From Russia with love, the Doukhobors set sail

| December 1, 2010 | 0 Comments
A statue of Leo Tolstoy at B.C.’s Doukhobor Discovery Centre

A statue of Leo Tolstoy at B.C.’s Doukhobor Discovery Centre

Bewildered spectators watched as 700 men, women and children trudged through the port city of Batum, Russia, in pairs, carrying boards on their shoulders. It was December 1898 and they were volunteers from a large group of Doukhobors preparing for the largest single migration across the Atlantic to North America. They were bound for Canada in search of a better life.
Before sailing, the immigrants prepared the ship, which was intended to carry freight and livestock, by building bunks in the hold from the lumber they carried across the city and by loading it with a month’s supplies for 2,140 people. Nearly 200 more stowed away. On Jan. 20, 1899, when they reached Halifax, 2,300 Doukhobors disembarked and were welcomed by James A. Smart, deputy minister of the interior.
The Doukhobors emerged as an organized movement in the 18th Century. They renounced the Russian Orthodox Church and its ritual of worshiping icons, hence their original name “Ikono-bortsi” (icon wrestlers). In 1785, Archbishop Ambrosius called them “Doukho-bortsi” — spirit wrestlers — implying they struggled against the Spirit of God. The dissidents adopted the name, declaring that they “wrestle with and for the Spirit of God” against evil.
Doukhobors based their religion on two commandments, to recognize and love God and to love one’s neighbour. Believing that killing animals assaulted human sensibilities, they resolved not to consume animal flesh. They rejected alcohol and tobacco as well as violence and militarism. Ironically, their stand against killing was not favoured by church authorities. The Czarist State did not favour it either. When 7,000 Doukhobor soldiers protested by destroying their weapons in 1895, the defiant act led to exile and persecution.
The Doukhobors’ plight received international attention. Leo Tolstoy, American Quakers and many Canadians helped the Doukhobors immigrate to the territories of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan, where they were promised 65 hectares of free land each. They were invited by Clifford Sifton, minister of the interior, because they were successful farmers and the prairies wanted settling. The Russian government encouraged them to leave.
Upon arrival in Halifax, a large crowd, curious to see the “new pilgrim fathers,” met the Doukhobors. From Halifax, they sailed up the Bay of Fundy to St. John (now Saint John), N.B., the eastern terminal of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had been contracted to carry the immigrants west. At stops along the way, women’s groups gave the children apples, oranges and sweets. A Montreal committee gave them heavy clothing to ward off the prairie cold and in Winnipeg a committee escorted them to reception centres to prepare for settlement. By June, 7,500 Doukhobors had settled on the prairies in three communal blocs, eventually establishing 61 villages in what is now Saskatchewan.
The Doukhobors’ warm reception was not unanimous. Opponents of Sifton’s plan expressed reservations, largely motivated by fear of the unknown. No one knew these Russian peasants who refused military service, rejected the church, lived and worked in communal colonies and spoke no English. They were different, not of the preferred British, French or German stock, and therefore, to many, inferior, lacking the qualities that make good Canadians.
Objections were raised in newspapers and political speeches. If there were a war, Canadian soldiers would have to fight “in defence of the favoured foreigner.” It was better “to distribute them in small groups throughout the country so they could easily assimilate” and Canada could “break up as far as possible (their) herding proclivities.”
However, 19th-Century Canada’s great needs were population and the opening of the West to agriculture. Within six years of the Doukhobors’ arrival, Sifton’s plan saw a fivefold increase in the prairie population, and the new Canadians were meeting the challenges of cultivating the prairies.

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is the associate editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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Category: Delights

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Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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