hastily sold their homes and machinery and returned to Canada. In this Doukhobor Genealogy Website exclusive, Dr. Vadim Kukushkin chronicles the promise and failure of the Doukhobor remigration to Soviet Russia in the 1920s. 

By the end of the First World War, Canadian Doukhobors were in a state of flux. In a climate of instability and increasing pressure for assimilation and conformity, many Doukhobors wondered if Canada was indeed the land where they could freely pursue their way of life. Various resettlement schemes began to float within the community. An increasing number of Doukhobors, including Peter Verigin himself, began to turn their eyes to the homeland, where momentous changes were taking place. Despite their economic success in Canada, the Doukhobors never abandoned the idea of returning to Russia. Similar to other diaspora groups, they saw their Canadian exile as a temporary condition to be followed by an eventual return to the land of their ancestors. Throughout the years of emigration, the dream of return was kept alive in Doukhobor songs and oral tradition.

The Russian revolution of February 1917 for the first time made the idea of return a feasible one. By doing away with the tsarist monarchy and proclaiming the freedom of religion, it removed the greatest obstacle that stood in the way of moving back to the homeland. In a telegram dated 27 March 1917, Peter Verigin informed Russia’s Provisional Government of ten thousand Doukhobors “willing to return to Russia as good farmers and horticulturalists.” The Russian authorities reacted favourably, although they balked at the idea of exempting the returning Doukhobors from military service at a time when Russia was straining all its resources to fight the war. Before any practical scheme could be worked out, however, the Provisional Government was brought down by the Bolshevik coup of October 1917.

While more research is needed on Doukhobors’ attitudes to the Russian revolutions of 1917, the new Soviet government clearly had the support of at least a certain part of the community, which viewed the collectivist and internationalist tenets of the Communist doctrine as similar to Doukhobor teachings. Russian revolutionary songs such as Otrechemsya ot starogo mira (Let Us Renounce the Old World) and others had entered the Doukhobor song repertoire. Although the idea of return circulated through all segments of Canada’s Doukhobor community, interest in Soviet Russia was strongest among the approximately 7,000 Independent Doukhobors, who lived in several compact clusters in eastern Saskatchewan (around Kamsack, Verigin, Pelly and Buchanan) and western Manitoba (Benito).

As early as February 1920, the Independent Doukhobors of Kamsack inquired with immigration authorities in Ottawa about sending delegates to Soviet Russia to “ascertain what the conditions are there” and find ways of giving aid to their suffering brethren in the Caucasus region. The idea had to be postponed, however, until political situation in Russia became less volatile. During the next two years, the prospects of return and the election of delegates to Russia remained the subject of heated debates at Doukhobor community meetings. In March 1921, the Independents sent a letter to the Soviet government, which hailed the “dawn of freedom [which] shines in our motherland” and asked for admission to Russia. To deal with the issues of remigration, they established the Immigration Committee, responsible to the Community of Independent Doukhobors.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). The Soviet leader took a keen interest in the remigration of Doukhobors from Canada.

For their part, the Bolshevik leadership showed a considerable interest in Russian pacifist sects who had been victimized by the tsarist government, viewing them as potential allies in the building of the new social order. Doukhobors, Molokans, Old Believers and other Russian sectarians were seen as “natural” communists, even if their communism was rooted in religion rather than scientific Marxism. To secure the sectarians’ support of the new regime, Soviet decrees of 1 January 1919 and 14 February 1920 exempted them from military service provided they proved the conscientious nature of their refusal to carry arms and abstained from anti-Soviet agitation. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin showed a personal interest in the matter. In August 1921, he instructed officials who dealt with the Doukhobor petition for admission to “give permission immediately and respond with extreme courtesy”. In October the same year, the Soviet government established a Commission for Settlement of State Farms, Unoccupied Lands and Former Estates with Sectarians and Old Believers (known as Orgkomsekt). The Commission issued an appeal To Sectarians and Old Believers Residing in Russia and Abroad, which invited victims of tsarist religious persecution to return and contribute to Russia’s agricultural development. The document was penned by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, a Russian folklorist involved in arranging the Doukhobor migration to Canada and now a high-ranking Soviet official.

