The Doukhobors of B.C.,Part 3: British Columbia

[Part One, Part Two]

In Saskatchewan, the federal government re-claimed all of the Doukhobor land allotment that had not been developed as Homestead laws required. Much of this was swamp or land non-usable as farming anyway and it probably amounted to less than 10000 acres out of a total allotment of 400000. But Interior Minister Oliver also explicitly reversed the policy of his predecessor Clifford Sifton on communal lands. If someone was not living on the land that he was working, then it was subject to seizure. Since the Doukhobors were living communally in scattered villages, this meant that much of their land was up for grabs. That seems to have been the plan. The government was now less anxious to populate the prairies — a great many people had moved out there already — and there was money to be made by turning over developed property. Doukhobors claim that their land was stolen from them and that seems exactly the case.

Speculators outside the Yorkton, Saskatchewan land office looking to buy up Doukhobor lands, 1899. (Koozma Tarasoff Collection)

It might have been that these lands could have been held if Doukhobors had been willing to swear oaths of allegiance. Certainly many individual Doukhobors did so and kept their property. But the federal government was beyond any bargaining. Anti-Doukhobor feeling was rising.

Not all the land was lost. Independent Doukhobors who left the community kept their farms. Various places where villages were located managed to escape. And there was the property of Verigin, purchased by Peter the Lordly and not subject to the Homestead Act. Later, some of the seized property was repurchased by Doukhobors who gave it back to the Community of Universal Christian Brotherhood, as Peter Verigin called his group. After the First World War the Community probably held about 50000 acres in Saskatchewan.

But a great deal had been lost: flour mills, saw mills, smithys, brick works were taken away as well as farm land. Machinery was removed and reused or sold but Verigin’s Community had gone deep into debt to finance its venture and still owed a great deal of money. The Community members in Saskatchewan and sympathetic Independents contributed as did Verigin’s new British Columbia holdings and all the debt was paid off.

In British Columbia, Verigin bought a deserted mining camp called Waterloo near the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. The military battle name was dropped and the place re-named Brilliant, for the way that the sun shone on the water. The land cost $150000. Verigin wished to avoid a bank-held mortgage so the title was put into escrow while the debt was paid off. Doukhobor men went out and worked, cutting railroad ties and clearing forest. They gave their wages back to Verigin and the purchase price was paid out in a year and a half.

Verigin also bought land around Grand Forks and, later, in the Slocan Valley and other places. He bought land that might be farmed for vegetables or planted with fruit orchards. Orchard farming had recently been introduced in the area by British immigrants. Table apples — eating apples — were still something of a novelty since most varieties had been developed only a decade or so before and there was a large market for this fruit. By 1920, the Community held more than 20000 acres in B.C.

The Jam Factory at Brilliant.

Verigin was a shrewd businessman with a long term vision. The Community would be internally self-sufficient. B.C. farms would trade produce and lumber to Saskatchewan in exchange for flour. Sawmills were established in B.C. A jam factory was purchased in Nelson and, after the Community got the hang of it, a new modern facility was built at Brilliant. A brick works near Grand Forks produced building materials. On the prairies, there were grain elevators and flour mills. Excess was sold outside the community. The government buildings in Grand Forks and other places were built from Doukhobor bricks. K-C (Kootenay Columbia) jam was known for its high quality and demand always exceeded supply (about sixty railcars full each season). And, always, there was a supply of young men sent out of the community to work and bring back pay cheques. Between the B.C. and Sakatchewan settlements there were about 20000 Community Doukhobors by 1918.

Verigin put all the land holdings in his own name rather than that of the Community of Universal Christian Brotherhood, but this was simply because he did not trust any other kind of official arrangement. At one point, when relations with the province were difficult, the Attorney-General considered bringing various suits against the Community, only to discover that it had, officially, no assets. In 1917, Peter the Lordly took all the Community assets and formed a corporation to be run by a Board of Directors. Each director was given a portion of the stock issued by the corporation and signed, on the back, a declaration that the property actually belonged to the Community. By the end of the First World War, the Community probably held $7 Milion in assets but it also owed more than a million dollars to banks and other lenders. Verigin was recognized as a capable businessman and a good credit risk. Deficit financing had helped boost the Community’s fortunes, but it would later prove its downfall.

With prosperity, many Doukhobors drifted from the Community. The Society of Independent Doukhobors formed in Saskatchewan and there were others, on the prairie and in B.C., who were superficially Doukhobor but who weren’t too invested in the idea that Peter Lordly was the living Christ. Meanwhile, the Freedomite group in Saskatchewan still held occasional marches and prepared for the new Paradise that was immanent on Earth. Verigin worked hard to keep the various elements in hand.

Peter Veregin and Anastasia Golubova

Peter the Lordly had driven about the Sakatchewan community in a coach. He had worn a top hat and operated out of a grand house in Verigin. In B.C. he wore a  farmer’s overalls and went about in a simple buggy. Austerity was the message he was preaching to his followers. After the failure of Peter Verigin’s first wife to reconcile, he began introducing Anastasia Golubova as his wife. She was with Peter Lordly for twenty years and was highly respected by the other Doukhobors. Anastasia was one of three female directors on the corporation board.

The Community was now spread over a wide area, from Grand Forks, B.C. in the west to Verigin, Saskatchewan in the east. Further, it was cut up into small communities within its territory. The model community now consisted of two blocky two-story buildings that housed the families and a row of smaller structures behind the buildings that might include an oven, a bath house, an area for invalids and those recovering from illness, and so on. Downstairs in each building was a communal dining room and living space. Upstairs was divided into eight bedrooms separated by curtains. A family — husband, wife, small children — occupied each bedroom. Children reaching the age of ten or so were moved into another bedroom. At first there might be fifty people per house but with prosperity, that number shrank to thirty-five or a little less.

Remains of Doukhobor houses near Grand Forks.

Supplies were distributed on a regular basis from the Community store rooms. Food, clothing, tools, livestock and equipment, were doled out as people required. So, Peter Lordly decreed, no one needed money. Everything earned outside the community was supposed to be returned to it. There was no need for fripperies such as musical instruments, which many Doukhobors thought Satanic.

Noon meal for farm workers at Brilliant.

Community members got together in sobranie, meetings that were part religious, part political, part social in nature. Community problems might be discussed there and solutions sought. There was prayer and, above all, singing. Doukhobor hymns are atonal, droning music that is stirring and compelling. These hymns are the record of the Living Book, the Doukhobor’s history of their quest to realize the spirit within and bring it forth upon the Earth.

It may be thought that, with the formal contracts of loans in place, the ongoing trade with non-Doukhobors, and the formal corporate structure of the Community that these people had fitted themselves into the Canadian mosaic. But many non-Doukhobors disagreed. Small town small businessmen are often narrow-minded and when they organize, their minds are further compressed to an astonishing degree. So, the business communities of Grand Forks and Nelson decided that somehow the Doukhobors were costing them money. The English settlers in the area expressed a nativism so exclusive as to call themselves “white people” as contrasted with whatever color was assigned Doukhobor, Italian, and Irish folk in the region. (Doukhobors, at the same time, referred to most non-Doukhobors as “English”.) The small business and English factions were the main support for the Conservatives then in power in British Columbia and appealed to their government for assistance against the foreigners.

Attorney-General Bowser initiated a series of provocative gestures toward the Doukhobors beginnning in 1911, when he decreed that Doukhobor children must attend school. At first, the Doukhobors complied. They sent their children to schools in Grand Forks and built one themselves near Brilliant. Then Bowser tightened a different set of screws: in 1912 four Doukhobor men were charged with failure to properly register a death. They were given three months in jail. In retaliation the Doukhobors removed all their children from school. A large sobranie was held and it was decided that there would be no more registrations of any kind.

One has to wonder at the boneheaded attitudes of both parties. Over the years Doukhobor society adapted to a great deal of bureaucratic ways. The province usually met them half way. Results included the Doukhobor Marriage Act of 1959, which recognized these marriages and discreetly registered them, and the practice of swearing witnesses in court, whereby Doukhobors are presented not with a Bible but with bread and salt before which no self-respecting Doukhobor can lie. But there was no compromise in 1912.

The provincial government pulled back a little and established a Royal Commission to investigate. The commission was led by William Blakeman, a Nelson Conservative. Blakeman was surprisingly open-minded. He was impressed by the Doukhobors and by Peter Verigin:

He has fought before against persecution; he is fighting now against environment, and against the other disintegrating influences which have already made serious inroads on his Community, and which threaten to overwhelm it.

Blakemore’s report was very sympathetic to the Community. He said that they had not harmed the local economy, rather they had assisted it and tended to buy from local merchants. He went so far as to say that the merchants of Grand Forks were simply jealous of Doukhobor prosperity. Blakeman’s recommendations were that the province not pressure the Doukhobor people to comply with regulations, that patient persuasion should be brought on the leaders, that some Russian-speaking teachers be hired and the curriculum trimmed of aspects that upset the Doukhobors, such as the glorification of military might. This was all fine but then Blakeman destroyed the value of his report by saying that the Doukhobors should have their exemption from military service removed. That single addendum to his report tainted it in the eyes of all Doukhobors. Compromise was possible on fiddly issues of registration, children might go to school, but military service was completely out of the question.

Nor was Blakemore’s report welcome among non-Doukhobors. The Provincial Police arrested people for non-registration during the Report’s preparation and at least one man was brought up for trial in Nelson. After the Report was published police began opening Doukhobor graves looking for unregistered corpses and, in 1913, invaded avillage and attempted to seize people as witnesses. The women drove the police away, beating them with fence rails.

In 1914, Doukhobors sent a message to the provincial government saying that there would be 6000 nude marchers in the streets unless they were left alone. Peter the Lordly himself said the same thing publicly a short while later. At this time the Freedomites had only marched in Saskatchewan but Verigin had noticed the power of public nudity to disconcert Canadian authority and decided to use it as a threat. Shortly thereafter the B.C. government passed the Community Regulation Act, specifically aimed at Doukhobors, that required all residents to cooperate with the gathering of vital statistics. Immediately, there was an effort to use this against the Community but, since at this time all the property was in Verigin’s name, no fines or appropriation of property could be levied.

Suddenly, in 1915, the government and Verigin ceased their pissing match. Verigin agreed that the various registrations would proceed and that children would go to school. The B.C. government said they would be more understanding of Doukhobor ways. The Doukhobors built nine schools and sent children to the schools in Grand Forks. Verigin had an ambivalent attitude toward education: it was easier to maintain his authority while the Community had no other source of information or access to other ways of thinking; on the other hand, his own literacy had been very valuable to him and he could see future uses for educated Doukhobors. Even so, when at loggerheads with the government, he was perfectly willing to interrupt that education and use the school question to rally his people and defy the government. At these times, Doukhobor proclamations stated that education had no value unless it was practical and rooted in everyday economic activity. Further, it might be dangerous and lead to the exaltation of violence.

 The parties set aside the dispute because of the War. The Community issued a statement opposing war at the out break of hostilities. The statement included a list of actions to be taken that would eliminate the causes of the European conflict. Some of these, like a Slavic republic in East Europe, were actually carried out after the Treaty of Versailles. But others required that the great powers give up some of their aggressive activities and that just wasn’t going to happen. Otherwise, Verigin found the War useful as a threat to Independent Doukhobors who, he said, would soon face conscription. In fact, there was a single effort by local authorities to force a few young men to register for the draft and these were charged when they refused. The federal government intervened rather quickly though and restated its policy of no conscription for Doukhobors.

The provincial government was willing to leave the Doukhobors alone during wartime because they provided a valuable labor pool. Furthermore, the produce, timber, and other goods they produced were of great value to the country.

Prices were rising and the Doukhobors became richer because of the War, something that disturbed them. Verigin several times made various offers to help relieve suffering in a way that, he thought, would not directly useful to the military. A thousand dollars worth of K-C jam was donated to the Red Cross. There was an offer to supply all the labor necessary to plant and harvest a hundred acres of wheat to aid the starving. And so on.

After the War, things immediately turned nasty. Nelson businessmen incited a group of veterans to go to the Doukhobors and demand to be given land. The federal government intervened and stated that veterans had no right to appropriate others’ property. The chief constable at Greenwood reported:

…about two weeks ago I spent two days in Grand Forks going into the Doukhobor question, I discussed the matter with a number of the citizens, and opinion is widely divided, that is on a whole, some say that they are good settlers, on the second day that I was in Grand Forks a delegation waited upon me at the Police Office to discuss the matter from their standpoint, and they were unanimous on the point that the Doukhobors were no good as settlers, and that they were a disgrace to any community, the delegates tried to get me to pledge myself to assist them in getting the Doukhobors driven out, I was informed all about the nude parades, and also that some persons among others the Methodist parson I believe, had taken Photo’s of them in their nude condition. I did not commit myself one way or the other took a sort of neutral stand asked questions as to their views on a solution of the problem etc, they seemed to think that the Doukhobors should be forced to sell their holdings in the valley at a reasonable price, for the Government to start a returned soldiers settlement. I informed them that to expect the Government to attempt to force the Doukhobors to sell, in my opinion would be out of the question, as they had bought and paid for the land, and that the vendors had been only too pleased to take their money, and that their neighbours were still selling their lands to the Doukhobors.
They then suggested that, if the Doukhobors were forced to observe the School Act, and the Vital Statistics, that they would become disgusted and leave of their own accord, they stated that the Doukhobors were only sending a very small percentage of their boys and one girl to school and did not report any births and deaths. I informed them that I had been told that Peter Verigin had promised to supply the Government with the Vital Statistics, for the whole of their colony, and that if I was instructed to enforce the School Act with regard to the Doukhobors that I would do all that lay in my power to see that it was carried out.

Here it is made explicit that the intent of enforcing the various registrations was to drive the Doukhobors from their land. The constable noted that he saw no nude parades but that one woman was seen bathing nude in the river near a train trestle where the crews of passing trains might see her. He discounted this but did go on to say that it would be better if the Doukhobors were forced out.

In 1919, the provincial government took away the Doukhobors’ right to vote. It isn’t clear to me what this actually meant — the Community Doukhobors were not citizens and were unlikely to swear an oath that would make them so. There were a certain number of children born in Canada who would reach voting age in another year or two, but these were hardly significant. The law itself does not seem to apply to Doukhobors who had left the Community, although I suppose it might have been used in some places to keep them from voting. By and large, though, this seems a sop to anti-Doukhobor factions such as the business communities of Nelson and Grand Forks.

Peter Veregin and Mary Strelaeff who was killed with him in the explosion. Taken 1924 not long before Verigin's death.

1922 was a disastrous year for Doukhobor agriculture in both Saskatchewan and B.C. Discontent was expressed within the Community and all childrenwere withdrawn from school. This was probably a tactic to focus ill-feeling on a target other than the Doukhobor leadership. Provincial authorities charged and fined a number of Doukhobor parents. These fines continued to be levied and there was the threat that the government would seize Community property. In May, 1923 a Doukhobor schoolhouse was burned. Within the next two years, all of the Doukhobor schools were burned down. This was done on orders from the Community council.

It isn’t clear whether or not the council also ordered the burning of sawmills and other property that was destroyed, including Peter the Lordly’s own house, but burnings were now part of the Doukhobor repertoire.

In October, 1924, Peter the Lordly Verigin was murdered by a bomb placed in a train where he was a passenger. The case has never been solved. The explosion was from a bomb that was intended to go off when it did. Some have said that there might have been another person meant to be killed and that is a remote possibility. But Peter Verigin was a man who had many enemies. These include, among the Doukhobors: dissidents within his own Community, perhaps Freedomites; those who wanted to see his son, Peter Petrovich, replace him — there was a report of a recently-arrived Russian around the train, possibly an agent for the Kotelnikoff or other adherents of Peter Petrovich; a jilted lover or a man who had lost a girl to Verigin — he was travelling with a young woman, one of many who attended him over his life, when he died. Then there are the non-Doukhobors: Doukhobors themselves have accused the federal government or even the railroad of the bombing, but these seem unlikely; there were many in Grand Forks and Nelson who might have wished Verigin dead, and no shortage of folks who knew how to use dynamite; here it should be mentioned that, in a public meeting, a provincial government minister had argued with Verigin and said that he was better dead and this sentiment was stated by others who were not so prominent.

Anastasia Golubova

The death of Verigin was a massive blow to all Doukhobors, Community or not, and many mourned. Thousands attended his funeral. Verigin had named no successor, he had no children in Canada. Soon a party formed around Anastasia Golubova led by the Community officials. The other candidate was, of course, Peter Petrovich, still far away in Russia.

Six weeks after Verigin’s funeral, 4000 members of the Community gathered around his grave to select a new leader. Anasyasia Golubova stepped forward but only 500 or so acknowledged her. Then Peter Petrovich’s name was called out and all the rest of those present bowed their head. A committee was dispatched to Russia to fetch back Peter Petrovich.

[Part Four to follow]


The Doukhobors by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, out of print, but the best source by far.
“Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line” a website meant for classroom use, I believe, that contains a great deal of very good information not just on the death of Verigin but on Doukhobor difficulries in general.
Report of the Royal Commission on Matters Relating to the Sect of Doukhobors in the Province of British Columbia, by William Blakemore. This has not yet been digitized but can be located in several libraries.
The Doukhobors of Canada“, website by the Doukhobor Discovery Center, Castlegar

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4 comments on “The Doukhobors of B.C.,Part 3: British Columbia

  1. From: Blog Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff : The Doukhobors of B.C. — a 5-part history with errors
    The author follows Doukhobor history very well citing the Community Regulation Act as a discriminatory act against all Doukhobors. But later on he is in error by claiming that ‘burnings were now part of the Doukhobor repertoire’. False and slanderous, of course!

    He also suggests that Peter V. Verigin was killed on October 29th, 1924 by ‘a bomb’. However, that case is still unsolved for the explosion could have been caused by dynamite, pinch gas or something else. And there is even the possibility that business interests were involved by way of the Klu Klux Klan. Culpepper fails to mention this though he links to the Victoria website: Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line,.

  2. Edna Bowser says:

    These [and all?] Doukhobors have a very honorable stance towards war, and that they had a list of ways to end the conflict peacefully is reflective of modern “wars of choice” – of course we do not need to go to war!!

    It is the hallmark of civilised humanity to avoid war, the a gruesome river of blood that it is. Apparently, there be little civilsed humanity yet, except where people refuse conscription and refuse to fight. I applaud the Doukhobors of ages past and I hope their sentiments live on in the Kootenays. Certainly their spirit has attracted “draft dodgers” to our area, yet strengthening the peace movement here.

    It is a shamefull history of Government and “local small minds” to organise against such a peacefull community. I suppose there are also some areas of the Doukhobor historical philosophy that are left wanting, including that ages-old problem of leaders controlling the masses, using religion and education as tools against true freedom, and leaders being unable to resist the opportunity to amass great fortunes from the labours of the people under their control [unless all that money is used for community well being].

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