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.