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and Doukhobor leaders to respect the claims of the refugees regarding the pattern of land tenure, protection was slowly rescinded.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.