The Doukhobors’ well-known experience in cooperative mechanized farming made them a highly desirable class of returnees. Facing a shortage of capital and skilled workforce, the Soviet state sought the help of Russian emigrant workers and farmers willing to contribute their American-acquired knowledge, money and resources to the economic rebirth of the country. Soviet policy towards returning emigrants was defined in a series of decrees passed in 1921-22, which welcomed the arrival of farming and industrial collectives (increasingly referred to as “communes”), organized in consultation with Moscow. Such collectives were required to bring enough supplies and machinery (as well as foodstuff and clothing) to run a collective farm or an industrial establishment without taxing the scant resources of the Soviet state. Machinery and goods imported by the communes into the Soviet Union were admitted duty-free.

Responsibility for coordinating the movement of immigrant communes to the Soviet republics was vested in the Permanent Commission for the Regulation of Industrial and Agricultural Immigration. The Society of Technical Aid to Soviet Russia, organized in 1919 by a group of Russian emigrants in New York, did the practical recruitment work in Canada and the United States. Its functions also included purchasing supplies and machinery for the departing groups and taking care of transportation and visa matters. In 1922-23, the Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal branches of the Society organized three Ukrainian-Canadian agricultural groups, which settled on the steppes of Southern Ukraine.

Because of Doukhobors’ geographical and cultural isolation, they were a harder target for remigration agitators than were Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who lived in major urban centres. From the beginning, the Society focussed its attention on the Independents, whose pro-Soviet leanings were known in New York and Moscow and who had already gone further than Community Doukhobors towards arranging a move to the homeland. In mid-1922, the Society’s Central Bureau reported to Moscow that despite the “individualist” farming practices that set the Independents apart from Community Doukhobors, with due care they “could be steered towards communalist or cooperative landholding”.

In July 1922, a meeting of Independent Doukhobors in Kamsack elected Larion Taranoff and Vasily Potapoff, a former associate of Peter Verigin who had broken with his leader, as delegates to Soviet Russia to survey potential settlement locations and negotiate a relocation scheme. They carried a list of 281 families prepared to move immediately and a petition of to the Soviet government, in which the Doukhobors requested an opportunity to “choose one of the unoccupied tracts of land in the southern part of Russia, where [they] could practice wheat farming and horticulture”. The petition also asked for “full and absolute” exemption from military service and the right of religious instruction for Doukhobor children.

Potapoff and Taranoff spent three months touring Russian and Ukrainian provinces and meeting with Soviet officials, including the head of the All-Russian Executive Committee Mikhail Kalinin and the influential Commissar of Foreign Trade Leonid Krasin. They were especially impressed with the fertile plains in the Salsk district of Southern Russia, which already had several settlements of Doukhobors who had moved there in 1921-22 from the Caucasus. The Soviet authorities, however, refused to grant the Salsk lands to Canadian Doukhobors on the grounds that these lands had been reserved for commercial horse breeding.

Instead, the Doukhobor delegates were offered a tract in the Melitopol district of the Ukrainian province of Zaporozhye, close to the old Doukhobor settlements on the Milky River. The area already had several villages populated by Russian Doukhobors who had recently relocated from the Caucasus. Each Doukhobor family returning from Canada was to receive 43 acres of land as individual property and the same amount under a thirty-year lease. The land was to be held in reserve until settlement was completed. The Doukhobors were also promised exemption from military service, a three-year release from property taxes, and the freedom to choose individual, cooperative or communal form of farming at their own discretion. All business aspects of the relocation (the purchase of agricultural machinery and supplies, travel and passport arrangements) were to be handled by the Central Bureau of the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia in New York.

By April 1923, the remigration movement was underway. The first party of the returnees, totalling 22 people, left on 11 April 1923 from New York along with several other agricultural groups from Canada and the United States. Their destination was Liepaja – a Latvian port which served as the main gateway to the USSR for returning immigrants. The total cost of belongings they took to Russia was a mere $2,000. The group also owned about $5,800 in cash. On arrival to Zaporozhye, the returnees founded a village, which they named Pervoye Kanadskoye (First Canadian), obviously believing that it would be followed by others.

Canadian Doukhobor emigrants to the Soviet Union on board the SS Empress of Scotland, Sept. 15, 1926. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

Canada’s plummeting real estate market became a major obstacle to the further progress of the return movement. In the early 1920s, the price of developed farmland fell to $25-30 per acre, which in many cases did not cover even the original purchase price, to say nothing of later investments. In the summer of 1923, the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia began negotiations with Northwestern Trust Company about a bulk sale of the Doukhobor lands at $25 per acre, but no agreement was reached. The fact that many farms were mortgaged was an additional difficulty. In search of a solution, the Doukhobor Immigration Committee asked the Soviet government for a credit of $2,000,000 to buy out their lands, but Moscow had no funds available for the Doukhobors.

