The arrival of Doukhobors in Canada (1899)

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

After a month-long voyage from Russia, the steamship Lake Huron arrived in Halifax harbour on 20 January 1899. On board were 2100 official passengers plus stowaways, the first large group of Doukhobors to immigrate to Canada. Ten passengers had died en route, and many others were ill. They docked at Lawlor's Island, where the quarantine inspector carried out medical examinations. Then it was on to Saint John, New Brunswick, where the passengers disembarked and boarded trains for Western Canada. In the coming months, three more shiploads of Doukhobors arrived from Russia and made the long journey to the Canadian west. When the last ship arrived on 6 June 1899, roughly 7500 Doukhobors had come to Canada.

The Doukhobors were Russian religious dissenters whose beliefs had brought them into conflict with both the tsarist government and the Orthodox Church. As pacifists, the Doukhobors wanted little to do with secular government, whose power they believed was based on force. They rejected mandatory military service and refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the tsar. They also rejected the Orthodox Church's hierarchy, as well as its rites and dogma, including the sacraments and the worship of icons. An Orthodox cleric condemned them as doukho-borets (spirit wrestlers), a label the dissidents embraced, stressing that they were wrestling with, not against, the spirit of God. Living a simple peasant life, they rejected wealth and privilege in the belief that all people were brothers and sisters. Still they were persecuted for their beliefs. Soldiers raped the women and flogged the men, sometimes to death. Doukhobor families were exiled to the remote areas of the Russian Empire.

In the late 19th century, the Doukhobors sought to flee Russia at the same time that the Canadian government was looking for farmers to settle the Canadian prairies. Canada's enterprising minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton, agreed to provide the Doukhobors with free land in present-day Saskatchewan and gave them an exemption from future military service. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, himself a pacifist and a critic of the Orthodox Church, helped fund their voyage with proceeds from his novel Resurrection. Further funding came from American and British Quakers, members of a religious group who, like the Doukhobors, were pacifists and rejected oaths and sacraments.

Upon their arrival in the Canadian West, the Doukhobors were housed in immigration halls until spring, when they went to clear their land, build their homes and plant their crops. Some settled north of Yorkton, while others established themselves southwest of Prince Albert. They lived a communal life, jointly owning all land, buildings and farm implements. The first year on the new land was gruelling. Most men worked for wages on farms, on railway construction, or on other building projects. Women, children, and older men tended to the land. Winter came early, food was scarce, and they had to live in overcrowded, poorly ventilated homes. Many suffered from scurvy. Quakers in Philadelphia sent food, clothing, supplies and $30 000. The National Council of Women sent supplies from Montreal. They survived that first winter and, through their hard work, began to thrive on Canadian soil. They built several villages in Saskatchewan, with factories, flourmills, sawmills, brick plants, and grain elevators.

In 1907 a new minister of the interior, Frank Oliver, ordered the Doukhobors to declare an oath of allegiance to the queen and register their land as required by the Homestead Act. The group broke into two factions: the Independent Doukhobors who registered their land and took the oath (crossing out "swear" and replacing it with "affirm") and the Orthodox (or Community) Doukhobors who refused to take the oath and were evicted from their land. The Independents remained in Saskatchewan, sent their children to public schools and often to university. In 1908, under leader Peter V. Verigin, about 5000 Orthodox Doukhobors left Saskatchewan for British Columbia, where they settled in the Kootenay and Boundary Regions. Through hard work, they established themselves again, erecting homes, planting orchards, and building a jam factory. Eventually, they abandoned their system of communal living.

Beginning in the 1920s, a small group of Doukhobor zealots, the Freedomites (or Sons of Freedom), protested against government interference in their lives (including mandatory schooling, vital statistics, land ownership laws) through arson, the bombing of public and private property and public displays of nudity. In the 1960s, the attacks were at their peak, and many Canadians associated Doukhobors with these radicals. Yet the vast majority of the Doukhobors were peaceful and industrious farmers who pursued a simple life. The Doukhobors in Canada today, who number perhaps 30 000, maintain this tradition.