Family and Kinship

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

Traditionally, Doukhobors regarded marriage as a sacred relationship between two individuals; they objected to the intervention of any third party, such as the clergy, and therefore did not recognize the role of government or the church in the union. The essence of the marriage ceremony was a demonstration of consent on the part of the parents and the witness of relatives and friends. The Saskatchewan government recognized the Doukhobor form of marriage in 1909, and British Columbia did so in 1953. In both provinces, parties to the marriage are obliged to complete the standard registration form, have it witnessed, and send it to the local registrar of vital statistics. In the villages, weddings took place in the home, with only the immediate relatives in attendance. With the Doukhobors’ greater affluence, celebrations are now often held in a public hall, where many friends and relatives can attend and share in an elaborate banquet, liquor, and often a dance. With a degree of breakdown in the community, intermarriage has increased, and some couples have had their union sanctioned by a civil ceremony or a minister from another religious group.

The shift away from the communal lifestyle characteristic of the Doukhobors in the homeland and the early years in Canada towards individual landownership has resulted in a corresponding change from an extended family to a nuclear one. As well, family size has been reduced from an average of eight children in the homeland to two in this country. But the role of women as protectors of the home, educators of the children, and leaders in the community has remained central to Doukhobor life. In Canada during the early years, women did not leave the close-knit settlements, and consequently they had no opportunity to learn the English language and Canadian customs. With the rapid technological change that followed World War II and new career opportunities, however, they increasingly entered professions such as teaching and nursing. Among the younger generation, there appears to be a mix of traditional and modern lifestyles: women are pursuing careers and raising children at the same time.

Generally, there has been a strong taboo among Doukhobors with regard to anything connected with sex. Children were told that “babies came from the river.” This myth persisted to the 1950s, but, with modern sex education provided in schools and the availability of instructional literature, a greater frankness has prevailed. Children have also experienced more freedom in their upbringing. Traditionally, they played a role in the economic survival of the family unit by helping with such chores as gardening, fruit picking, and cooking. The child was taught to respect all adults and would not dare to say no to a parent. Though they participated in adult activities, young people were expected to keep quiet when their elders were speaking. A scolding or “bending the ears back” kept them in submission. At the same time, children felt at ease visiting a neighbouring village because they knew that any baba (grandmother), deda (grandfather), dyadya (uncle), or tyota (aunt) would look after them as their own.

Before the introduction of government-sponsored old age pensions and other social-security programs, children were responsible for the care of their elderly parents, and several generations often lived in the same household. In recent years, the parents have become more independent. To minimize the disruptive effects of homes for the elderly, Doukhobors in British Columbia in the 1980s began building their own institutions, which could provide for cultural expression through singing and traditional handicrafts. However, many members of the community are still bothered by this shift away from family care for the elderly.

In an attempt to escape discrimination during the Cold War, some Doukhobors changed their surnames to more Anglo-Saxon-sounding forms, such as Podwin for Podovinikoff. In recent years, others have returned to the original Russian spelling of names, such as Tarasov instead of Tarasoff, Papove rather than Popoff, and Faminow for Faminoff (the ending “off” was added by immigration officers in the 1890s). A distinctive characteristic of the Doukhobor family has been the transfer of ideology, especially the values of pacifism, love, respect for adults, hospitality, and friendship to one’s neighbour, from one generation to another. The bread, salt, and water placed on the table at Doukhobor meetings are symbols of a common humanity. Expressions such as Slava Bogu (Praise be to God), often used in formal greetings, acknowledge the spirit of God within each individual, a quality that unites the whole human race.