Economic Life

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

Their early history under the tsar influenced how many Doukhobors looked at economic life in the new world. Prolonged oppression by the established church, the state, and the aristocracy instilled in them a tradition of opposition to authority in general, to wealth and privilege, and to virtually all activities that contribute to wealth. This tradition was supported by the religious beliefs that “one does as the Spirit moves” and that “God’s laws are supreme.” On the other hand, despite their break from a feudal system, there was a considerable carry-over of subservience to authority instilled by generations of serfdom. In principle, the Doukhobor community in the homeland was one of free and equal individuals who obeyed only the dictates of their own consciences and functioned on a basis of voluntary cooperation. In fact, those who followed particular leaders became subservient to a highly centralized theocracy characterized by an extreme dependence upon their leader’s authority.

Geographic isolation from other groups helped to hold the Doukhobors together; they were forced for their own survival to rely upon a simple, relatively self-sufficient economy based upon diversified agriculture and the supplementary trades of a peasant village community. It is not surprising, then, that the land took on an almost mystical concept for the Doukhobors and that farming was seen as the ideal occupation. On the Canadian prairies, survival was paramount. While the able-bodied men worked on railway building and as farmhands at subsistence wages, the women, old men, and children built the villages. When horses and oxen were lacking, women formed teams of twenty-four to pull the plough. They also made garments, rugs, shawls, and hangings from homespun fabrics. The men produced furniture, boots and shoes, ladles, harnesses, horseshoes, spades, spinning wheels, and tools of various kinds. From the outset, the Doukhobor community in Canada was torn by a three-way conflict between Russian peasant tradition, Doukhobor beliefs, and the attraction of materialism in the larger environment. The earliest villages were established and run on communal lines as Verigin had directed. Communal houses and dining halls were built, although many settlers lived in their own dwellings. The land, acquired in large blocks from the government, was owned and managed cooperatively, as were most stores, livestock, machinery, and other facilities. Wages received from outside employment were, in theory if not in practice, pooled in the general earnings of the community. The first cooperative, a Doukhobor-owned store in Swan River, Manitoba, encountered difficulties and eventually ceased because the capitalistic ethic did not coincide with the group’s cultural background.

Growing inequality between the more well-to-do families from Kars and Elizavetpol and the poorer ones from the Wet Mountains created friction and frustrated the communal enterprise. Those who were better off generally opposed communal ownership because they stood to lose from it. A number of them withdrew and either became members of the independent group or struck out on their own. The Sons of Freedom evolved into a conservative group that opposed deviation from the anti-materialistic, cooperative norm; they protested against the breakdown of community life and attempted to curb the growing individualism of the well-to-do. Their first pilgrimage in November 1902 brought out 1,600 participants, who left their villages and trekked to Yorkton. While the women and children remained there, six hundred men continued on to Minnedosa, Manitoba. They expressed their opposition to government pressure to acquire individual homesteads.

The colonies of community Doukhobors under the leadership of Verigin were incorporated in 1917 as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB). It had its headquarters in Verigin, Saskatchewan, until 1931, when it moved to Brilliant. The CCUB built roads, bridges, sawmills, concrete reservoirs, and irrigation facilities and planted tens of thousands of fruit trees, which eventually supplied excellent produce for its jam factories. As in the earlier Saskatchewan settlements, earnings from outside employment were in principle pooled in the common treasury. This system was later changed to an annual assessment levied on every adult male. Each village in turn was responsible for raising its quota for the overall operations of the CCUB, which included brick factories and flour mills in Saskatchewan. Verigin imposed a rigid austerity program on himself and his followers in order to reduce expenditures, pay off the debt, and expand capital assets.

However, the CCUB began to decline rapidly following Verigin’s death in October 1924 as the result of a still-unsolved explosion on a train and the accession of his son, Peter Petrovich, to the leadership. The executive of the CCUB had borrowed $350,000 from the Bank of Commerce, secured by bonds held by the National Trust Company. Under the younger man and the impact of the Great Depression, the organization went further into debt and finally into bankruptcy in 1937. Foreclosure proceedings were instituted the following year. Community accountant William A. Soukoreff gave four reasons for the CCUB collapse: heavy mortgage rates, a decline in the paid-up membership from 8,000 in 1908 to 2,113 in 1937, the increasing number of non-payers, and enormous losses from the activities of radical members as well as unknown outsiders who had resorted to arson as a form of protest against government persecution or for other reasons.

A comprehensive study of community lands in the period 1928–31 concluded that inefficiency contributed to the collapse. Independent Doukhobor farms had crop yields that averaged 50 percent higher than those of community Doukhobors, orchard cultivation was neglected, and an elaborate irrigation system estimated in 1930 to have cost $438,000 was of “unsound design” and never worked. The failure by management to seek expert advice was a related problem. The study found that the managers were frequently illiterate people chosen by the community, whose members tended to scorn education and outside expertise. Peter P. Verigin’s smoking, drinking, and gambling also contributed to the eventual downfall of the community.

The provincial government took measures to forestall the threatened eviction by paying the money owed to the creditors, Sun Life Assurance Company and the National Trust Company. It ruled that the CCUB was not eligible for protection under the Farmers’ Creditors Arrangement Act because a limited company could not technically be considered a farmer. Many Doukhobors felt that the government tricked them by gaining control of their buildings and some 7,700 hectares of land (with properties in Saskatchewan and Alberta, worth about $6 million) for less than $300,000. A Land Settlement Board was set up to administer the land, which the community members rented for a nominal amount until 1961, when it was sold back to them for a price much below market value. When the receiver had completed its operations in 1945, $142,000 had been left for the legal heirs of the CCUB. By 1980 the money had grown to $267,000, and a trust fund was established for community purposes.

World War II greatly improved the economic status of the Doukhobors in British Columbia as hundreds of carpenters and other construction workers found jobs erecting a new dam at Brilliant, a project designed to increase hydroelectric power for the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company plants in Trail. The war, however, increased resentment against the Doukhobors in the Nelson and Grand Forks communities because their young, able-bodied men were exempt from military service. For years many Doukhobors complained that they were “last hired and first fired.” The Cold War also had a negative effect on Doukhobor employment. Members of the community failed to gain jobs or promotions because they were identified as Russians and therefore not to be trusted.

In 1950–52 researchers established a profile of workers in the interior of British Columbia. Although they resided on small farms and in villages, Doukhobor labourers were extremely mobile in seeking employment in non-farming industries and trades in the larger cities and towns and, to a lesser extent, in more distant logging camps and mining towns. Trail and Nelson, where one-third of the 1,437 Doukhobor workers in the sample were employed, were the main centres. Upon their arrival in British Columbia, Doukhobors had worked in logging and sawmilling, cutting and transporting logs for railway ties as well as for their own dwellings and farm buildings. The CCUB’s extensive logging and sawmilling enterprises provided a training ground for large numbers of them, both as executives and as labourers. In the 1950s almost 43 percent were concentrated in the fields of carpentry and forest products. By far the major portion of the 655 listed in the study as unskilled were in general construction. Only a small fraction were in such white-collar positions as managerial, professional, sales, and clerical work. A smaller proportion of women among the Doukhobors than in the general population sought employment outside the home, with many concentrated in the category of food workers (almost entirely fruit packers and harvest hands employed seasonally in the Okanagan valley). The other areas of employment for women were as cooks and waitresses and in domestic service. Few were in white-collar or office jobs. Ten major firms employing 4,000 workers had only 84 Doukhobors on their payrolls, a result, it would seem, of discrimination as well as the Doukhobors’ personal preference for seasonal work.

The study also found that the Doukhobors generally had lower costs of living than other wage earners, a fact that enabled many of them to achieve a more substantial lifestyle than most casual labourers enjoy. Those in British Columbia were definitely not joiners of organizations such as trade unions, the Board of Trade, and service clubs. At the time of the study, the standard of living of most Doukhobors in the province was not high; their houses were generally modest, unpainted, sparsely furnished, and not located in the more desirable residential areas. Once the Land Settlement Board began to sell land back to the Doukhobors in 1961, however, they built new houses for themselves. Today, many spacious and expensive homes are to be found throughout the Kootenay and Boundary areas, and most Doukhobors own one or more cars or trucks.

By the early 1990s, their situation had improved to the point that they compared well with other Canadians. The Saskatchewan and Alberta independent Doukhobors had a head start on those in British Columbia because they had few, if any, inhibitions about education. Many of their sons (and later their daughters) obtained university degrees and found their way into such occupations as teaching, medicine, law, engineering, science, commercial art, publishing, consulting, the mass media, and the civil service. British Columbia Doukhobors were hampered for several generations because their early leaders opposed higher education, but, once this attitude changed in the 1950s, the young people moved ahead rapidly. Today, they are found in most occupations, especially education, medicine, and management. No longer predominantly a farming people, Doukhobors now depend for their livelihood primarily on wage employment. Although they continue to cultivate small tracts of land for part of their food needs or to supplement their cash incomes, much of this work is carried out by the women and children.