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Romantic Canada
Chapter XXIX The Doukhobors: a Community Race in Canada

IN the Russian Doukhobor settlements of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia, the Canadian West houses the Community-life of a curious religious sect. Through them it may be said that Canada is perhaps the only country in the world outside Russia having a very intimate living, human-interest acquaintance with the Slav on the land—the only country presenting an opportunity to study him in his daily life. And what pictures this life does make! Not even Old Russia has just such pictures, for although the Doukhobor is Russian the religion of these peasants in British Columbia gives them a certain distinction and grace of their own, shearing the elements of coarseness from even ordinarily coarse work. Indeed a rare dignity attends the individual Doukhobor as it attends the transaction of all work and all business involving the people of one "village" with those of another.

As religion is the foundation on which the very existence of these people is laid; as it was religion which brought them into existence as a separate people; as it was the source of all their difficulties with the government of the Czars, and as it was the immediate motive which brought them to Canada—"the Promised Land"—some twenty years ago, it is necessary here very briefly to touch upon the chief item of the Doukhobor Faith. And this can best be done by giving an example.

Romance seems to have reached idealism indeed when one of these peasants here on the uplands of a British Columbia valley meeting another on the highway, lifts his hat and makes a ceremonial bow—a bow arresting and almost Eastern in its slow dignity. The habitant of Quebec is hardly so solemn in making his obeisance to the roadside calvary. Yet these men are in a hurry, too. Work presses.

Questioning them as to this ceremonial greeting brought out the fact that the Doukhobor believes first of all that Jesus is actually a living presence, alive in every human being! All other articles of the Faith it appears are merely the natural sequence of this condition. One man bows to the Christ-spirit in the other, rather than to the man himself. He bows in reality exactly as the habitant, man or boy does—to the beautiful thing that is symbolized by the roadside Cross. Life is a Universal brotherhood, to the Doukhobor—hence the Community idea in which all share alike. Peasants often lay hold of many elemental facts and ideas of religion and holy things as to which other people are, for some reason, more timid. There is the world-famous example of the peasant rendering of the "Passion", at Oberamergau.

The Doukhobor talks about Jesus with the sweet simplicity of a child. A swift shade of surprise, as quickly gone, flits across the gentle face of any of them that you question as to how they get along without such institutions as poor-houses, old peoples' homes, asylums, jails, etc. They tell you the idea of "the Spirit of Jesus in all men", simply lived, prevents all the sins of the Decalogue and so renders these institutions unnecessary. For this reason, they explain, they object to military service because they believe that in killing a man they are killing Jesus. They go even further, claiming that even the taking of animal life for food is contrary to the spirit of God, and therefore sinful; so that they are vegetarian not because they think vegetables more wholesome, but because they know meat and fish can only be achieved by the destruction of a life. In this matter their belief is carried out to the letter. Some of the old folk even now find it difficult to kill flies. And it was only after a long time and many inroads on the precious grain that they could be induced to kill rats and gophers.

Legally the Doukhobors have now exchanged the name "Doukhobor" for a name in English. They call themselves in all business dealings "The Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood Ltd". "Doukhobor" is, strictly speaking, their religious name, only.

Neighbours however will always call them "The Douks." Brilliant, Grand Forks and Verigen, their three outstanding settlements, are worth in the neighbourhood of five million dollars; and approximately eight to ten thousand persons abide in these settlements,—the largest successful "Community" settlement in the world. Its success, as against many another attempt at Utopia that has failed, is undoubtedly due to the fact that it is founded on a basis of simple religious faith rather than either a colonization scheme or a business trust.

In the settlements, the houses are set up in groups of twos. Local wit aptly calls these "the twins". The Doukhobors themselves call these groups "villages". Each village contains any- where from thirty to fifty people who are apportioned a certain amount of land for culture. The women in these villages take a hand in all work, at home and in the fields.

Stepping through the big Russian gateway into one of the yards, or all of them, reveals an almost interminable series of tableaux of heroic significance. Women with sieves in hand play them, full of seed, millet, etc., above their heads as dancing-girls the tambourine, in an effort to scatter the chaff on the breeze. Under their feet tarpaulin is spread to receive the grain or the seeds. From some doorway an old woman appears, with a broom of dried twigs, and brushes up a circle or a corner whereon to lay a mat. Laying aside the broom, she disappears around some corner to return with voluminous apron stuffed with beans in the pod. Sitting down on the mat she begins to belabour the beans with a billet of wood. Thus the shelling is accomplished. Two women appear carrying a plank between them. Presently they come again with a tub of apples already cut, and these they carefully spread to dry on the plank already brought. A mother appears out of a door, plotok on her head, a cup in hand, and begins to feed from the cup a little boy, with bread-and-milk, in which there is a dash of mustard. Other women are picking over tomatoes on the porch-floor. The cook for the week appears in the doorway of the great community-kitchen, seeking a momentary rest for her eyes, so long centred on her pots and pans with their contents, in the life and scenes going on in the yard. In the sun an old grand- father warms himself as he amuses his old age with making wooden spoons. Over there, two boys with their heads together are making a pair of nut-crackers by hammering two long wire nails into shape. Everywhere, there are flowers.

