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Education

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

Schooling did not arise as an issue in the homeland largely because the Doukhobors lived in isolated communes beyond the concern of authorities. Fundamental education, culture, and religion formed one continuous whole. The religious sobranie provided singing and discussions and the community group, or skhodka, the rudimentary laws of behaviour. Young people were trained through a well-developed moral code and by the example of their elders. Individual members taught their children whatever they knew about reading and writing, and apprentices learned occupational skills from master craftsmen. In the towns, formal education tended to be dominated by the Orthodox Church. Doukhobors regarded such schools with disfavour because they were the means by which the church and the state sought to destroy their movement. Peter V. Verigin and two of his brothers, who were the youngest in a family of nine children, received some formal education because their parents could afford to pay for private tutors.

When the Doukhobors attempted to transfer their way of life to Canada in the 1890s, they found a culture dominated by English and different attitudes towards education. The Quakers conducted summer schools for the community in the early 1900s and took several pupils to Philadelphia for further study. In Saskatchewan, public schools were organized in some areas. But Verigin, after years of imprisonment in Siberia, was suspicious of any government involvement. Whatever affected the Doukhobors’ way of life was interpreted as a challenge to their beliefs and was met with resistance. Initially, the source of conflict was the content of education rather than the process. Schooling was thought to prepare young people for military service, which Doukhobors considered to be wrong. It promoted competition, cheating, the notion of easy profit, and the exploitation of the working class. These tendencies were contrary to the ideals of simplicity and honest labour that the Doukhobors valued. Further, the schools encouraged young people to leave their parents and rural communities. As well, both Verigin and his son, Peter Petrovich, were afraid that if members of the community were educated, they would follow their own conscience and the leaders would lose their authority.

Difficulties over education developed further after the community Doukhobors and the Sons of Freedom moved to British Columbia. Educational practice of the day meant that children were divided into grades, faced competitive tests, participated in military drill, were subjected to political indoctrination, and were forbidden to speak Russian. Community schools in the province were supervised by a trustee from Victoria, and Doukhobors could not exercise any control. To enforce attendance, the government brought in the Community Regulation Act in 1914. This statute defined as community members anyone living “under communal or tribal conditions”; it held each member responsible for the registration of births and deaths in the community, the regular attendance at school of all children between the ages of seven and fourteen, and compliance of the entire community with the Health Act. Convictions would result in fines.

For the approximately one thousand independent Doukhobors who remained in Saskatchewan, government policies were more favourable; members of the group were also more responsive to the concept of education. In 1915 Peter G. Makaroff became the first individual of Slavic origin to enrol in a Canadian university and graduate. After earning a degree in law three years later, he became a distinguished lawyer and an avid proponent of the pacifist cause. By the 1990s the community in Saskatchewan had produced engineers, doctors, educators, and professionals of all kinds. In British Columbia, once the children began attending schools and especially after World War II, they showed a great thirst for knowledge. Today, many from this group too have graduated from institutions of higher learning.

In order to preserve the mother tongue, Doukhobors since the 1930s have organized Russian-language classes after school or in the evening using primers, or bukvary, obtained from the homeland. After years of lobbying, the community Doukhobors in British Columbia succeeded in establishing heritage-language courses within the public and high school system in Grand Forks and Castlegar, paid for by the federal government. Both members of the community and non-Doukhobors have participated in this program. Since the 1960s, over 150 students have gone to the Soviet Union for language training, and others have joined tours of the country organized by local educators. Some of them have become Russian instructors in their home communities. A few married Russians and either remained in the Soviet Union or brought their spouses to Canada. Their belief in the need to build bridges between East and West has stimulated some members of the community to study the language at university. Selkirk College, located at Castlegar in the heart of the community in British Columbia, has for over two decades offered Russian-language instruction, as well as anthropology courses with a focus on Doukhobor life.