More important for dampening Doukhobors’ enthusiasm for resettlement were the warning signs that began to come from Russia with letters and stories from the first returnees. Anton Popoff, Alex Horkoff and John Malakhoff – three “scouts” who made a round-trip to Russia in 1924 in order to investigate conditions at Melitopol – painted a bleak picture of life in Soviet Ukraine, sowing further doubts in the minds of potential returnees. The delegates spoke of the “poverty, misery and despair” in the villages populated by Caucasian Doukhobors and local Ukrainian peasants. A visit to Moscow left them with an impression that “Russia had abandoned God”, that “Jews entirely hold the rule over the country of the Soviet Union”, and that any opposition to Communism was rooted out with an iron hand.

Contradictory reports from the USSR added more fuel to the debates among the Independent Doukhobors. The community became divided into the “radical” and “conservative” factions. The “radicals”, led by Potapoff, George Podovinnikoff (the secretary of the Immigration Committee) and Andrew Konkin, insisted on proceeding with the resettlement scheme. The “conservatives” – Peter Vorobieff, N. Morozoff, John Dergausoff and Doukhobor lawyer Peter Makaroff – advocated a more cautious approach and took Soviet promises with a grain of salt. The majority of the latter group came from a better-established part of the Doukhobor community, while the radicals had little to lose in Canada.

In this situation, relentless propaganda remained the only way to keep remigration going. During 1923-25, three members of the Society for Technical Aid’s Central Bureau were dispatched from New York to agitate for resettlement in the Doukhobor communities of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia.

There were home-grown agitators as well: Boris Sachatoff and Victor Kavtaradze – two Russian immigrants of non-Doukhobor extraction who lived in Kamsack. Both were somewhat shadowy characters, whose backgrounds and status in the Doukhobor community remain little known. Sachatoff was a Russian Jew who had converted to Leo Tolstoy’s teachings and married a Doukhobor woman. He came to Canada via the United States and made a living as a real estate agent, watchmaker and owner of a jewellery store in Kamsack. Kavtaradze (also known as Kaft) was a Georgian, who boarded with Sachatoff and worked as a teacher at the local Russian-language school. He had a bad reputation with the RCMP, who considered him a “dangerous agitator” and possibly a Soviet agent, who received money from Moscow. Well-educated and amicable, Sachatoff and Kavtaradze had apparently managed to earn the respect of the local Doukhobors and had considerable authority in the community. By late 1923, however, Sachatoff lost interest in Russia and, along with Verigin and a group of other Doukhobors, became an ardent supporter of resettlement to Mexico. For several months, the Mexican project was floated in the community but failed to attract considerable interest.

The propaganda efforts apparently had some effect, although the movement of the Doukhobors to Russia remained at levels well below initial expectations. In February 1924, the second party of returnees – 23 Doukhobor farmers from the Kamsack area – left Canada for the homeland. They travelled through Constantinople to Odessa with $5,000 in cash and the same amount in property. In late January 1925, a third group, numbering 14 people from Kamsack and Pelly, headed for Melitopol. The Soviet authorities, however, grew increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of the Doukhobor resettlement. The land tracts near Melitopol, calculated to accommodate 2,000 Doukhobor families, remained idle and had to be leased to local peasants. In July 1926, Ivan Kulyk, deputy trade representative of the USSR in Canada, travelled to western Canada to gather first-hand information about the prospects of further remigration and try to breathe new life into the sagging recruitment campaign. Kulyk’s conversations with the Doukhobors revealed that only 100 families still seriously considered moving to the USSR.

The actual number of the returnees turned out to be even smaller. In the late summer of 1926, 17 more Doukhobor families from Kamsack, Pelly and Verigin (57 people in total) sold their land to the Ukrainian Immigration and Colonization Association of Edmonton and on 15 September sailed off to Russia. The newcomers settled apart from the earlier arrivals in the newly founded village of Vozdvizhenka (from vozdvizhenie – Russian for “exaltation”). With the arrival of this group, organized Doukhobor emigration to Russia all but ceased, although individual families continued to arrive as late as August 1927.