When the tasks in the yard are completed the women repair to the fields; or, on other days the field work comes first.

Here is a group of women in a field of sunflowers, some passing from plant to plant plucking the seed-discs into their aprons and carrying them to a group of women and children sitting about a big mat. This scene resembles some religious festival, the women and girls with white plotoks on their heads and sticks in their hands beating, on the reverse side of the seed-plate and the seeds falling, like a rain, in a drift on the old tarpaulin.

Sunflowers seeds are the peanuts of this people, unaccustomed, as they are, to candy. Shy children met on the highways, overcoming their shyness, and falling into step by your side, offer you little handfuls of sunflower-seeds drawn from their stuffed pockets.

And when men or women go on long journeys afoot they always take with them a supply of these seeds to munch by the way. As one chats with the sunflower harvesters, the bright figures of the clover-seed gatherers flit in the upland-climbing clover fields; and among the leafy green on the mile-stretching orchards of plum, apple and peach are to be seen the carts, the pickers and the boxers all working together like bees in a hive.

Everywhere children accompany their elders, naturally imitating with their tiny fingers the tasks of the larger hand. Thus, quite easily, the children learn, and, learning, look upon work as pleasurable. A Doukhobor child is seldom or never told to do any especial task. They simply fall in, of their own accord. The Douks are very gentle with their children and a child is as free to speak, and is listened to with as much courtesy, as an elder. This applies in "church" as well as in the daily life.

The flowers growing everywhere in the dooryards and in every little pocket of soil here and there on the edges of the orchards and flanking the vegetable gardens, are explained, when one happens on the bee-hives in some sheltered nook of more or less every "village". The Doukhobors place honey on the market and it is a stand-by on the home tables.

The interior of the "twins" presents no fewer pictures than the yards and the fields. The kitchen and the living room occupy all of the ground-floor. The kitchen is always a large room. In the middle of it stands an enormous brick oven wherein are baked innumerable loaves of brown bread. These loaves are always round and, for size, put to shame the "big loaf" of Quebec. After the bread is done, the pans are lined with straw, and, filled with fruit, are replaced in the cavernous mouth till the oven is full. Thus pears and apples are dried for the home-table. The dining-table is a long board resembling a giant carpenter's bench and painted an art-red, standing across one end of the big room. Long benches serve the big table in lieu of chairs.

The chief stand-by on the Doukhobor menu, as seems to be the custom with peasants everywhere, is soup. In this respect one is carried back to the habitant table of Quebec. But here the soup is solely vegetable, fat being supplied by butter which makes this Russian borsch more delicate in flavour than la soupe of the habitant. Butter is the one Doukhobor extravagance.

Pancakes, with jam or honey, boiled millet-and-butter, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, big slices of the Russian brown bread, all sorts of vegetable pies, beets, carrots, cheese, little triangles blanketed in a pastry of millet or a mixture of brown flour and white, make up one of these vegetable meals, all being completed by unlimited draughts of Russian tea sweetened and flavoured with raspberry or black-currant jam. The women take turns at the cooking, a week at a time, and as there are usually six or seven women in each village, no woman is worn-out at the stove, but each has a six-week interval before the wheel of time brings her turn round again.

In this time her spare moments are filled with knitting, making rugs for her room, spinning and weaving, and embroidering her own or her children's plotoks or kerchiefs. The Doukhobor women are especially clever at all work of this kind, showing exquisite taste in the selection and blending of colours in their rugmaking. Occasionally one of the older women brings out to show you, a Turkish rug which she wove, in conjunction with a Turkish woman, at the time, when, by the Czar's decree they were banished to the wild parts of Southern Russia bordering on Turkey; in the hope, perhaps, that the Turks would put them to the sword. Instead, it seems the women of each side took to making rugs together.

In the threshing of straw into a fine powder, to help-out in feeding horses and cattle, a peculiar kind of instrument is used, consisting of a board, its under-side teethed with sharp stones. This instrument the Doukhobor men tell you they learned how to make from the Turkish men, so it is evident that the men of both sides fraternized, as well as the women. It seems strange indeed to happen on these things in Western Canada, until we remember that Romance knows no political or racial boundaries; that there is a great sisterhood in spinning and weaving, in embroidery, in rug-making, and in home-making everywhere.

No phase of this Community life is more Russian or Tolstoyan in appearance than the great threshing-floor, in the centre of the Settlement, at Brilliant, B.C.

The action of threshing is like that of a chariot-race, with the driver on board the drags, and the horses racing in pairs, one behind the other, round and round the large, circular earthen floor, in which the dust of the flying chaff arises and half conceals horse and driver, passing in a whirl. Ten minutes of this and the man in charge signals a halt. Each horse is then given a bucket of water and a new driver takes the place of the old. These drivers are usually mere boys, entering into the race with all a boy's excitement in the sport.

While the horses are resting, the older men come out with pitchforks made from forked branches cut in the woods, and shake up the chaff, the heavier wheat falling to the bottom. After the race has gone on for several hours or until all the grain has escaped from its tiny straw-sack, these men pitch the chaff to one side, and the wheat is swept up and carried off in the big carts, to store in the community-granary till it goes to mill.

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