The Doukhobors’ Place in Canadian History

by Andrei Bondoreff

As Doukhobors, what is our place in Canadian history?  Traditional Canadian history has focused almost exclusively on the story of the two founding groups – English and French Canadians.  The stories of minority groups, their accomplishments and contributions as nation-builders, often receive scant attention.  However, as writer and historian Andrei Bondoreff contends, the Doukhobors’ place in Canadian history is exciting, dynamic and above all else, important.  Reproduced by permission from ISKRA No.1959 (June 16, 2004), his article reminds us that our history is vital and relevant, not only to ourselves, but to the nation as a whole.

Understanding Canadian history is a lot like trying to figure out where you are in Disney land: unless you have a good map, it’s easy to get lost in the pleasantry and endless activity. You end up wandering about being inundated with gaiety and cheer, whimsically caring about little more than superficial characters, and animated voices singing sprightly songs. You go from one little blithesome, contrived experience to another in a sort of drunken satisfaction oblivious to the multitude of problems that are rife throughout the park, but which are covered up seamlessly by an efficient, clever and cunning corporation. So it is with Canadian history. In elementary, high school, and survey university course curricula, dominant culture has woven a smiley, amusing little plastic narrative meant to inculcate Canadian folk with pride and patriotism in a national story which conveniently ignores the contributions and activities of most minorities who have been an important part of the Canadian experience.

Canada’s historical narrative is basically the story of two groups – English and French Canadians – rolling merrily along building a country with the odd disagreement or tiff over French/English language rights or some other grave issue, with an odd trans-continental railroad thrown in for leavening, a pressing war Canada had to rush into for bite, or to add some sugar, a sports event that defined an era. Minorities hardly exist in this narrative. Their accomplishments and contributions are barely given a yawn, thus relegating them to the realm of insignificance. Reading standard Canadian history, you’d think that nobody but French, Scots and English did anything of any value or interest in Canada. Minorities are a by-line, assuming the role of the eclectic or quirky relative that is rarely introduced, or the irritating mother-in-law stuffed in the attack. English and French Canadians ran the Canadian nation-building show so they have determined that they should get all the limelight and accolades.

Crowd of Doukhobors first set foot on Canadian soil, 1899

By propagating such a whitewash of history, dominant Anglo-French Canadian culture has furthered its assimilative agenda: telling everyone that its history is everyone’s history and that to truly be Canadian is to be like them. Simply put, anyone outside dominant Anglo-French Canadian culture is on the outside looking in, staggering about in a malaise of alienation estranged from the Canadian historical experience.

Doukhobors are proud of their history, and rightly so. But few Doukhobors ever examine their place in a broader context. It is easy to consider Doukhobors in the following way: a determinedly pious and peaceful group of iconoclastic agrarians who challenged the Russian Tsarist state and the Orthodox Church, and after being persecuted for their steadfast “treasonous” defiance of the Czarist system, were given refuge in a welcoming Canada to escape persecution. In a superficial way, this is basically correct, but it doesn’t go far enough to explaining who Doukhobors are and what they have meant to Canada. It doesn’t give enough colour or context to the story.

Doukhobors weren’t given refuge in Canada for benevolent reasons. Immigration officials executing immigration policy weren’t selfless, righteous souls committed to virtuous acts. Many authors including Mariana Valverde in her book The Age of Light Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 detail how the Canadian government had an immigration policy predicated upon a hierarchy of “desirable” immigrants with race as a determining factor. At the top of this pyramid were Anglo-Saxon’s or British descendant-white Americans, then as a sloppy-second. Northern Europeans, followed by Western Europeans, Central Europeans, Eastern Europeans and Jews. Blacks and Asians didn’t cut the mustard at all and were encouraged to stay home. There were discriminatory legal measures instituted at the end of the 19th century through the first part of the 20th century such as Continuous Journey Legislation which prohibited immigrants whose voyage stopped at a destination between the originating embarkation point and Canada, thus limiting all Asians; head taxes and other laws controlled undesirable immigration. Doukhobors, as Eastern Europeans at the bottom end of the desirability totem pole, didn’t take on an aura of popularity until immigration levels slowed to a trickle near the end of the 19th century.

