Arrival and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Doukhobors/Koozma J. Tarasoff

Western Canada was still a frontier society when the Doukhobors arrived, although the population of Winnipeg had reached 50,000. Few schools existed except in the towns, and much of the land was still unsettled. After stopping at immigration halls in Winnipeg, Dauphin, Selkirk, Yorkton, and Prince Albert, advance parties went on to the areas reserved for the Doukhobors. The tracts had been given the settlers en bloc, with the understanding that they would distribute the land as they saw fit. It was unsurveyed, and there were no roads and few bridges, so that ferries had to be constructed across rivers. Each of the three colonies comprised nearly 400 square kilometres, one-third of it bush and swamp. The Doukhobors from Georgia, along with some from Elizavetpol and the Kars region, settled in the North Colony. Most of the Kars people went to the Prince Albert Colony, while the largest settlement, the South Colony, was comprised of migrants from all groups, including those who had been in Cyprus.

Two of the reserves were in the northeast corner of what was then Assiniboia Territory (now southern Saskatchewan). The North Colony (also called Thunder Hill) was located 112 kilometres from Yorkton and contained six townships. The South Colony, with an annex called Devil’s or Good Spirit Lake Colony and containing fifteen townships, was situated 48 kilometres from Yorkton. The town, on the north line of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), served as a shipping and trade centre for the colonists in the two reserves. An arrangement was made between the government and the CPR by which the railway exchanged its holdings in the area for land elsewhere, thus allowing the Doukhobors to settle in compact communities rather than on alternative homestead land. Prince Albert, or Saskatchewan, Colony (also known as the Duck Lake and later Blaine Lake Colony) comprised the third reserve; it consisted of twenty townships 320 kilometres to the northwest in Saskatchewan Territory, where only even-numbered sections were reserved for Doukhobors. The southern part of the reserve was 32 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, but the railway centre during the early years was at Rosthern, 40 kilometres to the east on the Prince Albert line.

The Doukhobors settled in a village pattern not unlike the that of the peasant commune, or mir, in Russia. Verigin had advised them to establish themselves on a communal basis, with no more than fifty families to a village. Such an arrangement would enable the limited resources, money from the fund and other donations, to reach the people. Log dwellings luted with clay were common in the North Colony, while sod and clay houses were built in the South and Prince Albert colonies. Later, many of the early dwellings were replaced with brick or wooden structures. Some villages erected a separate meeting house, or dom, although in most cases any home or large building in the village served this purpose. In all, more than ninety villages were established in Saskatchewan.

By 1907, however, a crisis over landownership had developed. In face of demands from the Conservative opposition for settlement on the British model, the Liberal government or Sir Wilfrid Laurier reneged on its earlier promise that Doukhobors could live and work in colonies. The new policy required individual homesteading and an oath of allegiance as the terms for free land. A large group of Doukhobors led by Verigin, who had been released from Siberian exile five years earlier, believed that in order to be a true Christian one must avoid individual ownership of property. Independent Doukhobors (those who opposed his leadership) filed claims for some 238 homesteads. Most simply crossed out the reference to an oath and substituted the word “affirm.” Those who did not accept the new policy lost 121,000 hectares of improved land, though they were allowed to keep 6 hectares per family.

The following year, communal Doukhobors purchased 7,700 hectares of largely forested land in the Kootenay and Boundary areas of British Columbia. Because it was a private transaction, an oath of allegiance was not required. By 1912 some 8,000 Doukhobors had relocated there and were living in such centres as Waterloo (Brilliant, at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers), Castlegar, Grand Forks, Nelson, Shoreacres, and Slocan Park. They cleared forest lands, planted orchards, and constructed forty-four communes, each consisting of pairs of two-storey houses with connecting courtyards.

In Alberta the Doukhobors established a new colony on 4,557 hectares near the towns of Cowley and Lundbreck about 112 kilometres west of Lethbridge, on the route of the CPR. Verigin and his followers chose this location as an intermediate supply centre for the production of grain and vegetables and for stock raising. Thirteen villages were founded, and they were colonized by three hundred Doukhobors from British Columbia. Within two years, wheat and flour were being shipped from these foothill settlements to Brilliant. A fourteenth village, independent of the others, was started near Shouldice in 1926 by Anastasia Golobova; it lasted almost twenty years and numbered 165 people at its height. Another small colony was established at Kylemore, Saskatchewan, some 80 kilometres west of the South Colony. This purchase was made with the idea of increasing the return on grain because land was cheaper here than in the main settlement.

Some 150 Doukhobors from Siberia had emigrated to Canada in 1905, settling in Saskatchewan. Six years later 200 non-Veriginite believers arrived and took up homesteads in the Langham district of Saskatchewan, where they established close contacts with the independent Doukhobors in the Prince Albert Colony. Migrations from the original British Columbia settlement by the radical svobodniki, or Sons of Freedom, a splinter group established in Saskatchewan in 1902, took them elsewhere in the province – to Krestova in 1929, Gilpin in 1935, Hilliers on Vancouver Island in 1949, and Agassiz and Vancouver in 1962 – and to Uruguay in 1952. This last movement brought one thousand members of the group to the coast to be closer to family heads who were serving prison sentences for their activities. Unexpectedly, it exposed both adults and children to the assimilative forces of an industrial society and changed many of them forever.

The 1991 census found only 4,800 Doukhobors, based on a “religious” designation, in Canada. With a wider definition of religion, ethnicity, way of life, and social movement, the number today exceeds 30,000, of whom some 15,000 reside in British Columbia (mostly in the southern interior settlements of Castlegar and Grand Forks and in Vancouver), 11,000 in Saskatchewan (principally in the northeastern settlements of Verigin and Kamsack and the Saskatoon area), and 3,000 in Alberta (mostly in Calgary, with a few in the original settlements of Cowley and Lundbreck). The rest are scattered throughout Canada. Some 500 Doukhobors now reside in the American states of California and Oregon.