The precise statistics of Canadian Doukhobors who returned to Russia between 1923-27 is difficult to establish – neither the Canadian nor the Soviet government appear to have kept a complete tally of the returnees. According to a Soviet survey of immigrant agricultural communes conducted in July 1925, only 72 Doukhobors (probably excluding children) had returned to the USSR by that time. Adding the 57 people that came in 1926 and perhaps about a dozen later arrivals, we can estimate that probably no more than 160-180 Doukhobors (children included) participated in the entire return movement. Genealogist Jonathan Kalmakoff has found that the majority of the returnees had not arrived in Canada in 1899 – the year in which the main Doukhobor immigration occurred – but came in 1910-12 as members of the non-Veriginite “Middle” and “Small” Parties. This interesting finding may suggest that remigration was a more attractive option for the less established members of the community, who retained closer ties with the homeland and had less time to accumulate large property in Canada. The amount of property and cash the returnees were able to take to Russia also shows that few among them were prosperous farmers.

More research is needed about the life of Canadian Doukhobors in the USSR, but even the existing fragmentary evidence shows that it was far from the idyllic picture that many of them must have portrayed in Canada. The majority of Doukhobor families brought little money and machinery that would allow establishing viable mechanized farms from scratch. Like other returned emigrants, the Doukhobors also ran into problems with local peasants who considered them to be kulaks (derogatory Russian word for “rich peasant”) and stole their property. Relations with local authorities were also less than cordial. A 1924 Soviet government inspection of immigrant agricultural collectives working in the USSR put the Doukhobor group in the category of failures and recommended its “liquidation or a radical reorganization”. Soviet sources indicate that Doukhobors began to abandon the Melitopol settlements shortly after arrival. Sixteen of the seventy-two Doukhobors had left the First Canadian settlement by July 1925.

The Petr V. Ol’khovik family in the Doukhobor village of Vozdvizhenka, 1926. Like most of the villagers, the Ol’khoviks returned to Canada by 1928.

The drafting of young Doukhobor men into the Red Army, which appears to have begun in 1927, was the last straw for the Canadians. After their petitions to Bonch-Bruevich and other old friends such as I.M. Tregubov brought little result, the return trek to Canada began. In August 1927, the Canadian immigration officer in Riga reported the first case of Doukhobors returning from the USSR: three families (11 people in total) who claimed to have been misled by Soviet agitators from New York and asked for readmission into Canada. The returnees were held up at Riga pending instructions from Ottawa. Soon afterwards, the Riga office received an application for entry to Canada from 135 more Doukhobors, most of whom had arrived in the Soviet Union in 1926-7 and lived at the Vozdvizhenka settlement.

Meanwhile, the matter attracted the attention of Canada’s Doukhobor community. In late September, the Immigration Committee of the Community of Independent Doukhobors at Kamsack sent a petition to the Department of Immigration and Colonization “with a humble request for a Permit of Entry in favor of the said Independent Doukhobors at present residing in Russia.” By the time it reached Ottawa, Canadian immigration authorities had already decided that the return of several dozen families disillusioned by their Soviet experience would be advisable not only on economical grounds (all the returnees being “agriculturalists”) but could also serve as a potent weapon against Communist agitation in Canada. “I think that the effect of their return will be to kill propaganda by the Soviet Agents and at the same time make these people and their friends a lot more contented than they have been in the past”, Assistant Deputy Minister Frederick Blair pointed out in his memorandum. On 13 September, the Department of Immigration ordered unconditional admission of Canadian-born among the Doukhobors. The rest could be admitted “if mentally and physically fit”.

During the summer of 1928, the majority of Canadian Doukhobors returned to Canada, although a few families remained in the USSR. The Soviet resettlement experiment was over, proving a complete failure and leaving its participants with a sense of betrayal and disillusionment for years.


Click here to view a list of 150 Doukhobor ship passengers who arrived in UK ports between 1922 and 1927 in transit to the Soviet Union. Information includes the surname, name, age, family unit, occupation, port of departure, arrival date, port of arrival and ship name for each Doukhobor passenger. View an index of ship passenger lists containing Doukhobors returning to Canada from the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1930. Information includes the ship name, port and date of departure, port and date of arrival, number of passengers and Library and Archives Canada microfilm numbers and online images of original ship passenger lists.

About the Author

A native of Russia, Dr. Vadim Kukushkin earned a Bachelors Degree at Chelyabinsk University, Russia in 1991 and a Masters Degree at Perm University, Russia in 1994. He continued his research at Carleton University, where he received his PhD Doctorate in 2004. Dr. Kukushkin is currently the Grant Notley Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta, Department of History and Classics. He has published a number or articles on Russian immigration and ethnic history in Canada.

History of the Doukhobors in the Rural Municipality of Good Lake

Compiled by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

The Rural Municipality of Good Lake No. 274 was established on January 1, 1913.  Situated in the area surrounding Good Spirit Lake, Saskatchewan, it is comprised of Townships 28, 29 and 30 in Ranges 4, 5 and 6, west of the Second Meridian. Much of the eastern and northern portions of the municipality were originally settled by Doukhobor immigrants from Russia in 1899, who established a series of communal settlements, and later, independent homesteads, there. The following brief article outlines the history of the Doukhobors of Good Lake and their contribution to the development of the municipality over the past century.

The Doukhobors were a religious movement founded in early 18th century Russia and Ukraine. The name dukho + bortsy, meaning “Spirit Wrestlers” in Russian, was given to them in derision by church clerics to imply “those who fight against the Holy Spirit”; however, the Doukhobors adopted the name, reinterpreting it to mean “those who fight with the Spirit of God”.

The Doukhobors rejected the doctrines, rituals and priesthood of the Orthodox Church and denied the authority of the Tsarist state. Their practical, commonsense teachings were based on the belief that the Spirit of God resides in the soul of every person, and directs them by its word within them. Their teachings consist of a collection of psalms and proverbs, called the Living Book, passed down orally from one generation to the next. Their ceremony consists of a simple prayer meeting recited around a table with bread, salt and water. The Doukhobors were frequently persecuted for their faith by authorities and forced to live in the frontier regions of the Russian Empire. Over time, they developed their own unique culture, traditions and way of life.

Map of 1899 Good Spirit Lake Doukhobor reserve overlaid with RM of Good Lake boundary as of 1913.

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 Tsarist authorities and many were tortured, imprisoned or exiled. Their plight attracted international attention, and with the assistance of the famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Doukhobors sought refuge by immigrating to Canada.

In early 1899, over 7,500 Doukhobors arrived in Canada in four shiploads at the ports of Halifax and Quebec. It was the single largest mass immigration in Canadian history. The Doukhobor immigrants then travelled west by rail to Brandon, Winnipeg, Selkirk and Yorkton, where they spent their first winter in Immigration Shelters there.

That spring, the Doukhobors settled on four large tracts of homestead land reserved for them in the Northwest Territories by the Dominion Government of Canada, in the present-day districts of Blaine Lake, Langham, Pelly, Arran, Kamsack, Veregin, Canora and Buchanan, Saskatchewan.

Doukhobor Village of Kalmakovka Just Under Construction, 1899. British Columbia Archives E-09609.

One of these tracts, known as the “Good Spirit Lake Annex”, was situated along the north half of Good Spirit Lake and to the northwest along its tributary, Spirit Creek. It was comprised of 168,930 acres, or six townships (including Township 30 of the present-day RM of Good Lake). It was there that approximately 1,000 Doukhobors settled in May 1899.

Upon their arrival in the Good Spirit Lake Annex, the Doukhobors established a communal way of life. All land, livestock, machinery and other property was held in common. Working together, they cleared the forest and brush, broke the land, planted grain fields, raised livestock herds, and built eight villages, as well as flourmills, elevators, trading stores and other enterprises. Four of their villages were located within the present-day RM of Good Lake and were as follows:

In 1899, Doukhobors from Elizavetpol, Russia established a village along the east shore of Good Spirit Lake. As there was an abundance of wood, water and fish there, they named the village Blagosklonnoye or Blagosklonnovka, meaning “benevolent” or “favorable” in Russian. In 1905, the village had a population of 185 people living in 46 households, with 966 acres under joint cultivation. Villagers often gathered on the lakeshore to celebrate festivals and hold prayer meetings. The village existed until 1912. [SE 9-30-5-W2]

In 1899, Doukhobors established a village along the northeast shore of Good Spirit Lake. It was named Goreloye or Horeloye after the village in Elizavetpol, Russia from whence they came. In 1905, the village had a population of 51 people living in 5 households. The village existed until 1910. [NE 17-30-5-W2]

In 1899, Doukhobors established a village along the southeast shore of Patterson Lake. It was originally named Novo-Spasskoye after the village in Elizavetpol, Russia from whence they came. In 1902, it was renamed Kalmakovo or Kalmakovka, after the Kalmykov line of Doukhobor leaders in 19th century Russia. In 1905, the village had a population of 140 people living in 43 households, with 775 acres under joint cultivation. The village existed until 1919. [SE 30-30-5-W2]

In 1899, Doukhobors from Elizavetpol, Russia established a village along the northeast shore of Patterson Lake. In comparison to the persecution they experienced in Russia, the Doukhobors regarded their new home as a place of spiritual and physical solace. For this reason, they named it Utesheniye, meaning “consolation” or “solace” in Russian. In 1905, the village had a population of 181 people living in 47 households, with 960 acres under joint cultivation. The village existed until 1913. [SW 31-30-5-W2]

The villages followed a uniform model. Each village consisted of two rows of houses – one on each side facing into a wide, straight central street. This was the village model they brought from Russia and used extensively throughout the 19th century. The houses and all village buildings were made of log. Each village had dwellings, stables, barns, granaries, carpenter shops, blacksmiths, implement sheds, chicken houses, a banya (“bathhouse”), peche (“clay bake oven”), a prayer home and cemetery. Each dwelling had a large garden and several outbuildings behind it.

During the early years of settlement, many Doukhobor men left the villages to work on railway construction, as farm hands or general labourers. This ‘working out’ provided an important source of revenue for the Doukhobor community. The women thus played an important role in the day-to-day operations of the households and farms.

Official survey of the Doukhobor village of Kalmakovo, September 29, 1907. Saskatchewan Archives Board A36/5.

By 1905, the Dominion Government began to look with disfavour upon the Doukhobor communal way of life and adopted a new policy aimed at encouraging individual farming among them. It now insisted that the Doukhobors fulfill the strict requirements of The Homestead Act, which included individually registering for, living on, and working each homestead parcel, and swearing an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown.

A land ownership crisis ensued, which split the Doukhobor community. A minority of Doukhobors accepted private ownership, moved out of the villages onto their individual homesteads, and began independently working their land in compliance with the homestead requirements. The majority of Doukhobors, however, viewed the land ownership requirements as a violation of their religious principles; consequently, they forfeited their 160-acre homesteads and took up a 15-acre allotment per person on which to carry on their communal way of life. The forfeited homesteads were then opened up to settlers of other nationalities, resulting in a “land rush” by those eager to take up the improved lands abandoned by the Doukhobors. By 1918, the Good Spirit Lake Annex was closed altogether, and the once-thriving communal villages that dotted the Good Spirit landscape were abandoned as their remaining residents moved to the interior of British Columbia.

Doukhobor House in Kalmakovka Village near Good Spirit Lake, c. 1899. British Columbia Archives E-09607.

For the Doukhobors who remained in the RM of Good Lake as independent farmers, they continued to maintain their religious principles as members of the Society of Independent Doukhobors, and later, the Buchanan and Canora Doukhobor Societies. Materially, their story became much the same as other pioneers on the prairies. Economically, they progressed with the rest of the Canadian people, sharing their ups and downs with the booms and the depressions. Educationally, they accepted the Canadian standard and can now be found in all professions. Civically, they have helped contribute towards the grown and development of the municipality.

Doukhobor families who have historically resided in the RM of Good Lake include the following: Bartsoff, Bonderoff, Chernenkoff, Cheveldayoff, Filipoff, Fofonoff, Hancheroff, Holoboff, Horkoff, Kabatoff, Kalmakoff, Kerieff, Konkin, Kotelnikoff, Krukoff, Lazaroff, Makortoff, Maloff, Negraeff, Nichvolodoff, Obedkoff, Ostoforoff, Ozeroff, Pereverseff, Petroff, Plotnikoff, Polovnikoff, Poohachoff, Salikin, Shukin, Sookavaeff, Sookocheff, Soukeroff, Strelioff, Swetlikoff, Vanjoff, Verigin, Wishlow, Zbitnoff, Zeeben and Zuravloff. Today, many of their descendants still reside in the RM of Good Lake and surrounding area, as well as throughout the rest of the world.

This article is reproduced, by permission, in the upcoming publication, The Rural Municipality of Good Lake No. 274: A History (Canora: Rural Municipality of Good Lake, 2013) by Dianne Stinka.  For ordering information about the book, which will be launched at the Centennial celebration of the R.M. on July 27, 2013, visit the Rural Municipality of Good Lake website.

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.