Doukhobors came into the picture within the context of nation-building, as being efficient tools in the Canadian political elite’s determined plan to settle the West. Many people often fail to grasp the macro picture of Doukhobors and their relationship to the expansion and growth of the Canadian state.

Doukhobor women pulling plow on Canadian prairies, c. 1899

Historian John Leonard Taylor writes that, “in 1867, three colonies of British North America united to form the Dominion of Canada. Compared to its present size, the new dominion was very small, from the very beginning, however, its founders had plans for expansion.” Canada sought to expand west, however, the land on the prairies was rugged and wild, the climate was forbidding and there was the inconvenience of Native peoples who inhabited the region. Canada, employed tangible political maneuvers to expanded west by surreptitiously taking control of the Northwest in 1870 from the Hudson’s Bay Company; passing the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 granting a quarter section, 160 acres, of free land for a 10 dollar registration fee conditional upon three years residence; concluding treaties with Native peoples and extinguishing their title to the land; and finally, formulating a National Policy which, among other things, called for white settlement of the West. Immigration became the vehicle for Imperial expansion.

Yes, it may come as a shock, but Canada was an imperial power in the age of imperialism when European countries were on a world-wide mugging spree, pocketing land and resources wherever they could. In the quintessentially Canadian way, imperial expansion was undertaken in a cost-effective, tactful manner rather than the American model which saw fierce and bloody Indian wars. This is the spot where Doukhobors among other pioneers fit. But we must look deeper at this Imperial expansion, at its ideology because it had a profound impact on Doukhobors and their functioning in Canada.

Canadian imperialism was oriented towards liberalism emphasizing ideas of liberty and protection of private property. Even though the two concepts fundamentally contradict one another, this was of little concern to English-Canadian elites who formulated imperial policy. Imperialism and liberalism don’t mix because the former is predicated upon imposing ones will on another which violates the fundamental idea of liberalism or freedom to allow people to believe or do what they want. Nobody has the right to impose his or her will or values on someone else.

Clifford Sifton, Minister for the Interior, had stated that his idea of an ideal settler was “a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forebears have been fanners for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-a-dozen children, is good quality.” Doukhobors, were steely tough, resourceful, self-sufficient and industrious white pioneers with a deeply rooted understanding of farming, and more than a few stout wives and children for the offering. The Canadian Government accepted the Doukhobors because of what the Doukhobors could do for Canada. Canada wanted white settlers to be the vehicles of development west, within this context the Doukhobors would do nicely because they were the epitome of tough, enterprising pioneers. The same can not be said of many of the pioneers serenaded in Canadian history. While Doukhobors set up shop on the prairies and lived in earthen hollows or sod huts, while the women pulled plows and the men helped build railways slogging through swamps and bogs for minimal pay, many English immigrants (not all) were enticed to colonize the prairies with the promise of pre-constructed homesteads – beautiful and cozy homes and pre-tilled land.

Canada, a country that professed to embrace liberal freedoms and had vast lands open for cultivation, seemed well suited to the Doukhobors’ wishes to farm and practise their religion unmolested. The Government, desperate to kick-start stalled immigration on the prairies, hastily, gave clearance for the Doukhobors to come, but, never (in my research) made three important aspects of its policies clear to the Doukhobors: firstly, that the government would openly and aggressively pursue a policy of assimilation towards them; secondly, that lands given to Doukhobors would be given at the expense of Plains Native peoples; and thirdly, that the Doukhobors’ collectivism would be incompatible with the Canadian Government’s vision of individualistic homestead farming on the prairies.

The third point is extremely contradictory and problematic because the government pursued colonial expansion into the western prairies in order to impose a system of economic individualism, utilizing a group that embraced collectivism and for whom private property was largely anathema. And people actually wonder why the Government/Doukhobors relationship has been testy and filled with squabbles, quibbles and quarrels. The Government’s entire policy towards the Doukhobors was predicated upon the idea that the Doukhobors would eventually assimilate and embrace individualism, private property and laissez-faire economics. The Canadian Government was woefully ignorant of the fact that Doukhobors had struggled against the Russian Government’s imperious assimilative efforts since Doukhoborism’s beginnings, and that this struggle had actually brought this feisty determined group the cohesion and strength that formed the basis of their identity, and their culture. When the government used the Doukhobors, and vigorously pursued assimilationist policies, it failed to recognize that Doukhobors were prone to enthusiastic and passionate questioning of authority and were possessed of great fortitude. Steadfast resistance to the coercive power of the Canadian state is certainly an important legacy of Doukhoborism in Canada, and few ethnic groups have pursued it with such vigour.

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.

Harsh Russian assimilative measures against the Doukhobors were an important part of Doukhobor Russian history and anyone with even a passing understanding of Doukhoborism would know this, yet the Canadian government in its blissful ignorance thought it could succeed where Russian measures failed. Eventually, Canada would employ many of the same methods of assimilation such as seizing children from parents for forced assimilation. These are, however, peripheral issues in the mostly jolly Canadian grand historical narrative.

When unmolested, Doukhobors through hard work, perseverance and determination succeeded in prospering on the prairies. The establishment of infrastructure such as ferries and roads helped build the Canadian nation. Doukhobors created an economy out of rocks, trees, mud and seed. They built large communities with exotic architectural masterpieces of architecture in the heart of the desolate alien prairie. The Doukhobors were the epitome of the bull-dog grit and stoic spirit of romanticized early pioneers.

Doukhobors were also, the original environmentalists, being vegetarians, composters, using natural “organic” herbal remedies and cures as well as utilizing sustainable development before such words existed in the English language. Non-Doukhobor settlers would often seek-out the Doukhobors for medical help because no hospitals existed for homesteaders on the forbidding, lonely prairie. Before her death, one elderly English lady recounted how her life was saved and good-looks preserved by Doukhobor medical help after she was kicked in the face by a horse as a young girl.

Few people truly appreciate how arduous life on the prairies was. The most laborious task most people have today in their suburban enclaves is landscaping their front yard and planting a juniper bush or two. They curse as they pull out a weed that ought not to be strangling their geraniums, grumble about weed killer not working on dandelions, and sneer at crab grass. Imagine living in a foreign land, in a harsh untamed wilderness with miles upon miles of flat, raw, hard, gangly soil, fogs of sinister mosquitoes, horrible black flies the size of bull frogs and strangling extremes of heat and cold.

The Doukhobors with their tenacity and fortitude took the bit between the teeth and doggedly got down to business constructing order and beauty from the ferocity of the savage wild. They slogged, muscled, strained and pained to survive and prosper on an unforgiving land. They were creative, industrious and resourceful, sowing the land through brute, hell-fire, gut-wrenching determination. And those were just the women.

The Doukhobors established a successful communal model of farming which was a dangerous precedent for Canadian authorities because it was not what the elites of Canada had in mind for developing an economy. Even though communal farming in pioneering days was quite practical, eliminating the loneliness of homestead life, promoting group cohesion, and uniting labour and resources for a common good; it also, however, effectively insulated the group from the outside world. For Canadian authorities this was unacceptable and policies enforcing individual registration and requiring allegiance to the Crown were stubbornly pursued precisely because authorities knew it was so contentious with the Doukhobors: to accept individualism and the King would be to compromise Doukhobor principles.

The authorities and Doukhobors both knew that the two issues represented the top of the hill to the slippery slope of assimilation; the government had added impetus to apply pressure on the Doukhobors because the concerns of increasing numbers of land-hungry settlers, pouring into Saskatchewan seeking Doukhobor lands, trumped the concerns of the politically mute “Sifton’s Pets.” Once John Oliver assumed Sifton’s portfolio, the Doukhobors were seen as expendable, the gloves came off and the government was eager to do an “extreme make-over” of Doukhobor communal living. The Doukhobors had legitimate fears about individual registration threatening the cohesion of the group, and understandably felt it could lead to the destruction of the community — a community which was all these struggling immigrants had in their foreign land, and which they had come to Canada to preserve. Nevertheless, the government giveth, and it taketh away as it has done with so many groups in history such as Natives, Japanese and Ukrainians to name a few.

The requisitioning of huge swaths of Doukhobor lands worth millions dollars, is a particularly dark chapter of Canadian history that has gone mostly unmentioned in mainstream textbooks because it represents one of the more unromantic episodes of Canadian history.

In case you think the Canadian government only targeted the Doukhobors’ communal farming enterprises, think again. Native peoples on the prairies, who embraced communalism just like the Doukhobors, established communal farming ventures after signing treaties with the government of Canada (which is a complex issue itself). These Native peoples saw their ventures assailed and ultimately destroyed by repressive government policies. Venerable historian Sarah Carter in her book Lost Harvests details how the Canadian government subverted Native communal farming because, as with Doukhobors, communalism was an impediment to assimilation. In both cases, the Doukhobors and the Natives’ ways of living didn’t fit the Canadian Government’s particular brand of liberal ideology.

Doukhobor workers in boiler room, CCUB factory.

Doukhobors, never ones to lie on the canvas for the full ten count regardless of the beating, picked themselves up and many moved on to the Kootenays. They established the CCUB as one of the largest communal experiments in North American history. The contribution to the Kootenay economy with the construction of saw mills, jam factories, brick factories, bridges, roads and irrigation systems was tremendous, even though in 1922 politicians such as MLA J.W. Jones derisively spoke about the “unique problem” that groups such as the “Chinese and Doukhobors” presented to BC. The government would again play a part in toppling the Doukhobors’ second large-scale communal venture.

After Vancouver’s Japanese community was brutally liquidated and interned throughout the Kootenays during World War Two, Doukhobors helped many Japanese overcome starvation by delivering food. When many citizens in the surrounding community were overtly hostile and ignored the Japanese, Doukhobors and Japanese had friendly interactions organizing baseball games and other events.

Traditional Canadian history glosses over how the Government of Canada coerced many minority groups into forced labour. Few people know how the Ukrainians were interned behind barbed-wire fences during World War One, and were forced to work as veritable slave labour in the construction of roads, railways and national parks. Few people know that the infrastructure for Banff national park was largely built by interned Ukrainians. Few people also know how Doukhobor men worked in forced labour camps during World War Two building the nations road system as “alternate service.” Canada benefited from the forced toil of many minority groups such as the Doukhobors, yet these minority groups who, taken together aren’t much of a minority, receive little recognition in the story of the building of Canada.

In Canadian history, Doukhobors have not been neutral observers or an obscure quiet lot. The yin/yang and stark dichotomies in Doukhoborism represent a fascinating aspect of Canadian history. Doukhobors, on one hand, have been paragons of pacifism and proud purveyors of peace. Few groups in Canadian history have mounted the sustained and determined effort that Doukhobors have in pursuing disarmament. Doukhoborism possessed of its own heaven, has also been possessed of its own hell, with a small minority of its community engaged in the most sustained terrorism in North American history. There is no neutrality, no blandness to Doukhoborism in Canada. Doukhobors have had animated spiritual leaders, mystery, intrigue, conspiracy and superstition the likes of which could be a screenplay writer’s dream.

If one travels to a foreign country and is asked to name aspects of uniquely Canadian culture one is forced to pause, think and then rattle off maple syrup, hockey, “eh” at the end of a sentence, and Mounties. These examples of Canadian culture are amusing enough, but aren’t nearly as profound as examples that one could give to a similar question articulated with regards to Doukhobor culture. Doukhobors have unique humour, dialect, clothing, rhymes, songs, games, religion, food, woodwork, architecture etc. In this context, the aforementioned Doukhobor history is actually Canadian history that has never been given a chance to enter the realm of mainstream history. Canadian history should be the egalitarian tale of numerous ethnic groups living together in relative harmony contributing their own unique personality to a grand national drama. Instead Doukhobors occupy the fringe, along with so many other ethnic groups.

Peter Lordly Verigin (centre) with crowd of Community (CCUB) Doukhobors, c. 1920’s. Photo courtesy Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection.

The Doukhobors place in Canadian history is exciting, dynamic and above all important. Unlike so many people alienated in society, unsure of where they came from or what their roots are, every Doukhobor has a storied past. When you have a rich history, but it’s not the history of dominant culture, it’s easy to take it for granted or even to turn your back on it; however, in your quest to gain whatever it is you seek, you have actually succeeded in losing yourself. If getting lost is your “thing,” forget your past. The price of this is tremendous, and its impact is measurable only to each person left alone to face and contemplate their genealogical and cultural destruction. Remember the tales your grandmothers and grandfathers tell. They will become important and relevant when you least expect it.