The 1899 Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Dispute with the Doukhobors

by Victor O. Buyniak

Upon arriving on the Canadian Prairies in 1899, the Doukhobors were obliged, like many other immigrants, to look for employment to supplement their income.  Railway construction was the major source of work for the majority of the able bodied men.  However, during their first summer of employment, disputes arose between the Doukhobors and railway companies, due to inadequate knowledge of each other and mutual mistrust.  This was exacerbated by those working on the Doukhobors’ behalf who had knowledge of the language, but not of the country, its laws, customs and ways of life.  The following article by Victor O. Buyniak, reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (40, 1987, No. 1), reveals that the Doukhobor railway workers were in practically the same position as any other new and inexperienced immigrants.  Once they became self-sufficient on their farms, they adapted to the rules and demands placed upon them and disputes with their employers ceased to occur.

By July 1899 most of the Doukhobor immigrants had arrived on the Prairies. A total of some 7,500 people settled in four colonies in what is now Saskatchewan. Some very influential individuals and organizations, including the writer, Leo Tolstoy, and the Society of Friends (Quakers), facilitated their exodus from Russia, and a number of prominent personalities accompanied the new immigrants to the land of their settlement. Among them were three men who became instrumental in arranging temporary employment for groups of Doukhobors at the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Company in the summer and fall of 1899.

Arthur St. John, a former captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was at one time in the Indian service. He resigned his commission, became a pacifist and Tolstoyan, and visited Tolstoy at his estate of Yasnaya Polyana in September 1897. Through Tolstoy he became acquainted with the Doukhobor cause, served as Tolstoy’s and the English Quakers’ envoy to them in the Caucasus, and brought the group, which was in dire material need, several thousand rubles that were collected for them by their sympathizers. The Russian authorities did not like St. John any more than they liked the unorthodox and non-conformist Doukhobors – he was arrested and expelled to Turkey for trying to cause foment among the group. Regardless of his unfortunate experience in Russia, St. John became a staunch supporter of the persecuted Doukhobors. He helped them at every occasion, interceded on their behalf vis-à-vis the British authorities regarding emigration from Russia, prepared the arrival of a party of Doukhobors in the summer of 1898 in Cyprus (their first relocation place), and, when this venture ended in failure, accompanied the Doukhobor exodus to Canada. He extended his unwavering support to the group at every opportunity in Canada, until his return to England.

Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky (1872-1916), became acquainted with Tolstoy through the latter’s daughter Tatyana. He was an aristocrat but also a convinced anarchist-pacifist who had served a term in prison for refusing to take the oath in the army. He became a Tolstoyan, and together with St. John he visited the Doukhobors in the Caucasus during November 1897. Sulerzhitsky greatly facilitated the arrangements for the departure of the first shipload of Doukhobors from Batum, and accompanied them to Canada. Later he became an active associate of the Director Konstantin Stanislavsky in the Moscow Arts Theatre.

Alexander Mikhailovich Bodyansky (1842-1916), was essentially a different personality. A Russian nobleman, too, he had distributed his lands to his peasants and became a practicing Tolstoyan. He became personally acquainted with Tolstoy in August 1892. He was arrested by the authorities for spreading unorthodox religious views, and was exiled to Transcaucasia where he became acquainted with the Doukhobors. For some years he was to play a controversial role in Doukhobor affairs. From the Caucasus Bodyansky found his way to the Tolstoyan colony at Purleigh in Essex, England, but his eccentricities proved unendurable to his colleagues there. He was persuaded to leave the colony and went to Canada shortly after the arrival of the Doukhobors there. He was always full of plans and projects and tried actively to work on their behalf, although not asked by them to do so, and he helped notably to crystallize their discontent vis-à-vis the Canadian authorities. Eventually, he was asked to leave Canada, and returned to Russia.

Doukhobor railway construction crew, 1907. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff.

