Trek of the Doukhobors

by Betty Ward

The story of how four large groups of Doukhobors were handed across Canada by train from district to district in 1899 is a mission the details of whose drama has never been fully appreciated. It necessitated a monumental piece of fast organizing and is told in remarkable detail in the records of the Immigration Branch of the Department of the Interior. The following article by Betty Ward, reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (34, 1981, No. 1) outlines the frantic work of immigration officials to order supplies, fight red tape, inclement weather and inadequate shelter buildings during the months the Doukhobors were arriving. Despite these challenges, and an occasional loss of tempers from time to time, the immigration officials got the Doukhobors to the Canadian Prairies intact. 

The immigration policy of the Canadian government from 1882 to 1899 was to give to booking agents of steamship companies, or local agents in small towns, a bonus of one English pound for each adult ticket sold in Europe, $1.75 in Great Britain and Ireland, and half that for “half-tickets” – presumably children. The bonuses were given as an incentive to sell more tickets. The Canadian Government had not employed any immigration agents on the Continent, so booking agents were paid “a sufficient amount to encourage [them] to … act as agents for this country.”

When the Doukhobors came, the English Society of Friends had chartered the ships, no tickets had been issued, so no booking agents’ fees were involved. Because of this, an arrangement was made that the government would pay to a committee appointed in Winnipeg, one pound for each person, and this money would be held as a credit that could be used on the Doukhobors’ behalf when necessary.

They came, exhausted and fearful after four years of hounding and persecution from the Russian government because of their refusal to bear arms. They came as fast as they were able and before the Russian government could change its mind about letting them go, to a Canadian winter of “unprecedented cold.” Only a fraction of those who came had any means. The rest fled Russia with blind trust that nothing they might encounter in a foreign country could possibly be as bad as what they had endured in their own. They received financial assistance from the Friends (Quakers), concerned humanitarians like Leo Tolstoi, who donated royalties from his last book Resurrection to their cause, and his son, who came with them at least as far as Winnipeg, and the Canadian government, as well as private donations from many other compassionate and concerned individuals and groups, in England, Canada and the United States.

First party of Doukhobors a day’s journey from Yorkton. Library and Archives Canada C-000684.

Beginning in late January 1899 the groups landed in Halifax, Saint John, and Quebec. Interpreters were sent from Winnipeg to meet them. Chief among them was Philip Harvey. Harvey made only the first trip, and then remained at East Selkirk to supervise incoming trains. Five other interpreters shuttled back and forth across the continent at a time when travel was neither easy nor taken for granted, assisted the Doukhobors from ship to train, saw they had what they needed and understood what was happening to them, and helped at each point to divide up and load the consignments of food. They talked, listened and worked endlessly.

Six days travel from Winnipeg to Halifax. It’s interesting to read, too, that in 1899, $20 was considered sufficient for each interpreter’s expenses, plus $2.50 a day for meals.

W. F. McCreary, Commissioner of Immigration at Winnipeg, and Frank Pedley, Superintendent of Immigration, Ottawa, and their deputies, wrote countless letters during the months the Doukhobors were arriving. They scrambled to order supplies, fought red tape, frightful weather and inadequate shelter buildings, tore their collective hair, and in a gentlemanly way lost their tempers from time to time. But they got the Doukhobors to Western Canada intact.

The first letter after the first group of Doukhobors arrived was a long and detailed one from McCreary to James Smart, Deputy Minister, Department of the Interior, in Ottawa, dated February 9, 1899. McCreary’s secretary was ill, he was behind in his correspondence, working overtime and in haste. His letter shows it but tells its own story best, mistakes and all.

… in the memory of the oldest inhabitant, there has not been a more prolonged stretch of extremely cold weather, than we have had for the last two or three weeks. This morning, at nine o’clock, when I came down, the thermometer stood at forty four. [below zero, Fahrenheit] Last night, during the fire in the “Manitoba”, it stood about fifty one, and it has been running from thirty-five to forty-five, with a keen wind, for many weeks. You can readily imagine, as an old resident, what that means.

These Doukhobors have hard leather boots with a piece of balnket [sic] about the foot, and no socks. The women also, have only a half slipper with leather soles. They have not mits [sic] whatever, or, at least, very few, so that the work of getting them out to the colonies has been stationary.

Yorkton Shed is, I believe, ready, but I have not even been able to send the people from Dufferin School there, because I could not risk loading the children on the trains in such weather. It will surely, however, moderate when the new moon comes in on Friday, so that I will possibly get them out on Saturday or Sunday. As I must have this building for the Superior people. [Doukhobors coming on the Lake Superior]

I have heard from the gang of ten men whom I sent out to the White Sand Colony; [Canora area] they are getting along fairly well, but sadly hampered by cold weather, they were also some time finding timber, but have secured some now on the Hansack. [Kamsack?] They have built three houses 24 x 24 already, so that fifty or sixty Doukhobor men can be sent either there as well as to the camp at Thunder Hill, just as soon as the weather moderates.

I have a car of flour at Yorkton and the same at Cowan as well as other supplies. I have at each place five teams of horses and three of oxen. I tried to engage teamsters at Yorkton to exercise these horses taking out the flour, but Crerar wires me tonight that he cannot get a man, even for big pay to face the cold.

Certainly Providence intervened in preventing the “Superior” people from coming up here, for I believe, had they been forwarded, they would have had to remain on the cars or would have perished. …

I deem this explanation of the weather necessary, in order that both you and Mr. Pedley, may understand thoroughly why more progress has not been made in getting the people forward. In fact, I have been urging such incessantly but Prince Hilkoff will not hear of the people being forced out in this weather.

I have loaded a car of supplies here, and will ship it to end of Dauphin track Monday night, taking fifty men from Dauphin Shed. I have bought fifty pairs of heavy rubber boots, one hundred pairs of socks, fifty pairs of mits, and fifty pairs blankets…

The original intention seems to have been to settle the Doukhobors in Manitoba, which by that time was a well-organized province with schools, courts of law and other provincial institutions. In this regard, “When I learned that Hubbell was at the end of the Dauphin track,” Mr. McCreary’s letter continued,

I wired him to come down to meet Prince Hilkoff, as we wished to discuss Range 29 (in Manitoba), as I was having considerable difficulty over this matter … the Prince, after consulting with the Doukhobors has agreed to release this Range and will afterward select other three Townships … further west on the Saskatchewan.

… either the Prince or Sulerjitzky will go out with the deputation to select the villages, though, I imagine, for this winter at least, the houses will have to be erected wherever timber is found, and they can move the logs afterward to the village sites.

Now in regard to the East Selkirk Round House being ready, matters are not working very smoothly and have not from the first, for reasons which I need not explain here. I sent thirty Doukhobors down yesterday morning and wished Mr. Smith to go down with them, but so far he has not done so. I cannot possibly get away, and besides as the work is under his supervision, I could not give advice in the matter. I imagine these Doukhobors will be able to complete the building by Monday or Tuesday next, all except the roof, which Smith refused to repair, or, at least, says it cannot be done in the winter. I believe that, unless it is covered outside, or the building is plastered, or tar paper put on inside all the heat will escape through the roof and it will be impossible to heat it. We are going, however, to start all the caldrons and other stoves going and try it next week before the people come. I intend doing down on Saturday night to look over the situation there.

I presume that if these people leave [Halifax] on the 17th they will be here about the 22nd, so that we will have the work completed by that time.

Now in regard to supplies. There seems to be some hitch in the financial arrangements. From your letters I understand that the credit by the government was to be supplemented by contributions from various sources, including the Doukhobors themselves, Quakers and so forth, but so far they have not materialized. I discussed it with Prince Hilkoff tonight, and he himself is disappointed, he tells me that the money which they expected to be sent here, has to be used in paying transportation for the ‘Lake Superior’ party, which the Quakers refused to pay although they had promised. It would appear … the Government will either have to loan or guarantee a loan of seventy-five or one hundred thousand dollars to help these people out. …

Now I will send you a rough estimate of what, in my opinion will be required to feed these people, that is four thousand from now to the end of July, that will be five months…

Since fresh vegetables could not be shipped to the colonies in winter, McCreary suggested that the chief diet consist of bread, rice, barley, butter, sugar, tea, cheese, molasses, rolled oats, salt, “peper” [sic], and citric acid, “to sour their soup”. Meat was not needed as the Doukhobors were vegetarians. Their pacifist beliefs extended to the killing of any living creature, on the grounds that it was “brutalizing to the senses” as well as morally wrong. The list of foods was subject to change in different places, but it was not until they ran into trouble over some groups complaining that others were getting more variety that McCreary decided on a standard food list for all. Even at that he was sometimes over-ridden in the selections provided.

Doukhobors of the Thunder Hill Colony moving supplies from Yorkton to their villages. Library and Archives Canada C-005209.

His letter of February 9 goes on to list the staggering quantities of food that would be required, the household effects, the costs of each, plus freight costs. He figured out how much would be needed for each of thirteen different items and this is how he did it:

Each soul here is now consuming one loaf of bread per day, and this with a copious supply of vegetables, but putting one loaf as the quantity for each soul, and supposing each sack of flour will make sixty loaves of bread, … it would figure out this way, one sack of flour would feed two Doukhobors for one month … for five months, 4,000 Doukhobors require 10,000 sacks of flour. These 10,000 sacks of flour at $1.50 would mean $15,000.

He worked out each item in the same way until he came to the question of vegetables, at which point he threw in the sponge.

… It is useless to figure out these items, as, in my opinion we cannot buy them in [until] the spring but we could not freight them out [anyway]. But for the quantity we may have left on hand after feeding the people all winter, over and above what is required for seed, I think we can safely put down for this item $3,000.

This disposes of the whole supplies, although as you will notice I have not included cheese which we may have to buy, and many other items to be settled afterwards. This does not include all cooking utensils, stoves, hardware required for the buildings, such as sash and nails, farming tools, axes, hoes, farming machinery, such as mowers, rakes, plows, harrows, waggons, sleighs and so forth. Nor does it include the very large item for freighting all these goods over stiff trails to the colonies, nor the purchase of cows, clothing and so forth. I will endeavour to figure these out on a business basis and send you a copy, although it will be difficult to do so at the present time, as I pointed out before to Prince Hilkoff has not materialized the large amount of money that will be required, even to keep these people from actual starvation during the spring months. I told him to day, that there was one month last year, when every bridge in the Dauphin district was swept away, and close neibours [sic] were unable to get from [one] place to the other. The snow is now pretty deep up there and, at the Thunder Hill especially, we may expect just such a state of affairs so that a large quantity of these goods should be in there before the frost goes out, or I would not like to predict the result.

February 11, two days after his first long letter, McCreary, still labouring away without his secretary, wrote again to Pedley in Ottawa.

…I understand you have about two thousand people there, and my present idea is that you should send four trains containing about six or seven hundred people to East Selkirk, and a smaller train with from three to three hundred and fifty people, to the Dufferin School, Winnipeg, now occupied by those intended for Yorkton, who will go out on Monday or Tuesday, if we can get the temperature above forty five below, where it has been standing practically for the last three weeks. I may mention, in this connection, that these people are poorly clad for a cold climate — some of them froze their toes even sawing wood in the yard, and are laid up. I had to buy nearly two hundred pairs of moccasins, four hundred pairs of socks, and other warm clothing for the men that I am sending out to the colonies…

In regard to utensils, I presume you will have to buy some to replace those kept here. I think it should be arranged that these people should keep the utensils you buy for use on the train, as they will require them in East Selkirk. The only utensils they use here, where we have six hundred, are about twenty-four ordinary knives for peeling potatoes, many of which they have; a number of table spoons, and of these they have quite a lot made of wood; heavy iron pails for carrying up the soup and tin milk cans in which to place the soup, seven or eight people eat the soup out of one tin. The bread is also put in these tin dishes; forks they do not use at all, neither tin plates.

Owing to some of the Doukhobors at other points, getting food different from what they have here, they are making a rule that all should be fed the same – cheese is going to be cut off, as well as mollasses [sic], and fish, of which they are using some at Brandon and Portage. The regular diet is going to be potatoes, bread, cabbage where available, or if not, turnips or carrots, tea and sugar. As a substitute for vegetables, which we cannot get to the colonies, they will likely have to use cracked wheat, barley, rice or rolled oats, although they do not take kindly to porridge. Onions, of course, will be supplied to them, as well, but we cannot, I fear, get them out to the colonies, and of course they have to be imported from the south and are a little expensive.

But Frank Pedley had his own ideas. On February 15, 1889 Pedley sent off a note to R. E. Jamieson, a food merchant in Ottawa, as follows:

… the second party of Doukhobors … will … reach here next Monday or Tuesday and I would be glad if you would have the following provisions delivered at the Station here to be taken on board the several trains on arrival, the prices to be similar to those charged in connection with the provisioning of the first party: 7,500 loaves bread. 1,750 Ibs cheese. 75 Ibs tea. 160 gallons milk. 100 Ibs salt.

You will be wired when the trains leave St. John so that you will be able to judge when they will arrive in Ottawa. If any additional supplies are required you will be telegraphed to that effect.

The matter of where the Doukhobors would be settled seems to have been resolved. The only reference to it is in a letter from McCreary (sounding a bit tired and impatient by this time) to Pedley, dated May 25, 1899, when weather was no longer a problem.

Please let me know either by letter or by wire … what day you expect the Doukhobors to arrive, and will they all arrive at or about the same time, at Halifax or Quebec?

As already advised, I have purchased a large tent, 80 x 130, which I intended forwarding to Yorkton, but since Prince Khilkoff has an idea of starting a new colony up the Saskatchewan, I have held the tent here as, or course, it would not do to pull the people out to Yorkton if they were going up that line.

My intention now is to try and get rid of the 1400 Galicians who arrive tonight and who will be placed in the Round House for a time, before the Doukhobors will arrive, pitch the big tent down at Selkirk and if it is necessary to hold them over, place the entire party there. This tent will, I imagine, hold about a thousand, the Round House 1600, and, of course, if necessary, we could put three or four hundred at Portage la Prairie. …

The first year was difficult for any settler, as it was not possible to go onto uncleared prairie and turn it into a profitable farm at once. Most of the men worked for the railway, to get some cash income; and in the case of the Doukhobors the women put in the gardens, in some cases pulling the ploughs themselves, as they had no oxen or horses that first year. Those who needed help through the next winter got it from the government. When the Doukhobor men were settled into working for the railway, Mr. J. Niblock, Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Moose Jaw wrote to Mr. McCreary on June 30 forwarding a copy of the report made to him by J. Armstrong, Roadmaster, on June 29, 1899. The roadmaster’s report said in part:

The Doukhobors are giving very good satisfaction. … are doing very well and are improving … where you can keep them together and not mix them with other men. … our greatest trouble is taking care of them, keeping them from getting pinched or jerked off the cars when moving, or hurt with slides when at work in the cuts.

By August 1899 only a handful of Doukhobors were still at Selkirk waiting for their accommodations at the new settlements on the Saskatchewan River near what is now the Borden district, and one near Duck Lake. By that time most of the villages were built and their occupants “well pleased with the country and in good spirits now.”

Doukhobor women winnowing grain.  Library and Archives Canada C-008891.

Thomas Copland, the Land Agent in Saskatoon at that time, wrote to McCreary August 26:

I have wired you re Doukhobors and location of three Villages … we had a stirring time for a few days owing to a commotion among themselves through the drawing of lots for the first location, disappointing some of them. This is all got over now and so far has resulted in good as it [before that] had seemed impossible to get them to consent to less than 75 families in the large Village,, now that is divided into two, making a selection of lands near to each village more practicable and I would not be surprised if a fourth village branches out yet. If so all the better.

The rains have been very heavy and the Rivers are in high flood, – you will therefore not wonder if running of lines takes a little longer than expected. Mr. Batter will have returned to make his own report. He was very useful. Mr. Schultz is as you said, very good with a compass, needs setting right very seldom.

The first village located wishes to know the best terms the Government will give them for the North West ¼ of Section 19-39-7 – and exact acreage. I presume 160 acres. This is required for water, there are at least 2 good springs on it.

I have also to request that you will obtain the approval of the Department for my action in allowing them to have the homesteads on the west of Tshp. 39 Rg. 7 – viz: one ¼ of Sec. 30. – all of 20 – 18 – and 6 -. Being on the spot and seeing the necessity of adding these to the first village. … A full list of names with homesteads allotted to each, will be sent you as soon as possible.

Those men who have come into this Colony from Yorkton, are delighted.

McCreary passed along this information to Pedley in Ottawa in a letter dated September 1.

You will observe that he [Mr. Copland] is making very satisfactory arrangements, and I think, while this will be a very small colony, they will get along all right. …

… Mr. Morrison … whom I have had for the last month at Duck Lake locating the large colony on the north side of the Saskatchewan returned this morning … They succeeded in getting most of the people across the River and about one half of their baggage, when the ferry broke away with the high water, and as but little could be done at present to complete the work, they returned.

There has been a great deal of trouble with these people; … each one wanting the same quarter-section, and the only way it could be settled was by drawing lots, and even then come of them would not abide by the land given them in this way – so that Mr. Morrison had to use a great deaf of diplomacy to get them settled at all.

It is difficult at present to state when the ferry will be replaced, as I understand the cable is buried in eight or ten feet of sand, and it will be useless for me to make a definite report until the matter has been finally adjusted…

In his yearly Report dated December 31, 1899, the Winnipeg Commissioner, W. F. McCreary said nothing at all of the turmoil involved in moving the Doukhobors across Canada, dismissing the difficulties by saying merely, “Public sympathy and attention have been so largely attracted by the settlement of this people … that little need be said … save as to their settlement.”

McCreary said the first group of 2,078 “souls” arrived January 27, 1899, followed by 1,973 in February; in May, 1,136 came, and July saw 2,335. Four more arrived in September and one in December. But his times and figures are inconsistent, as later in his report he speaks of the May group as the one which arrived in June. He reported the numbers variously as “7,427 souls”, and “7.354”; whereas if the above numbers are added up they come to 7,527. “There is thus,” McCreary concluded,

with some reasonable allowance for error, a total population of 7,354 souls, living in 795 houses, comprising 57 villages, and who, averaging 5 to a family, are settled on some 1,500 homesteads of 160 acres each.

The lands they have settled are fruitful, sufficient water is found in rivers, creeks, springs and wells, and the people are generally contented and satisfied with their prospects in their new home.

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: