Visit to the Saskatchewan District Doukhobors, 1901

Manitoba Morning Free Press

In April of 1901, John Ashworth, a Quaker traveller from Manchester, England visited eleven Doukhobor villages along the North Saskatchewan River in the Northwest Territories (Saskatchewan). A summary of his personal experiences, observations and impressions were later published in the Manitoba Morning Free Press on May 4, 1901. His account provides a brief, rare historic snapshot of the Saskatchewan District Doukhobors shortly after their arrival in Canada including: their active progress; acreage under crop; flour mills under construction; their willingness to register vital statistics and apply for homesteads; their anxiousness to learn English; as well as a detailed description of a Russian banya (bath-house). Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

A representative of the Society of Friends in England, Mr. John Ashworth, of Manchester, who, as noted in the Free Press a few days ago, has come to Canada to visit the Doukhobor settlements, was in Winnipeg during the early part of the present week, after having visited the villages in the Saskatchewan district, towards Prince Albert. He is now on his way to visit the Doukhobors in the Yorkton district. Before his departure, in conversation with a Free Press representative, he gave an account of the condition of affairs in the Saskatchewan district. “Of course,” said Mr. Ashworth, when I return from the trip of which I am now starting, I shall be in a position to speak from actual inspection of the conditions in all the Doukhobor settlements at the present time. But if in the meanwhile, you wish to hear how I found the Saskatchewan villages progressing, I am glad to tell you.”

Doukhobor village in Saskatchewan, c. 1901. BC Archives C-01481.

Acreage Under Crop

In the eleven villages in the Saskatchewan village [colony], all of which Mr. Ashworth visited with an interpreter; there is a total population of 1,483 souls. When he came away there was 1,951 acres ready for sowing, and the acreage was being increased, so that by this time it is well over 2,000 acres. “Their horses and oxen,” said Mr. Ashworth, “are in excellent condition. It is so with all their stock, the sheep deserving special mention. They are very well supplied with poultry. We know, they spin their own wool and weave it, and the best clothes they have are homespun and homemade. I found them all busy and contented. They are greatly satisfied with their situation and are rapidly adapting to their circumstances. As to the state of general health in all the eleven villages, it is excellent. Indeed, the health of the Doukhobors in the Saskatchewan district will compare quite favourably, I venture to say, with the health of the people in the most successful localities in the whole country. This is a point on which I have taken pains to get definite information for my report to the society.”

Two Flour Mills Built

In regard to the material progress being made Mr. Ashworth mentioned that at the village of Horeloffka, they have a flour mill in working order, with a well-built dam and flume, and at the village of Terpennie, there is another mill almost ready to begin work, a cutting of half a mile in length having been already made for the flume when he was there. Both of the mills are west of Rosthern, on the Saskatchewan. “The agent for the Massey-Harris firm in Rosthern,” he continued, “informed me that last year he sold the Doukhobors $2,000 worth of implements, which have all been paid for. They are absolutely honest and faithful in their dealings, and the implement agent told me that he would gladly let them have a carload of implements, taking in return the promise of three of the head men that the goods would be paid for.”

Doukhobors mowing hay on the Canadian prairies, c. 1901. BC Archives C-01572.

Speaking of the disadvantages under which the Doukhobors who have come to Canada are labouring, Mr. Ashworth dwelt upon the fact that the Russian government, before allowing any of the Doukhobors to go out of Russia, picked off the leading men from among them, the men of education and of marked ability and character, to the number of 110, and sent them to Siberia. Deprived of these leaders and advisors, the Doukhobors, with their lack of knowledge of our language, have had many difficulties to cope with as best they could, by adapting themselves to the conditions in which they find themselves. There is one man in Terpennie village,” said Mr. Ashworth, “who gave up property worth $20,000 to come with his people to Canada. I spoke through the interpreter, to six who had suffered imprisonment in Kars and Tiflis, and one who had been in Siberia for a year and a half. All their leaders are in Siberia. They feel the imprisonment of their leaders keenly, and apart from their grief for the unjust sufferings of the exiles in Siberia, torn from their families, the Doukhobors who are in this country realize how much they are thus deprived of. They are most anxious to learn English. While they cannot pay enough to attract teachers by the amount, they would gladly keep any teachers they could get and pay what they can. It will make the greatest difference among them, when they can speak English.

Registration of Vital Statistics & Homesteads

With regard to the question of the attitude of the Doukhobors towards the registration of marriages and births, Mr. Ashworth explained that any non-inclination there may be is due entirely to a misconception on the part of the Doukhobors in respect to the meaning of the law. So soon as they understand that the law is entirely devoid of any religious doctrinal meaning and is merely for the purposes of public record, they are most ready to obey it. “Their great solicitude,” said Mr. Ashworth, “is not to transgress the dictates of their conscience, and once it is plain to them that the law seeks in no way to lay any weight upon them in that regard, any objection there may be disappears at once. As proof of this, I may mention that after a talk I had with some of them in one of the villages, through the interpreter, the father of the first Doukhobor baby born there immediately declared his desire that the birth should be registered, and so it was done, the registration being sent on to the registrar at Rosthern. This matter of registration of births and marriages is one that only needs explanation. If there can be said to be any difficulty in connection with it, the knowledge of our language, which they so earnestly desire, would solve the difficulty completely.”

Doukhobor women serving meal to men working on farm, c. 1901. BC Archives C-01356.

“The Doukhobor who drove us from one of the villages to another,” Mr. Ashworth went on, “has applied for a quarter section of land and another homestead application was made at the same time as his. I mention this as an indication of how they are adapting themselves to the conditions in which they find themselves in this country. They are glad to be in Canada and they are anxious to make the most of the many advantages which they realize settlers possess in this land. In my journeying through the west so far, I have never found one person who had come in contact with the Doukhobors and was able to speak of them from personal knowledge, who had anything to say to their discredit. They are first-class settlers. You have only to go among them to realize the character of these people.

A Russian Bathhouse

Their houses – for all that they are built in an old-fashioned way, are scrupulously clean. With them cleanliness and Godliness go hand in hand. In every village they have a Russian bath-house, which it is one of their first cares to erect. I had the pleasure of having a bath in several of them, and most refreshing the baths were, I can assure you. The bath-house consists of two rooms. In one corner of the inner room there is a large pile of stones, which can be heated by a fire to a very high temperature. Water is poured on the hot stones, filling the room with steam, and a copious perspiration is thus produced, the whole procedure being in fact the same as that of the Turkish baths, as we call them. The outer room is a cooling room, where you undress before going into the inner room, and where after an interval for cooling off, you dress again. All the Doukhobors take one such bath a week. At first they carried the water from the river or the nearest creek. Now, however, wells have been sunk in the villages.

Saskatchewan District Doukhobor Village, early 1900’s. BC Archives C-01633.

Making Active Progress

Mr. Ashworth slept in the houses of the Doukhobors during his stay among them, and found the utmost cleanliness prevailing. He has investigated their material condition and studied their prospects and satisfied himself that there is no foundation for the idle tales that have been put in circulation about them. The Doukhobors in the Saskatchewan district are making very satisfactory progress. Already their trade is being reached out for, one of the big milling companies in particular having taken steps to introduce its products among them. Mr. Ashworth learned that some twenty men from each village, or over two hundred in all, are to have work this summer on the Moose Jaw section of the C.P.R. As proof of the value of the Doukhobor men as workers, Mr. Ashworth mentioned that fourteen of them now in the Saskatchewan villages who had been employed last year in the Garson quarries as drillers had given such satisfaction that the quarry company sent them word that they were wanted again.

What has been jotted down here is but a few notes of a brief conversation with Mr. Ashworth, as has been said, before his departure on his present trip to the Yorkton district, on his return from which, it is hoped, the Free Press will be able to present a more extended interview with him in regard to his observations throughout the Doukhobor settlements.


John Ashworth was a member of the Society of Friends Doukhobor Committee, a Quaker body formed in England in 1897 to help the Doukhobors emigrate from Russia, and thereafter, to assist in their settlement in Canada.  In Autumn of 1899, Ashworth journeyed to Canada on his first of several visits to the Doukhobor settlements there. He presented an account of this visit, along with a general overview of Doukhobor history, at the Society of Friends (Quakers) Meeting House in Manchester, England, entitled The Dukhobortsy and Religious Persecution in Russia.

On his subsequent visit to the Doukhobor settlements in April of 1901 – the subject of the above article – Ashworth was greatly impressed by the general state of health and material well-being of the Doukhobors of the Saskatchewan District, as well as their receptiveness to learning the English language, to education, the registration of vital statistics, and the taking out of homesteads.  However, the attitudes of the Saskatchewan District Doukhobors – who were among the most individualistic and prosperous members of the religious group – on these matters should not be considered representative of all Doukhobors living in Canada at the time. Indeed, the Doukhobors living in other districts – whose material wealth and historic experience of religious persecution varied considerably – were sharply divided in their views on education, the registration of vital statistics and taking out of homesteads. While Ashworth’s observations of his follow-up visit to the Doukhobors of the Yorkton District are not recorded, he would undoubtedly have made note of the differing views he encountered there.