In brief, these were the individuals who directed the Doukhobor working parties for the railroads in 1899. To supplement their families’ income, the Doukhobors were initially obliged, like many other immigrants, to look for employment on various outside projects. An intensive construction activity by railway companies in the Prairies was an obvious source of work for the Doukhobors during their first summer in Canada. In June 1899 Sulerzhitsky helped a group of men to contract some work for the extension of the Canadian Northern Railway line.

At first both sides were content: management, as well as the workers. The Superintendent of Immigration in the Department of the Interior in Ottawa, Frank Pedley, was quite satisfied with the reports of the Doukhobors’ industriousness, adaptability to new conditions and their work ethics. In a letter to H. Harley, the Sub-Agent of Dominion Lands, Swan River District, Dauphin, Manitoba, dated 27 October 1899, he mentions, among other things:

It is gratifying to know that Mr. Charles McDougal, the Contractor on the Canadian Northern Railway, found the Doukhobors employed by him such good labourers, and I have no doubt but that they will prove very desirable settlers for our Western Country.

Other positive testimony came from the Land Agent John Ashworth, who wrote to William Forsythe McCreary, the Commissioner of Immigration in Winnipeg, on 3 November 1899:

I also made inquiries from settlers in the districts I passed through and with a few exceptions they were quite satisfied with the Doukhobors and found them willing to work, in most cases giving complete satisfaction, in fact some preferred them to the Galicians

But everything appeared to go well only for a short time. Soon the men began to leave the work, complaining that they were able to earn very little. Sulerzhitsky, who “set out to investigate the situation,” found that at some swampy stretches of the construction the men were indeed underpaid for their work, but that the main cause of dissatisfaction about insufficient earnings was really the men’s loss of communal spirit: instead of contributing their entire wages to the community as a whole, they individually charged various expenses from their earnings for themselves and for their families. Sulerzhitsky managed to rectify the situation and the men went back to work.

But, only for a while, because friction again developed. During the fall of 1899, a group of Doukhobors, working on the Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Company of Canada’s extension west of Hamiota in Manitoba, felt that they had been mistreated by their superiors and began voicing their complaints. The leader of that particular group was Arthur St. John. Although he could easily communicate with the railway administration, the rules of employment were either not precise at the time, or he and his charges did not properly understand them. Moreover, working conditions in the swampy terrain were very hard and the pay was exceedingly low.

Since McCreary was from the start associated with the general planning of the Doukhobor migration to the Prairies, was always sympathetic to the new settlers’ needs and felt himself responsible for their well-being during the initial stage of their resettlement, their complaints and expressions of dissatisfaction about the working conditions were passed on to him first. He must have mentioned the complaints in a private letter to J. S. Smart, then the Deputy Minister of the Interior, because Pedley refers to this case in a letter he wrote to McCreary, on 23 November 1899. The letter in part stated,

… I beg to leave to say that the Doukhobors had better be given to understand that if they will not take the work that is offered them at fair wages for a fair day’s work, this Department does not propose to extend itself very much in giving them assistance during the coming year. There is no reason why the majority of the men should not, under present conditions, find abundance of work and thus be able to carry their families through the winter and be in a position to make a very satisfactory start on their homesteads in the spring. This should be made plain to them so that there will be no mistake whatever as to the position of the Department.

In December 1899 a dispute developed between Doukhobor workers and railway supervisory personnel, and the immigration officials were caught in the middle. McCreary got his information from J. S. Crerar, the Agent in Yorkton, the town nearest to the Doukhobor colonies. Apparently Crerar received a statement from St. John, registering the group’s complaint regarding the Hamiota incident. In the beginning of December, McCreary who had been notified earlier by Crerar, contacted the Office of the Engineer, Manitoba and Northwestern Railway Company of Canada, in Winnipeg, demanding an explanation.

This demand resulted in the Engineer’s ordering an investigation into the matter. The correspondence concerning this case is quite extensive: telegrams and letters from the Engineer, George H. Webster, to his Roadmaster in Portage la Prairie, Robert Walters, Webster’s communication with McCreary, McCreary’s with W. J. Pace, the Accountant to McGillivray and Company and to Pedley, and, of course, the most emotionally-charged part of the incident – the letters exchanged between McCreary and Bodyansky who was then in Yorkton.

To become acquainted with the history and the individual facts of the dispute it is best to furnish some key correspondence or excerpts from all the sides concerned. First, the point of view of the Doukhobors will be presented, on the basis of St. John’s and the workers’ relation to Bodyansky, and the latter’s interpretation of the incident. Bodyansky sent the following letter from Yorkton to McCreary, dated 16 December 1899:

It is very painful to me to say what I want to tell you, but it will be much more painful to me if I keep silent. I and my fellow-believers, the Doukhobors, we left our native land with a feeling of disgust for the cruelty and injustice which the Russian Government allows itself to practice. With the hope that in Canada, we should meet better organization and better men, in a land, where reigns the most enlightened nation, we came here, but to our great regret and disappointment our hope is far from being realized. We have met not a few people from the class which has a greater power in reality than any Government. I mean the class of capitalists, who are capable of such inhuman deeds that even the Russian government is not capable of. The latter Government behaves cruelly with its opponents, but those who bring advantages to it, many rely on its help and protection, but those capitalists, I speak of, and whose names are known to you, have shown that they are even capable of starving and freezing those “cows from whom they have taken milk.” You know Sir, what I mean. You know, that in October 150 men, Doukhobors, driven by want, consented to accept the offer of the Manitoba and Northwestern, and started off for Rapid City and Hamiota. I saw myself the way they were packed in, they were huddled up on freight cars – 75 men in a car and they were obliged to travel all the way standing up, as they were too crowded and unable to move. It is known that necessity will force a man to accept the hardest conditions. But what name deserve these people, who take advantage of the helpless condition of others to suck from them as much blood as possible? Can these people number among the civilized and enlightened nations? Can they be Christians; are they really those who are so reverent that consecrating the seventh day to God they neither allow themselves, or others, to attend to business.

The Railway Company of which I speak, did not only send the workmen like cattle – they did more than that. As you know the Company promised to take the workmen and bring them back free of charge; you know that not only the Company did not fulfill its promise, but mocked them in a senseless way. They sent them on foot in the frost over 20 miles, telling them that on the station the train would take them on. But at the station they were sent on foot again, on to another station, and these unfortunate men were doomed to walk 100 miles in the frost without warm clothes, without a cent of money and without bread! On the way they had to leave the sick and slept on the prairie in a heap of straw. When their brothers in Yorkton heard of this, we at once begged the railway company through the agent of the place to take pity on them, and then only the company condescendingly consented to comply to our request and to take up the sufferers in the train, on condition that the fare for their transport should be paid in advance. We collected amongst ourselves whatever we could and presented the money.

Another instance. At the end of November another company with Mr. McGillivray by way of sympathizing with the hard position of the Doukhobors, consented to employ 150 men. They were sent. Once on the spot they were obliged to draw themselves and to carry the supplies at a distance of 25 miles. They fell into the water, and got drenched, both they and their supplies, and finally when they reached the place of work, they found everywhere continuous woody frozen marsh. They were not asked to work per day, but per yard, on condition that they took all their supplies from Mr. McGillivray’s store. For their transport they were in debt of $8 for each man and they had not a cent to return. Just think. Sir, if it is not moral to catch wild beast with traps, then how about enticing industrious people and to take advantage of their flesh and blood, their muscular work – betray the trust of strangers, who came to this country to seek refuge and protection – all this constitutes such cruelty that I do not know what to compare it with. Just think, Sir, how many lives will be shortened through these hardships! And yet men are hanged for manslaughter and murder.

I have only reminded you of two glaring cases – as for the others just as sad, but with a small number of sufferers, they are so numerous that one might write a volume about them. Many of these cases are known to you, and more known to your subordinates.

To sum up, I must tell you that at the present moment, there are many sick Doukhobors, suffering from exhaustion and cold, and over a thousand men in the South Colony are on the verge of starvation.

The following reply was sent by McCreary to Bodyansky, dated 22 December 1899:

… It is now almost a year since the Doukhobors arrived here, and during that period I have laboured hard and earnestly to do the best I could to make these people self-supporting. In the first place, I procured the contract for those in the North Colony for clearing the Right-of-Way on the Swan River Extension. They were allowed about $13.40 per acre for this work, and still were dissatisfied, notwithstanding the fact that the same work could have been contracted for with English-speaking people at about $11 per acre; and that is the price at which it is now being done on the further extension of the same road.

I am quite aware that the corporations in this country have no souls, and that they exert every means to get the most labour for the least money out of English-speaking people as well as Doukhobors. However, we have got to take the situation just as we find it, and I think the Doukhobors have had as much fair play shown them as any other class.

Now, unfortunately, instead of encouraging the Doukhobors to get over those difficulties, and do the best they can under their adverse circumstances, St. John, as you know, is a pessimist and aggravates their discomforts and discouragements instead of cheerfully trying to get over them…. While I admit the Doukhobors have been imposed upon in many cases, I am also personally aware of many cases where the Doukhobors have acted in an extremely dishonourable manner towards employers….

Now, fortunately, some time ago I have received the complaint from Mr. Crerar about these Doukhobors having to walk from Shoal Lake. I at once sent a communication to the Manitoba and North-Western Railway people and they have answered in writing, and I beg to enclose the copy of their reply, which I trust you will either be able to refute or admit.

When your letter arrived, there came on the same day one from Mr. Pace, who is accountant for Mr. McGillivray, where 116 Doukhobors went. I enclose a copy of his reply as to their statements concerning them, which would indicate that St. John had magnified the matter very much. It was never intended that these people should go down by the day, but were to work by the yard at 17 per yard; camps to be furnished by McGillivray. My letters to St. John as well as my telegrams pointed this out clearly; and I intend asking St. John, when he returns here, whether he misinterpreted this matter to the Doukhobors – if so, it was his fault. When Mr. McGillivray came in, after the first 60 Doukhobors had gone down by the day, he said that they were so slow in their movements he would take no more on those terms. Consequently, I notified Mr. Crerar, Captain St. John and Dr. Weletchkina that no more Doukhobors could get winter work there. They seemed very disappointed, and asked me to make another effort. I did so and secured five miles of work, or about 150,000 yards, at 17 c[ents] per yard; and St. John perfectly understood it.

Now, if the Doukhobors are going to dissatisfy the Railway corporations in the manner shown in these communications, then do not be surprised if the Railway companies agree among themselves next year not to employ one single Doukhobor on all their works. Two years ago the Galicians commenced making the same complaints. The C.P.R took the matter up and told their Foreman to employ no more Galicians, and not to allow one of them to work between their rails all along their lines. I saw this was practically going to mean their starvation, because the Railway companies in this country employ most labour. I represented this to the Galicians, and they asked me to intercede to be given another chance. I saw the C.P.R. President, and he said that if they would agree to work as other men were working without continually leaving their employment and complaining without real cause, he would try them again. I then sent a letter to all the Galician Colonies, stating these facts. The consequence is that the Galicians have turned out to be better men and, as you know, are getting along well. It is surprising that some of these people who have only been in the country to a year and a half, and who came with no means whatever, have been able, out of their earnings, besides supporting their families, to accumulate five or six cows. I regret to say that they make much more progress than the Doukhobors.

One of the greatest drawbacks to the success of the Doukhobors is that some of the men in charge of them are not practical, and although they are supposed leaders, they do not know as much about work as the Doukhobors themselves. For instance, St. John, educated as a soldier, knows nothing about manual labour. How can he instruct others?

Now, the Doukhobors have got to be told, and told very plainly, that they have to take such work as is offered them and be content with the same treatment as is being given to English-speaking people. You know, if you know anything about railroading, that 17 c[ents] a yard, is a good price for station work. They can board themselves; be their own bosses, and work as they desire. What more can I do? I am about tired and sick of fighting with contractors and others in the interests of these people, and if they are not satisfied with my exertions, then I will just wash my hands off the whole lot, as there are occasions when forbearance ceases to be a virtue….

St. John will be here in a couple of days, and I intend reading him your report, and, if necessary, I will go back with him to this work, inspect it myself and take sworn affidavits from the Doukhobors themselves, as well as from the other English-speaking men working along the line, and endeavour to get at the actual facts. I trust, however, this will not be necessary….

The following letters or excerpts may serve as supporting material representing the side of railway companies and contractors. In a short letter, dated 16 December 1899, the Engineer George H. Webster asked Robert Walters, the roadmaster for a detailed explanation of the incident. He received the following reply,

Regarding the attached, Mr. Crerar seems to have only one side of the story. These men in question were kept after the rest were laid off and I arranged with St. John and the men, to stay until the work was completed and he would give them transportation to Yorkton. The men did not fulfill their promise, but quit their work of their own accord, and left me without a man to fix the track. They stopped the work-train coming in from the front, and got on her and rode to Hamiota. I arrived in Hamiota the same night from the East and saw Duncan, the Foreman, and Martin, the Interpreter, and both told me that the men would work no longer, but wanted to go to Yorkton. Both Duncan and Martin told me that the men would do just as they thought fit, work as they chose. Eight and ten of them would be in the Scrub at a time, three and four times a day. If the Foreman told them to hurry up and get ties packed and dirt cast into the tracks, they would offer him the shovel and tell him to hurry up. They told the Foreman and the Interpreter that they have nothing to do with them. I wanted these men in the worst way, at that time, and I felt as though, walking to Yorkton was too good for them. They should have been horsewhipped for leaving this work and acting the way they did. I consider them the worst lot of men I have ever had, and have had more trouble with Doukhobors and their Interpreters, this summer, than I have had with Galicians for three years. Doukhobors expect a Railway Company to nurse them and feed them with a spoon, let them do as they choose, stand, sit and lay down on the work. I consider them the most expensive men in the Railway Company ever employed and will be, until a change is made in them.

Allowed to walk to Yorkton will do them good, and if we are not upheld in this, we had better not employ any more of these men. The men were well treated by us under the circumstances. They had plenty to eat, tents and stoves, and everything necessary for their comfort at this time of the year.

This man St. John is doing a great deal of harm among these men. He is or pretends to be one of themselves, in religion and all other acts, sleeps and eats with them, advocates for more wages for them, board for less than $5.50 per week, wanted men to be boarded on wet or stormy days when they were not working, for half rate, whereas it would take a bushel of grub to fill one of these big Doukhobors. This man St. John is the most useless man I ever ran across. He will cause an endless amount of trouble among these men for some one. I have had the same kind of trouble with Galicians and I found that walking to Yorkton once or twice, did them good, and I know it will do the Doukhobors a great deal of good also. It will also have a tendency to stop them from leaving work before it is completed, same as it had with Galicians.

Regarding these men walking across country to Shoal Lake, I told the Interpreter to tell them they would get no transportation and they have better walk across the Shoal Lake and from there to Yorkton, or get tickets the best way they could. These men in question were not discharged, but the men that went away with St. John, were laid off work, and were entitled to free transportation.

Grading railway prior to laying track. Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada.

In view of this information, Webster wrote a letter to McCreary on 16 December 1899, excerpts from which are quoted below:

I am sorry to say that the general opinion of our Roadmaster and all Foreman who have had the Doukhobors employed this summer is not at all favourable to these men, in fact they bitterly oppose having to take these men on to their gangs. It is quite evident from the actions of the Doukhobors themselves, that they are labouring under the delusion, that Public work in this Country were being arranged for their special benefit and that they can desert employment and behave in any manner which seems fit.

These remarks of course do not apply to all of these men, as I have heard some of them praised very highly, but it was a very small proportion of the total number we had employed last summer.

Regarding complaint against Mr. St. John made by Walters in his letter of the 9th, Mr. St. John may endeavour to justify his action on the grounds that he is endeavouring to get as much as possible for his men, but he should not forget that the men are quite inexperienced, and until they learn to speak English and have a couple of years experience in track work, that they are not worth as much per day as men who have this experience, and it is a mistake to lead the Doukhobors to expect that they should be as well paid as more experienced men. Owing to the shortage stringency in the Labour Market this fall, we have paid these men as high as $1.75 per day, and I can safely say that at least 75% of them were not worth half that much….

The Accountant W. J. Pace sent the following report to McCreary on 21 December 1899,

Referring to that portion of Bodjansky’s letter dated the 16th instant, in reference to the men who went to work for McGillivray and Company on the Rainy River Railway, I beg to state that in regard to the statement made by Mr. Bodjansky that the men had to transport themselves and their supplies twenty-five miles, such is not the case. The men with their supplies, clothing etc., were moved to Shebandowan Lake by McGillivray & Company, and their camps were built – one camp a mile and a half and the other four miles and a half beyond the lake.

The Lake being frozen at the time, it was deemed advisable to move their supplies by sleighs this four miles and a half on the ice — on account of one portion of the ice being bad and the Doukhobors congregating round the sleigh, the ice broke and let them into about two feet of water, but there was only one Doukhobor of the lot who got at all wet. The rest of them were moved on to their camp, and were perfectly satisfied there, and are at work.

Captain St. John, the man in charge of the Doukhobors says that they are perfectly satisfied.

As regards $8 for the fare, this was agreed on before they left Yorkton.

I might say that the fifty men who came down previously are more than satisfied with the treatment they received from McGillivray & Company, and for the month of November they each averaged a net amount of $31.00.

All this prompted McCreary to write his own letter of complaint to his superior Frank Pedley. This communication is dated 22 December 1899, and it reads:

I wrote the Deputy Minister a few days ago enclosing copy of a communication I had received from the Manitoba and North Western Railway Company about a complaint as to how certain men were treated on their line. Since sending that communication I have received a long letter from Mr. A. Bodyansky, one of their leaders at Yorkton, dealing with the same subject, as well as with some men who went down to work on the Port Arthur and Rainy River Road. I beg to enclose copy of Bodyansky’s letter, as well as of Mr. Pace’s reply — the Accountant for Mr. McGillivray, the Contractor on the Prince Arthur and Rainy River, and also copy of my reply to Bodyansky.

I regret to say that no more vexed question ever came before me than this whole Doukhobor business. I do not know what the result is going to be, unless they will agree to work as other people do. Unfortunately, the public sentiment will not permit us to allow them to starve. The newspapers and others would take it up in such a way that the Government would be bound to come to the rescue, as they had to do with the Galicians two years ago. Sensational articles would appear, and special correspondents sent out, which, of course, would not be a wise policy. Certainly if we are going to have this same trouble, I would ask you to send up a man, or get one here, who would take entire charge of the Doukhobors and their management, as my time will be fully taken up with other immigration in the spring and I cannot possibly give the attention to the Doukhobor matters that I have had to do during the last year.

As can be seen from the above presentation, the Doukhobors who worked in closely-knit groups during their first year in Canada and who were directed and helped by individuals equipped with a knowledge of the language, but not of the country, its laws, customs, and ways of life, were in practically the same position as any other new and inexperienced immigrants, working in groups or individually. It takes time to adjust to new circumstances. In the initial period, mistakes and false accusations are likely to be made by both sides. Due to inadequate knowledge of each other, mutual mistrust and inborn racial and ethnic preconception are very strong during this time. The railroad continued periodically to employ the Doukhobors during the next year or so until the latter became self-sufficient on their farms. Once the situation became clarified, the men adapted to the rules and demands placed upon them, and we do not hear any more of any glaring cases of disputes with their employers.

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: