By Jean Blewett
Jean McKishnie Blewett (1862-1934) was a turn-of-the-last-century Canadian journalist, author, poet and women’s rights advocate. In September 1909, she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan during a two-month automobile tour of Western Canada to study the social conditions of new pioneer settlements, particularly the circumstances of women. In the following article (written as a fictitious letter from ‘Betty Blue’ to her friend ‘Joan’), Blewett examines the Doukhobors’ communal way of life. She describes in detail the uniform housing and manner of dress of her Doukhobor women hosts, the exceptional cleanliness and orderliness with which they kept their village, and their assigned community roles; a self-sufficient, egalitarian society where no member was greater than another, everything was held in common and everyone shared a common purpose – no ‘mine’ or ‘thine’ – only ‘ours’. Article and photographs reproduced from Canada Monthly magazine, Volume VII, No. 6, April 1910 (London: Western Canadian Immigration Association, 410-416).
DEAR JOAN: – These protégés of Count Tolstoi are just as human as other folk – when you get into the family circle. It must seem good to them to have as much as they desire of God’s out-of-doors all to themselves after the way old Russia behaved to them. You know how she was always making grass-widows of the women by rushing the men off to Siberia – between ourselves the male member of the family seems a stranger at his own hearth to this day. But I must tell you of the entertainment while it is fresh in my mind.
From the garden party of a real live lieutenant governor with flags flying, and the band playing so madly you can’t keep your feet still, with furbelows, flower and finery, with the usual crowd of pretty women talking the usual amount of nothings, and the marquee under the trees offering the usual salads, sweets, ices – from this to the tea-party of a Doukhobor community is a long step, but out here distance does not count. You put on seven league boots to make your strides, social and other, and only touch the high places – or you get left so far behind the only thing is to pretend you never made a start. Yes I know that verse about the battle not being to the strong or the race to the swift – but it was written before this big West came into notice.
Comparisons are odious – we learned that in Miss M’s school, when we wore pinafores and pigtails – and I’ll not disgrace my early training by drawing one now, but, let me whisper it, the Doukhobor “At Home” knocks the ordinary into a cocked hat.
No hour is set, no need that it should be. As our rig follows the winding country road through the valley, up the hill, around the bends of the river and then straight across the level prairie, we can see the white village of Veregin a good six miles before we reach it – and Veregin can see us for at least half that distance. It is the atmosphere, smokeless, dustless and so clear, you know Mother Nature strains it through a silver sieve every morning before the world wakes up.
This being a pretty thought I pass it on to Propriety (her name is Ann, but I call her Propriety for short) who has taken a bottle of witch hazel from her bag and is busily applying it to certain angry spots on neck and forehead. But Propriety merely remarks that she wishes Mother Nature would use a sieve fine enough to take out mosquitoes. Propriety being in charge of me, as it were, has the feeling that she must hold me down to earth with a big prosaic pin. Shell have her own time, bless her!
Yesterday it stormed. Joan, you think you know what lightning means, but you don’t. Instead of the real essence you get a diluted article. A little west of here the storm king does his brewing and compounding. These he tries on this big new land – having, I presume, formed the habit before folks came here to live – and if they wreck a landscape or two, he knows they are all right, and, gathering up what is left of them after they have done their worst, he makes of the fragments the kind of storms you have been used to.
But yesterday the boldest held his breath for a time. It is a habit they have up here, this holding the breath during a storm. I’m catching it. No, it is not the wind, it is the fear, the dread lest the hail come and cut down the grain – grain which is high as my head, and golden as a sunset sky. Wheat, – wheat so heavy with its ripening weight it no longer skips and dances in the breeze, but moves softly, softly in the warmth and glow.
I can picture you the grain fields, but not the wonder of them, the promise of them. Before your eyes:
“Stretches a widening sea of gold, Every ripple upon its breast, Sings peace and plenty and wealth untold.”
Before me then at four o’clock of the afternoon, holding my breath with the others as the grey cloud, black-centred, creeps nearer, drops lower, spreads and spreads until the last vestige of the blue disappears. The homesteader and his good little wife fall silent, so do I, so does the room, the whole house. I go out on the porch. The same grey silence which shrouds the house shrouds the landscape, the copse, the vine in the yard, the scarlet runners on the gate post, even the baby poplars hiding behind the fence. How still the world is! How tempestuously still.
The warmth has gone out of the air, the chill and greyness have everywhere their own way.
There are no preliminary flashes or mutterings, just the terrible quiet of an ambush, something sinister stealing on one; something that cannot be warded off or gotten away from.
All at once a streak of flame hisses across the sky as though hunting a short cut to the warm old earth hugging her gardens and grain to her bosom, and with it – not behind it – comes a rendering, explosive crash, which dares you not to be afraid. It is no air-clearing, beneficent thing, this, but a destructive force. The lightning flames to strike, each detonation of these terrific peals is a threat. The wood stands very still, the vines and poplars cower, the thing they fear most is not yet on them.
It is coming, though. You hear it a long way off, the wind of the prairie storm. Of a sudden the stillness goes: the vines shake, the poplars whimper and sob, the wood moans in pure panic.
If you know nothing of lightning you certainly know nothing of wind. The kind we have at home makes a lot of noise, but does very little damage. It blusters, and threatens in a mad game of show off. “Booh,” it bellows, “I’ll catch you! I’ll catch you! Boo! B-o-o-h!” and that’s the end of it. True, it sometimes snaps off a telegraph pole, uproots a stray tree, or unroofs a building, but only as a rough bit of fun, a playing at fierceness.
Listen, Joan, this wind is a devil, it’s pit the black eddying centre of the cloud, and when it flings itself from thence, with flame and fury for company, I fall into such terror of it, I can’t go into the house, or even shut my eyes. I watch it writhe itself about the haystacks and scatter them; tear the trees; twist the vines; maim and hurt for the very joy of it. Then, as if flurry has created a thirst, it lowers its terrible maw over Mallard pond – “O!” I cry, “O!” for before my very eyes it sucks up the little singing lake of blue, with sickening greediness, sucks it up with choking and gurgling, and passing on to the low lying valley spits the draught in the face of the cornfields, flooding their greenness out of sight like the evil thing it is. “O!” I cry again, and this time with such hysterical force that someone hears me and draws me into the shelter of the house.
The lightning grows less vivid, the wind passes with muttered threatenings but you know by the greyness and chill getting deeper every moment that the storm is only begun. It comes with the sharp fusillade, the clamor and tempest of hail, cutting a highway through the fields, threshing out the grain, shredding the straw, beating the beautiful gold back into the yielding earth.
Joan, you in the heart of the city, cannot realize what it means to plough and sow, watch the growth and ripening – and then have no harvest. If you were here where the grain is all they have you would understand why, when later I try to follow the storm’s path, I can’t do it, so full are my eyes of tears.
All this was yesterday.
Today the little white clouds are one and all turned loose to chase each other across the blue – just as after some really grand affair in the home the children are left to play where they please till such time as things are straightened up: Such clouds as Lampman saw when he wrote:
“They call you sheep, The sky you sward, A field without a reaper; They call the shining sun Your lord, The shepherd wind your keeper.”
And yonder is Veregin – and Doukhobor hospitality.
At that other tea the gowns might be described as “creations” and the wearers as “dreams,” and very likely when the account appeared in the social columns there was a little envy here and there, a little bitterness over the relative superiority of lingerie dresses and embroidered lace, and silks, but at this one I give you my word not a woman of the lot makes the least effort to outdress her neighbor.
Each wears the same sort of costume, a full petticoat of blue stuff, a fuller skirt of blue print trimmed with a wide band of cerise sateen, made about an inch shorter than the petticoat, a print sacque belted in with an apron as clean as soapsuds can make it. On the heads of old and young alike is the never-failing square of cotton folded once and tied under the chin.
They are a trifled hampered in the matter of conversation – we all are – but they manage to tell us we are very welcome, and we – well, we do our best. They know the meaning of “good” and “no good” so to things we all like we nod and say “good” and the things we don’t like we shake our heads and say “no good” – which is not so new after all.
Talking of nods, I find myself unable to keep my eyes off Propriety. You never saw anybody’s head bob so hard and fast as hers does while she listens to the Doukhobor damsel who has charge of the children. It reminds me of Pip in “Great Expectations” when he tips the Aged Parent the prodigious nods to show his friendliness. I only hope her hair won’t loosen and come down.
Propriety has lovely hair, but in these days of fluffy fashions she cuts it out with a curl or two, and I have the feeling that these women wouldn’t understand a head being adorned with anything but its own particular home grown hair. I signal her a warning, but she is so deep in the nodding business she never heeds. On her head – or off her head – so be it.
It is the cleanest place you ever saw. The spotter of spotless town would never be able to spot a spot, certainly not on the butcher’s gown. There is not – has never been – a butcher here, but if there were his gown would be just as spotless as everything else.
The windows are a joy in themselves, each identical pane shine as though it were the only thing in Veregin to reflect God’s blessed sunlight. You understand at a glance why a Doukhobor doesn’t paint his woodwork, it would be defrauding his better half of the joy of scouring the same. The floors are white enough to eat from, the tables and benches are fairly bleached with soap suds.
Each house contains a kitchen and living room; the first boasts the big brick oven, the second the table and benches. There are no bedrooms. Each morning the bedding is taken from the benches within, and spread in the sunshine without, and each evening it is brought in and put upon the wide benches flanking the wall. A hard bed, but a wholesome one.
Cleanliness is not second to godliness here, it is part and parcel of it. If I were to start firing the catechism at this stalwart sisterhood, they would answer that the chief end of man, woman, or child was work – work – work! They glory in it. They have followed the plow and sown the grain, and taken their place in the harvest-field; they have size and muscle and a comeliness of their own. The thing they despise is physical weakness, men and women of them have an undue appreciation of strength. It is said that the only thing a Doukhobor man will take as just cause for deserting his mate is her failure to keep in good health.
Moral – if you want to keep the man of your choice, never say die; deny headache, backache, any and all of the thousand ills that common folk are heir to – practice Christian science with might and main. Sympathy is not a strong factor in the make-up of these wonderful workers who came over from Russia, and are making the desert bloom as the rose here in the Canadian West.
Communistic life is a thing that grows on you. Down in yonder house with the blue smoke curling from the chimney, the baking for the village is done. In another is done the washing, in another the spinning, in another the weaving of rugs and cloth. The bake woman is not proud, though her apron is a good half yard wider than that worn by her sisters. There is no emulation, no fault-finding, each goes on with the task given into her hands without let or hindrance.
It is a matter of training, I suppose. Now with us if one woman undertook the baking we would all be clamoring for her to use our recipes; if one made our dresses we would choose the pattern or know why; and we would all be so busy helping the spinner, weaver, etc., we’d never get our own share done.
Imagine one woman taking care of all the babies! Not a word about “my nurse said” this or that – the Doukhobor woman has no nurse; not a word about the doctor’s opinion on the merits of hot or cold milk – the Doukhobor woman has no doctor. She has just her own common sense and training which tell her the other woman knows as much as she does. She lets it go at that.
Not that she isn’t allowed to think. The fine looking man who is head of spotless town, breaks it to us gently. Not only do the women vote, but they have a place in the council chamber. “One hundred men, and fifty women in the council,” he says, with a smile, “one woman talks as much as two men, eh?”
Propriety is joyous over this, and I haven’t a doubt will tell the suffrage society all about it on her return. But really with so much going on in the domestic line, one can’t feel especially interested in things merely municipal.
Things in common! You hear it everywhere, see it everywhere. They sweat their humors out in a common steam bath arranged on modern lines in the last house of the row; the women gabble together of their common wrongs and common wrights; the little folk run and play, laugh and cry, live and grow in a common playground with a common woman mothering the lot. There is no mine or thine; “ours” is the word. Life in a community sounds alluring.
Propriety and the girls grow quite friendly as the afternoon progresses.
They eat no meat these sturdy folk, nor flesh of fowl or fish. It is against their religion to do so. But they can cook vegetables the best ever. Oh, yes, we have vegetables at this “At Home” – we have a feast.
The cloth is white as snow and (think of it!) there are serviettes beside the plates. No drinking a cup of tea standing, no eating an ice with the chills running up and down your spine – due not to the ice, but to the fear of someone upsetting his or her refreshments on your best frock.
We sit down on a bench, and eat off a table. Now, Joan, you’ll be full of curiosity as to what we have to eat, so I am going to tell you. There are new potatoes cut in squares and fried brown in butter, there are carrots in a dressing of cream that removes them from the list of common things, food for the gods these are. There is an omelet light and frothy, there is a loaf of brown bread as wide as the woman who made it. It is freshly baked and the butter melts and runs into it, and there is a crowning delicacy, a deep dish of wild strawberry preserve. Of this the Doukhobor women do not partake.
“Is it that you do not like sweets?” Propriety, who has had a second helping, inquires of her neighbour. “no need,” comes the cheerful answer. “We eat to make strong – milk, meal, potato.” “Why trouble to make preserves, if you do not care for them?” persists Propriety. “Some day we have child sick, maybe, or,” with a laugh, “what you call company for tea. We like for others, not for ourselves, see?”
Tea over we go out onto the court or dooryard, where the women exhibit their children and their handicraft. The Doukhobor damsels bring out their embroidery frames; the weaver brings out her rugs; the sun-flower lady taking her biggest blossom in hand, shells out the seeds. Putting these through a sieve winnows the hulls from them.
An especially fine woman of the village brings out a wheel, the old fashioned kind as seen in the city drawing-room, seats herself, puts her foot on the running gear, and a long roll of white wool to the spindle. There is a breezy, wheezy, chirrupy sound and you see the roll of wool grow to yarn, and wind itself about the spindle. It is a beautiful art this spinning – though the lady at the wheel does not call it art – work is a good enough name for her.
We are at a disadvantage, my dear, in being born so late. Take a really pretty girl in a white frock, set her at a little low singing wheel with a bundle of wool beside her, a thread of soft yarn in her fingers, and what chance would a bachelor have? Not a bit. He would realize that after all Solomon was wise, truly wise, and never more so than when he said once a time when this world was centuries younger than it is today, “her price is above rubies.”
Homeward bound in the glow of sunset, with the road following the curves of the river, and the great spaces stretching away before, behind, on either side. The sky comes down to the edge of the prairie and fastens itself there with a sash of something blue like smoke, and soft as the heart of a cloud. It seems good that earth and sky are near enough to neighbor with each other.
I say as much to Propriety.
“I wish the folk were,” she returns, “I’m thirsty as can be and not a pump to be seen.”
There is no poetry in Propriety.
Your far away but faithful,
P.S. – Joan, dear, I ought to tell you of the Doukhobor leader Veregin; a wonderful man (talk of matinee idol! Why, the whole community bows down to Peter), the Doukhobor bargain sale, Doukhobor matchmaking, and other equally interesting things, but there is no space. Beside, I only set out to tell you of the tea-party – the rest will keep. – B.B.
Several authors have attributed Jean Blewett’s visit to the Doukhobors to the year 1910: Laura Dale, Walking in Two Worlds (Friesen Press, 2019 at 6); Ella Thompson, “The Doukhobor Settlers of the Swan River Valley” in Manitoba History (Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013). However, an analysis of period newspaper stories confirms that the visit in fact took place in 1909.
Engaged by a magazine syndicate that year to write a series of articles about the social life of Canada, Blewett embarked on a much-publicized tour of Western Canada. On June 29, 1909, she departed Toronto by train, arriving in Winnipeg on July 19. Two days later, she departed by automobile westward across the Prairies, reaching Calgary on July 26, Edmonton July 28, Peace River August 5, Vancouver August 14 and Victoria on August 20. Blewett then returned eastward from Vancouver on August 25, reaching Edmonton August 31, Red Deer September 17 and Winnipeg on September 22. It can be deduced that she visited the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan on the final leg of her tour, between September 18 and 22, as she writes about the Doukhobors harvesting at the time.
For other articles written by Jean Blewett regarding her September 1909 visit to the Doukhobors of Veregin, Saskatchewan, please see: