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Pious Rebels

by Dave Yanko

As Europe appproached the tumultuous 20th Century, Czarist Russia was persecuting a small Protestant group for bucking the Russian Orthodox Church, refusing to take up arms, and living a communal lifestyle. With help from the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends (the Quakers), 7,400 Doukhobors immigrated to Canada in 1899 on federal government promises of land and religious freedom. Ottawa, anxious to turn the Prairies into the nation's breadbasket, knew the Doukhobors were good farmers. The new Canadians were granted some 750,000 acres of land, most of it in three blocks located in the central and east-central regions of what's now Saskatchewan.
Prayer house and village
The National Doukhobor Heritage Village at Verigin, Saskatchewan.

In the end, promises were broken, Doukhobor land was put up for sale and many adherents left Saskatchewan for British Columbia. But the story of these staunch pacifists, who believed in a God that resided within each individual, forms an absorbing chapter of Saskatchewan history. One of the best places to explore it is at the National Doukhobor Heritage Village at Veregin, located east of Canora, in east-central Saskatchewan.

The Doukhobors were communalists. While the typical Western Canadian pioneer family lived and worked on its own plot of land, the Doukhobors resided together in villages with their property and equipment held collectively. Verigin (the heritage village is an entity apart from the existing community of Veregin) contains 11 structures, two from the original village and the remainder donated by supporters. The buildings are positioned to resemble a typical Doukhobor community. The Doukhobors established about 60 of these communities in Saskatchewan.

Most impressive among the buildings at Verigin is the expansive prayer home that also served as the residence of the late Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin. Verigin joined the community in 1902 after his release from exile in Siberia. Ceremonies and spiritual meetings occurred on the main floor of the grand white structure and Verigin resided on the second. Today, the building is a provincial heritage site whose second storey balcony offers a commanding view of the village and the pleasant grounds surrounding it.

Prayer home
The ornate prayer home reflects a Russian architectural style of the period.

Crafts, tools and photographs displayed with interpretive text in the main museum/registration building give visitors a good overview of the Doukhobors and their way of life. The word "Doukhobor'' derives from a similar Russian word that means "spirit wrestler''. It was a moniker bestowed upon the group by a Russian Orthodox priest, someone whose religious beliefs were at odds with those of the Doukhobors. According to heritage site literature, the Doukhobors adopted the name because they believed ". . .we wrestle with and for the Spirit of God, who lives in every human being. . . .''

One of the highlights of the museum is an impressive carriage Verigin received from the Canadian government. Its bevelled glass windows and fine, plush upholstery suggest the Canadian government was very pleased to host these new arrivals from Russia.

The Doukhobors were pacifists who chose the power of love over violence—back in Russia, they burned their arms to demonstrate their position. In Canada, they strove to achieve their goal of "Toil and a Peaceful Life''. While poverty and the virgin prairie made for a tough beginning, the Doukhobors found quick success as Canadian farmers.

Russian persecution
The harsh persecution the Doukhobors faced in Russia is illustrated in wood, in the main museum.

Not everything was hunky-dory. There were complaints that some Doukhobor communities cultivated only the land in close proximity to their village, rather than opening up all their land for crop production. Concerns arose, as well, over what many viewed as alarming behaviour among some communities. While most Doukhobors were vegetarians, one group extended this practice to exclude use of animals for any purpose. They burned their leather shoes and released their horses and cows into the countryside, bewildering their non-Doukhobor neighbours.

A second museum at the heritage village is devoted to Tolstoy. It's much shorter on artifacts but fascinating in content. A display of images donated to the museum by the former Soviet Union, and text accompanying these images, highlight the life of the great writer of such novels as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well as his relationship with the Doukhobors.

Tolstoy's family occupied the upper echelon of Russian aristocracy and had a long history of accomplishment in art, literature, politics and the military. But the well-educated Tolstoy devoted his life to the exploration of morality and justice. Like the Doukhobors, he was a strong proponent of non-violence and believed in equality, unity and respect for all living things. Tolstoy donated the proceeds from his novel Resurrection for use in the Doukhobor immigration to Canada.

In 1907, fundamental change occurred in the Saskatchewan Doukhobor community. That was the year the federal government reversed its agreement and told the Doukhobors they must fulfil their homestead obligations and swear allegiance to the Crown, or lose their land.

In his book Saskatchewan - A New History, historian Bill Waiser says it's not clear whether this federal change of heart was motivated by a fear of Doukhobor communism or the intense demand for Saskatchewan land. Regardless, Verigin refused to comply with the ultimatum and most Doukhobor land was put up for sale—villages were allowed to retain land within a three-mile radius, while families who lost their homesteads (160 acres) were offered 15 acres each.

About 1,000 "Independent'' Doukhobors took up individual homesteads in Saskatchewan and carried on with their lives in a more typical pioneer fashion. However, many Doukhobors were sufficiently opposed to the new edicts to carry out various protests.
Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy.
A splinter group called the "Freedomites'' protested by demonstrating in the nude, while the less radical "Community" Doukhobors had to be removed by force from their land. In the several years following 1907, about 5,000 Doukhobors followed Verigin to British Columbia, where they purchased land and settled in the Kootenay region. The Freedomites would capture national attention again in the 1920s and 1960s when some demonstrated in the nude, and burned and bombed buildings to protest what they claimed to be contraventions of Doukhobor principles.

Today, some 30,000 Canadians—most in British Columbia and Saskatchewan—identify themselves as Doukhobors. Some follow a more traditional Doukhobor lifestyle while others live and work within the mainstream of Canadian society. All are descendants of the principled community Tolstoy once praised as "people of the 25th Century''.


The National Doukhobour Heritage Village is located on the south side of the railway tracks on Highway 5. It's open year 'round, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from mid May to mid September, and by booking for the remainder of the year. Phone 306-542-4441 or 542-4370 for more information. Small admission fees apply. Meanwhile, a small Doukhobor colony that was established south of Prince Albert today is remembered at the Doukhobor Dugout House, near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan.



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