The Doukhobors

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As the 19th century ended, a group of immigrants fled growing hostility in their homeland of Russia, for a better life in Canada.

Canada had opened its doors to these new immigrants and offered land in a place called the North West Territories. They were told it was good land, and they could live life as they wanted.

This would be a welcome change from Russia, where they were persecuted, jailed, and even attacked.

In their new home, it was their hope to live in peace.

In Canada, they were told they could live communally, were except from any military draft, and could teach their own children in their own schools.

It all seemed perfect.

Like they say though, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Beginning with a long journey through Europe, to catch a series of ships across the Atlantic Ocean, the journey took these immigrants by train across the vast landscape of Canada.

They journeyed through the industrial heartland of the country, along the shores of The Great Lakes, and into an open prairie that was the flattest land they had ever seen.

As they prepared to start their new life in this treeless landscape, where the sky and the horizon seemed to go on forever, the settlers were happy.

They were the Doukhobors but despite their hopes, Canada proved to be a less welcoming place than they were led to believe.

I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!

[MUSIC TRANSITION]

Canada in the late-19th century was a place looking to fill up land with settlers.

The country had plenty of space, and most of it was found in the open west on land that was previously the traditional territory of Indigenous nations.

That land had been ceded over in the Numbered Treaties in the 1870s and the Indigenous people were pushed to reserves so that settlers, towns and railroads could occupy the land they had lived on for thousands of years.

To push settlement of that land, the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 was passed. That act gave 160 acres of land to any male homesteader who could establish a working farm within three years. The cost for that land, $10, or $250 today.

The Act brought in thousands of settlers, especially once the transcontinental railway was completed in 1885.

Settlement of the west was slow, but that began to change in 1896 when Clifford Sifton took over as the Minister of the Interior.  He set up aggressive advertising campaigns in the United States and Europe, and he had hundreds of agents promoting the Canadian West abroad to potential new immigrants.

The campaigns worked, taking immigration from a low of 25,000 per year in the early-1890s, to a high of over 400,000 by 1913. That level was not exceeded until 2022, when Canada welcomed a new record of 431,654 permanent residents.

Most appealing to some immigrants was the large tracts of land available to homogenous groups, which allowed them to settle together in massive tracts of land.

One such group who found that especially appealing were the Doukhobors.

[PAUSE]

In the Russian Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries, a new sect of Christianity began to emerge.

Led by preacher Danilo Filipov, this sect pushed against secular government, formal rituals and the Russian Orthodox priests. Within the sect, the Bible was replaced with orally-transmitted psalms and hymns, which they referred to as The Living Book.

For them, God dwelled in each human being, not the church. For that reason, pacifism became a core tenant of their belief system because to kill another human was to kill a piece of God. For them, all people were equal because God was in everyone.

They also believed in the benefits of a communal system, where group decisions were made collectively. Within their community meetings, they stopped using any religious symbols beyond the display of bread, salt and water, that represented the elements that sustained life.

For the Doukhobors, life was meant to be lived simply, through hard work, led by the Holy Spirit.

The early Doukhobors called themselves God’s people, but the first use of the word Doukhobor, meaning spirit wrestler, appears around 1785 and was used to mock the sect as heretics fighting the Holy Spirit.

Instead of the pushing against that name, the sect adopted it as they saw themselves as fighting alongside the Holy Spirit, rather than against it.

Due to their pacifist beliefs, they were oppressed by Imperial Russia, and often pushed to various regions of Russia in attempts to isolate them from the wider population.

By 1826, Czar Nicholas I issued a decree to force the Doukhobors to assimilate into Russian culture through military conscription, the banning of their meetings and the encouragement of conversions to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The decree didn’t work and by 1886, there were 20,000 Doukhobors in Russia.

The Doukhobors were not about to be pushed away from their beliefs. They refused to pledge allegiance to the government and refused to fight in any wars for the Czar. This led to confrontations with the army and the government.

On Easter Sunday, 1895, 11 Doukhobor men, all who had been forced to serve in the army, laid down their weapons and refused to serve from that point on. Several other soldiers followed suit and they endured beatings, whippings, and imprisonment but their example inspired others.

At midnight on June 29, 1895, 7,000 Doukhobors gathered in the Caucasus region and burned their muskets to protest the forcible conscription methods of the Russian Army. This became known as The Burning of Arms, and some historians consider it the first pacifist protest in modern times.

It is still celebrated to this day by Doukhobors as Peace Day.

International attention soon fell on Russia for its treatment of the Doukhobors, and Russia decided that the best way to deal with the sect was to let them leave the country.

While there were initial attempts to settle in Cyprus, Canada emerged as an attractive destination as the government offered land, transportation and help in settling in what is now Saskatchewan. The Canadian government also passed Section 21 of the Dominion Military Act to exempt the Doukhobors from military service.

Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, wanted the Doukhobors in Canada because they fit his idea of a perfect settler, which he described as,

“a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forebears have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half dozen children of good quality.”

For the Doukhobors, to be welcomed into a new country and have their own land was an offer they couldn’t pass up.

[PAUSE]

The Doukhobors had a great deal of help to get to Canada. The Quakers covered most of the costs of their passage and celebrated Russian author Leo Tolstoy donated the royalties from his book Resurrection to help. Tolstoy also raised over 30,000 rubles through his wealthy friends. Today, that amounts to about $430,000.

By the end of 1899, 7,500 Doukhobor immigrants, one-third of those found in Russia at the time, arrived in Canada. They had come over on cattle ships that were cleaned and fitted with bunks to handle the large number of passengers.

That journey was a time of celebration, as 11 marriages occurred during the voyage across the Atlantic.

Overall, they were welcomed by Canadians. At St. John, New Brunswick, thousands of people greeted them at the wharf.

The Manitoba Morning Free Press wrote,

“They came into port singing hymns and with heads bared. They received an enthusiastic welcome from the waiting crowds and responded there-to cordially, many even getting on their knees and touching the deck with their foreheads.”

The welcoming of the Doukhobors continued as they travelled across Canada. The Free Press Prairie Farmer reported on Feb. 2, 1899,

“The reception they received amply sufficed to remove any lingering suspicion that they might not, after all have bettered their condition in fleeing from their settlements in Southern Russia.”

Coming into Canada, the Doukhobors found that the single-family homesteads under the Dominion Lands Act did not fit their communal traditions. Thankfully, a Hamlet Clause existed in the Act that allowed for landowners to live in a hamlet within five kilometres of their land, rather than on the land itself. This allowed the Doukhobors to establish a communal lifestyle like the Hutterites do today.

In total, the Doukhobors took 773,400 acres in Saskatchewan. They felt the landscape somewhat reminded them of where they had come from in Russia.

The North Colony housed 2,400 Doukhobors in 20 villages on 69,000 acres. The South Colony housed 3,500 Doukhobors in 30 villages on 215,010 acres of land. The Good Spirit Lake Annex housed 1,000 Doukhobors on 168,930 acres of land. Lastly, the Saskatchewan Colony housed 1,500 Doukhobors in 13 villages on 324,800 acres of land.

The North and South Colonies and Good Spirit Lake Annex were all located near Yorkton along the border of Manitoba. The Saskatchewan Colony was located between Prince Albert and Saskatoon, nearly 400 kilometres to the northwest.

The settlers quickly discovered that the winters in Saskatchewan were far harsher than they expected, and the climate was not suitable for growing some fruits and vegetables.

Another issue was that women greatly outnumbered the men, which meant the women worked the farm, while the men worked on the railroads to bring in money.

Nonetheless, they persevered. In their first years in Canada, the Doukhobors built log houses, or dug into the banks of creeks to create dugout homes. These dugout homes, measuring 436 square feet, sometimes a couple dozen people who cooked and slept in it. Over a century later, the ruins of those dugout homes would become a heritage site to commemorate the pioneer spirit of the Doukhobors.

The good times of being left to their own devices was not to last for the Doukhobors though.

While Canada had opened its doors to the Doukhobors, it was not long before suspicions of the new people, and a feeling of mistrust, began to permeate throughout Canada.

Many people in the Canadian West looked at these new people who didn’t eat meat, worked the land often without the help of animals, and kept to themselves, with suspicion.

Dark days were ahead for the Doukhobors in Canada.

[PAUSE]

At first, Canada was a more tolerant place for the Doukhobors compared to Russia but as the settlers built their lives, those on the outside of the colonies looking in began to question why these new arrivals didn’t enroll their children in government-run schools, and why the opposed private land ownership.

As the 20th century began, things were about to get worse.

The year 1902 proved to be a watershed year in the history of the Doukhobors in Canada as Peter Verigin had arrived in Canada.

In 1887, he had been arrested by Russian police and spent the next 15 years in custody. Even though he was locked away, the Doukhobors still saw him as their spiritual leader. In 1896, it was Verigin who wrote directly to Empress Alexander, the wife of Czar Nicholas, to allow the Doukhobors to emigrate outside of Russia.

While the Doukhobors left Russia, Verigin remained in prison.

It was not until 1902 that he was finally released and could join the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, along with 500 emigrants from Russia.

By this point, the Doukhobors represented the largest single mass migration of a group in Canadian history.

The Doukhobors rejoiced at the arrival of their leader, even changing the name of the village, and I will do my best to pronounce this properly, of Poterpevshie to Otradnoye, which translated as The Place of Rejoicing.

Upon his arrival, he saw the Doukhobors beginning to slowly assimilate into Canadian culture. He reiterated to them the need to set their animals free and pull the wagons and plows themselves. He also pulled the Doukhobors back to communalism as the years in Canada had begun to see them move towards private land ownership. He advocated for self-sufficiency, something that was becoming more difficult as the world was becoming smaller with each passing day thanks to the railroad. In 1904, the Canadian Northern Railway line crossed the Doukhobor land, and small towns were beginning to pop up on the horizon.

While they were happy that their leader was with them, the Doukhobors were still dealing with a Canadian public and press that began to turn against them. Referred to as Sifton’s pets, news stories of huge harems operating on Doukhobor colonies were published in newspapers such as the Ottawa Citizen, further inflaming the Canadian public against the people they had welcomed only half a decade previous.

After Clifford Sifton resigned as the Minister of the Interior in 1905, a new man took on the post.

Who was this man?

It was Frank Oliver, a man who believed the land of Canada belonged to the Anglo-Saxon race, and only the Anglo-Saxon race.

[MID ROLL]

Frank Oliver was a major figure in Canadian politics. He had founded the Edmonton Bulletin, the first newspaper in the city, and he was one of the first politicians to represent the region in Parliament.

As soon as he became Minister of the Interior in 1905, he set himself to work reshaping the demographics of the Canadian West to fit his views.

He offered the Michel First Nation nine dollars an acre for parcels of their land. When they agreed, he refused to pay them, and when the Canadian government deemed the sale illegal, he kept the land the First Nation had transferred him and never returned it.

Near to Edmonton, he achieved his near-decade long goal of pushing the Cree of their reserve near Edmonton so that the land could be sold to settlers. With that accomplished, he then did the same to the Sharphead First Nation in what is now Central Alberta.

As Black immigrants flooded into the Canadian Prairies to start new lives after fleeing persecution in the American South, Oliver attempted to bar all Black immigrants from entering Canada. This legislation was never passed, but only because an election was called.

And he looked at the Doukhobors, these immigrants from Russia who lived communally and kept to themselves rather than assimilating into Canada, with suspicion.

Almost as soon as he took on his cabinet post, he began to rework the law and go back on the promise made by Sifton to the Doukhobors when they arrived.

The Dominion Lands Act was modified so that land had to be registered in the name of individual owners. Previously, Verigin had the land registered in the name of the community.

The Canadian government would not allow this, and 258,880 acres was taken back by the government as a result. This caused a great deal of anger within the Doukhobors who felt they were betrayed after working the land for almost a decade by that point.

With their way of life in Saskatchewan being threatened, Verigin and 6,000 of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan left the province in 1907 and settled in British Columbia. In the province, they set up 80 communal villages, primarily in the Kootenay region in the southeast portion of the province.

Several thousand remained in Saskatchewan, where the Doukhobors continued to own property.

It was the hope of Verigin that by purchasing large tracts of land in south-eastern British Columbia, he could remove the Doukhobors from what he saw as the corrupting influence of non-Doukhobors. The milder climate of British Columbia was attractive, as the Doukhobors could plant fruit trees and create vast orchards on their property.

Unfortunately, he may have moved his people to a more isolated place, but the reach of the Canadian government soon found them.

The government told them to become naturalized British citizens and swear an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown. This went against the principles of the Doukhobors and the debate over it resulted in a three-way split of their society.

The independents, who made up 10 per cent of the Doukhobors, decided to maintain their religion but abandon the communal ownership of land, hereditary leadership and communal living. The eventually integrated into Canadian society, and largely remained in Saskatchewan.

The Community Doukhobors, who were the largest group of Doukhobors, continued to be loyal to Verigin and their principles of their faith.

The third group, calling themselves Sovereign People, but who were called Freedomites and the Sons of Freedom by the press, took a more radical approach. They embraced the writing of Verigin to such a zealous degree that Verigin himself banned them from the community out of concern they would become militant.

Along with the core Doukhobor principles of communal living and working the land, they were also ready to protest for their rights and had anarchic attitudes towards external regulation.

The press and Canadian culture at law often lumped them in with the larger group of Doukhobors who shunned the militant aspects of the sect and many saw the Sons of Freedom and Doukhobors as one and the same.

One aspect of this group more than any other stood out for Canadians, their nude protests.

[PAUSE]

By the 1920s, the Sons of Freedom were making news across the country for their protests against materialistic life.

This protest was often in the form of nudity. The Sons of Freedom marched down streets, wearing nothing, and sometimes burning their own money and possessions.

It was their view that human skin was God’s creation and more perfect than clothes, which were made by human hands. The public nudity was interpreted as a form of protest against the materialistic tendency of the society of the day.

The majority of Doukhobors criticized the protests. John Loat, a member of the Yorkton Doukhobors, stated,

“Only the demented Doukhobors undertake these garment-discarding Adam-and-Eve pilgrimages. None of the sane Doukhobors would think of behaving that way.”

For Canada in the 1920s, the protests were scandalous, but the Sons of Freedom were not going to stop with public nudity.

Now seeing Verigin and his Doukhobors as too moderate, the Sons of Freedom took things up a notch from nude protests to arson, explosives, and murder.

The group wanted to fight the modern world through violence, and they did so by destroying threshing machines and any other signs of modernity. They would often burn down schools at night, including ones built by the Doukhobors on their land. At one point, they burned Verigin’s house to the ground. Between 1921 and 1922 alone, they burned down 11 schools. Some even burned down their own houses, while burning their clothes in large bonfires.

For the Doukhobors who were just trying to live their lives, they felt the Sons of Freedom violated the core Doukhobor principle of nonviolence, and they did not deserve to be called Doukhobors.

While I have included the story of the Sons of Freedom in this episode as they are part of Doukhobor history in Canada, I want to stress that they did not represent the wider group of Doukhobors who came to Canada to live their lives in peace.

Unfortunately, the Sons of Freedom were about to take things to a new level and turn many Canadians against the Doukhobors as a result.

[PAUSE]

On Oct. 29, 1924, as Verigin was travelling on the Kettle Valley Railway between Castlegar and Grand Forks, an explosion suddenly ripped through his train car.

The explosion killed Verigin, his secretary Marie Strelaeff, as well as John McKie, a member of the Provincial Legislature. Several others were also killed in the blast.

The Montreal Gazette wrote,

“Peter Veregin had many enemies among the fanatics who wanted him to discard modern appliances and in some quarters, it is argued that a time bomb was used to get rid of him.”

The Doukhobors believed that the bomb had been planted by the Canadian government, while the Canadian government believed the Doukhobors were responsible.

The loss of their leader was devastating to the Doukhobors. Over 1,000 of them, all dressed in black, waited at the Brilliant, British Columbia train station for the arrival of the body of their leader.

To this date, the explosion remains unsolved, and no one has taken responsibility for the bombing. Various theories were put forward including that he was killed by Soviet agents, Saskatchewan farmers and even the Klu Klux Klan.

It is generally believed that the Sons of Freedom were responsible for the bombing.

The bombing sparked decades of mistrust between the Canadian government and the Doukhobors. Meanwhile, the Sons of Freedom continued their attacks on the modern world.

Over the course of 50 years, the Sons of Freedom committed 1,112 acts of violence and arson, causing $20 million in damages. One bombing of a power transmission tower in the East Kootenay District of British Columbia resulted in the loss of 1,200 jobs.

[PAUSE]

As the attacks continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s, the British Columbia and Canadian governments wanted to find a way to deal with the Sons of Freedom and force them to integrate into Canadian society.

Once again, the Doukhobors found themselves lumped in with the Sons of Freedom and their rights were slowly stripped away.

Previously, in 1917, under the War-time Elections Act, the Doukhobors lost the ability to vote in federal elections. The Doukhobors refused to take part in the war due to their pacifist beliefs, but in Canada at the time such a thing was not accepted.

After the war, the Doukhobors were able to vote again but when the Sons of Freedom began making headlines, they once again lost the vote.

In 1934, the government took away their right to vote, citing it was due to their refusal to swear allegiance to the Crown, and their pacifist beliefs. The Doukhobors would not regain the vote for 21 years.

Along with losing the right to vote and losing their land through foreclosures, a prison camp was established on Vancouver Island near Victoria, where 600 Doukhobors deemed to be activists were housed for a time.

The Great Depression also had a severe impact on the Doukhobors. Many were becoming disenchanted, and the policies of finance companies and the government put serious strains on their communal way of life.

Once again hoping to live quietly, over 200 Doukhobors attempted to set up a communal property for themselves 60 kilometres north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in the early 1930s. They purchased 348 acres of land, but soon found local residents did not want them there.

Rumours of wife-swapping at the colony began to spread, and religious leaders in Nanaimo demanded that the government do something about it.

The attorney general’s department attempted to calm resident’s fears by stating,

“We have not heard of any wife-swapping among the Island Doukhobors. If there is such a practice, it would give grounds for divorce. That is all.”

Dr. J.B. Munro, the deputy minister of agriculture for British Columbia lived nearby, where he raised bees. He stated,

“I know nothing of my new neighbours, haven’t heard of any lawlessness, and haven’t missed any bees.”

Over time, those living closest to the Doukhobor colony found them to be wonderful neighbours and had little to complain about.

Unfortunately, the Sons of Freedom continued to cause problems and claims of nude protesting spread through the island. The RCMP stated they had neither seen, nor heard, of any nude protesting.

Nonetheless, the residents of the colony soon began to move away, and within six years it was empty.

In 1939, Doukhobor land in the Kootenay region fell into foreclosure and passed to the British Columbia government. It was not until the 1960s when, under the leadership of John Verigin, the great-nephew of Peter Verigin, bought the land back.

John led the Doukhobors for decades until he passed away in 2008. His contributions to his people and Canada led to him receiving the Order of Canada in 1976.

In his obituary, John Verigin was called a beacon of peace who helped the Doukhobors enter the modern era through his leadership.

Despite that slow integration, the Sons of Freedom continued to cause trouble, and that led to the British Columbia government taking its harshest measure yet.

[PAUSE]

In 1952, British Columbia Premier W.A.C. Bennett began a tough stance on what he called the Doukhobor Problem, despite the fact that the vast majority of Doukhobors wanted nothing to do with the Sons of Freedom.

After 400 homes in the Kootenay region were burned down by the Sons of Freedom, Operation Snatch began.

From 1953 to 1959, 200 Sons of Freedom children were taken from their homes by the RCMP and put into an internment centre in New Denver, British Columbia.

At the camp, children were only allowed to see their parents once every two weeks and only through a chain link fence. Sometimes, visits were denied if the children misbehaved.

There were also reports of sexual and physical abuse in the camp.

One girl was whipped in the face because she refused to accept pencils and rulers from her teacher. Those scars stayed with her for the rest of her life.

In the 1990s, 100 of the children, now called the New Denver Survivors, launched a class action lawsuit stating they suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse at the school.

They asked the Government of British Columbia to issue an apology and compensation but none of their lawsuits succeeded.

A BC Ombudsman report in 1999 called for an unconditional, clear, and public apology to the New Denver victims.

Five years later, the government issued a statement of regret, rather than apology.

To date, no apology has been given to the New Denver survivors.

Despite the loss of rights, property and an unfair association with the Sons of Freedom, The Doukhobors continued to persevere and can still be found in Canada to this day.

[MUSIC TRANSITION]

The Doukhobors have not disappeared from Canada. In fact, between 30,000 and 65,000 people are descendants of the Doukhobors today and about 3,000 list Doukhobor as their religion. Most of the still-practicing Doukhobors live in Castlegar and Grand Forks, British Columbia, along with some in Calgary, Alberta.

For those who fled the American Draft during Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, they found welcoming homes in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, where Doukhobor families understood their opposition to the war and provided them with housing, friendship and anything else they needed. Many American men found lifelong friends in these communities, and many chose to stay.

As well, the Doukhobors of the latter-part of the 20th century began to find their roots again.

They formed Doukhobor choirs, peace groups and organizations to instill the values and practices of the Doukhobors into future generations. They had plaques erected to honour their history, published books about their beliefs, and helped repair the damage the Sons of Freedom had done to their name.

Many Doukhobor artists, historians and writers started to create works that celebrated their heritage, while also helping them come to terms with being in the modern world.

In a wonderful display of two worlds meeting, the Doukhobor descendants in Canada eventually travelled to Russia to meet the Doukhobors who chose not to migrate during the 19th century. The two groups meeting, for the first time in over a century.

They may have come to Canada on government promises that were not fulfilled, but they remained and persevered and are now part of the cultural mosaic we call Canada.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Doukhobor.org, Bitter Winter, The Globe and Mail, Wikipedia, BBC, OnThisSpot, CBC, Our Backs Warmed By The Sun, Free Press Prairie Farmer, Vancouver Province, Ottawa Citizen, Saskatoon Sun, Edmonton Journal,

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