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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XLV - Immigration from South Eastern Europe


A Peculiar People—Origin of Doukhobor Sect—Peter Vericin— Petition to Alexandra—Evidences of the Severity of Doukhobor Persecutions — The Weapon-Burning of 1895 — The Immigration — Difficulties Regarding Land Regulations, Marriace Laws and Laws Regarding Vital Statistics—Petition of Protest—Liberal Attitude of Government—Pilcrimace of 1902—Arrival of Verigin—His Character—Uncontrollable Fanatics—Nudity Parades—Law Breakers Resort to Self-Starvation—Reduction of Doukhobor Land Grants—Dissatisfaction—Partial Emigration to British Columbia—-Treatment of Women—Education—Assistance Rendered by Quakers— General Establishment of Schools—Success and Failure of the Doukiiobor Colonization Enterprise—Rutiienians, Etc.

The first large party of Doukhobors to settle in Saskatchewan arrived in January, 1899. Ever since that date these peculiar people have been the object of so much public interest, sympathy, distrust and anxiety that the reader will probably welcome a somewhat lengthy discussion of their characteristics and of the problems growing out of their settlement in this country.

The Doukhobors ("Spirit Wrestlers") are a sect who call themselves "The Christian Community of the Universal Brotherhood." The sect is of obscure origin. It first attracted widespread attention of the authorities in the middle of the Eighteenth century, in certain Russian settlements north of the Black Sea. For politico-religious reasons the Doukhobor communities in the Crimean peninsula were broken up by the Russian authorities and their members scattered through the Caucasus between 1841 and 1844.

For many years their most distinguished leader has been Peter Verigin,' who, with his section of the Doukhobors, is a profound believer in internationalism, communism and vegetarianism, all of which are taken to he essential elements of Christianity. The first of these tenets involves the doctrine of non-resistance and was the special source of friction between the Spirit Wrestlers and the military authorities of Russia. It resulted in the banishment of Verigin and many of his disciples to Siberia. Nevertheless, the movement continued to grow and persecution became more general and severe.

As indicating the point of view of these unfortunate people, the following petition from Peter Verigin to Czarina Alexandra is of special interest:

"May the Lord God preserve thy soul in this life, as well as in the future age, Sister Alexandra.

"I, a servant of our Lord Jesus Christ, am living in the testimony and glad tidings of His truth. I am in exile since the year 1886, from the ^Spirit-Wrestlers' (Doukhobor) Community of Transcaucasia. The word 'Spirit-Wrestler' should be understood thus: that we see in the spirit and with our soul profess God (see, in the Gospel, the meeting of Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well).

"I implore thee, sister in Christ the Lord, Alexandra, pray thy husband Nicholas to spare the Spirit-Wrestlers in the Caucasus from persecution. It is to thee that I address myself, because I think thy heart is more turned towards the Lord God. And there are at this moment more women and children suffering; husbands and parents are confined in prisons, and families are dispersed in the native villages, where the authorities incite the population to behave coarsely with them. This falls especially heavy upon the Christian women. Lately they have been putting women and children into prisons.

"The fault on our part is that we, as far as it is possible to us, endeavour to become Christians. In regard to some of our actions, their understandings may not be sufficiently enlightened.

"Thou are probably acquainted with the teaching of vegetarianism; we are sharers in these humanitarian views. Lately we have ceased to use flesh as food, and to drink wine, and have forsaken much of that which leads to a dissipated life, and darkens the light of the human soul. Refusing to kill animals, we in no case regard it as possible to deprive men of life. If we were to kill an ordinary man, or even a robber, it would seem to us that we had decided to kill Christ.

"The state demands that our brethren should learn the use of the gun, in order to know well how to kill. The Christians do not agree to this; they are put into prisons, beaten and starved; the sisters and mothers are coarsely defiled as women, very often with railing exclamations: 'Where is your God?' 'Why does he not help you?' (Our God is in heaven and on earth and fulfills all His will.)

"This is sad, especially because it is all taking place in a Christian country. But our community in the Caucasus consists of about twenty thousand men. Is it possible that such a small number could injure the organism of the State, if soldiers were not recruited from among them? At the present moment they are recruited, but uselessly. Thirty men are in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion, where the authorities are only tormenting themselves by tormenting them.

"Man we regard as the temple of the living God, and we can in no case prepare ourselves to kill his, though for this we were to be threatened by death.

"The most convenient manner of dealing with us would be to establish us in one place where we might live and labor in peace. All State obligations in the form of taxes we would pay, only we cannot be soldiers.

"If the Government were to find it impossible to consent to this, then let it give us the right of emigration into one of the foreign countries. We would willingly go to England or ( which is most convenient) to America, where we have a great number of brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this petition may have had something to do with the ultimate grant of permission to the Doukhobors to leave the country, but until the very last their sufferings "for conscience sake" were extreme. So many of their men had been killed or banished that when these unfortunate people escaped from the land of their persecution, their women were in a majority of three to one as compared with the number of men. Indeed, the sufferings of the Spirit-Wrestlers had become so fearful that by common consent they concluded that it would be wrong to bring into the world more children to suffer such persecutions as they were enduring. This remarkable decision was given practical effect, a fact profoundly significant from the point of view of those desirous of judging the moral earnestness of this peculiar people.

The Doukhobors had that in their breast against which compulsion is of no avail. In 1895 a large number of the peasants gathered together all the weapons in their district and publicly burned them, thus signalizing in a dramatic manner their fixed determination never to give way before the forces of militarism.

Tolstoi now took up their cause and, with the active co-operation of numerous influential Quakers in Great Britain and America, funds were raised to assist a general emigration, leave for which was granted early in 1898. Mr. Aylmer Maude, with Prince Hilkof and two Doukhobor families visited Canada to negotiate and liberal terms were offered by the Canadian Immigration Authorities. In 1899 seven thousand three hundred and sixty-three of the brethren came to Canada, where they were welcomed with remarkable cordiality by the Minister of the Interior, his numerous officials and the public generally. Some five thousand five hundred settled in the vicinity of Yorkton,1 and the remainder in the neighborhood of Rosthern, where some two hundred and seventy thousand four hundred and eighty acres was set apart as Doukhobor reserves. Very soon after their arrival, however, they commenced to protest with great earnestness against the Canadian Land Laws and certain other regulations, which conflicted with what they conceived to be their religious rights and duties. Their views were set forth in the following petition, dated June 22, 1900:

"Petition to the Canadian Government from the delegates of the Society of Universal Brotherhood, near Yorkton, Assa.

"Before everything else, we must extend to you. from the communities which delegated us, their sincere and heartfelt thanks for opening the country which is governed by you to us, for your endeavours to help us to settle and for your interest in our welfare. We feel and express to you our great gratitude. But now, after becoming acquainted with the laws of your country, we are obliged to make another request, that you take into consideration our beliefs, which we consider to be the laws of God, and grant us the possibility to settle and live in your country without breaking those laws. You doubtless understand that we cannot break laws, as we believe them to embody the Truth of God, but we have found out that you have in force laws, the fulfillment of which will be a direct breaking of such Truth. Enumerating below what points in your laws do not correspond with our understanding of the Divine Truth, we ask you not to enforce against us such of your laws as contradict our beliefs, and thus give us the possibility of living in your country without breaking, openly or tacitly, directly or indirectly, our conception of the Truth.

"(1) The laws of your country require that every male emigrant, 18 years of age, who wants to settle on vacant government land, has to record it in his name, and, after a certain term, such land becomes his property. But we cannot accept such a law, cannot record homesteads in our individual names, cannot make them our private property, for we believe that in so doing we would break directly God's Truth. Who knows this Truth knows also that it opposes the acquisition of property. But if, through human weakness, a man may be forgiven for considering as his own anything which he has acquired by his labour, and which is necessary for his daily use, like clothing, food, or household goods and utensils, there is no excuse for a man who, knowing the law of God, still appropriates, as his own, something that is not the fruit of his labour, but was created by God for the use of everybody. Is not the division, the ownership and the recording of land the main cause of wars and strife among men, and is it not the cause of there being masters and serfs? The law of God commands men to live like brothers, without divisions, but in union for mutual help: but if a man cuts out and appropriates land for himself—land which he did not work to create—how is he going to divide with others the results of his own labour? And as every breaking of Divine Truth brings evil, so did evil creep among us when we thoughtlessly accepted land under your homestead laws. Already the division of land between our various settlements has caused quarrels about that land among us, quarrels unknown to us heretofore. And what will be the result if each one of us becomes the owner of a separate piece, and the land under our settlements becomes private property? It will prove a great, temptation to the strong, and fatal to the weak. Taking all the above into consideration, we petition you to let us have the land for settlement and agricultural purposes, but upon the conditions given to your Indians—that is. the land is to be held by the community, and not by individual members. It matters not to us whether the land be considered our community property, or the property of your country; but we would like it to be considered as given to us for an indefinite period of time, and if you wish us to pay rent we are willing to do so, provided we shall be able.

"(2) You have also a law in your country that everybody who wants to contract marriage, in order to make it legal, shall obtain a license, and pay two dollars for the same; and that a divorce can be obtained only in the courts; and if a person should remarry without a divorce so obtained he is liable to imprisonment for many years.

"We cannot accept such a law, for we believe that it also breaks the law of God. We cannot believe that a marriage can become legal because it is recorded in a police register and a fee of two dollars paid for it; on the contrary, we believe that such recording and payment annuls marriage and breaks up its real legality. We believe that the real legalization of a marriage union is when it is brought about freely as a result of a pure feeling of a mutual moral affection between man and woman. Only such a pure feeling of love, born of the mutual recognition of moral traits of character, creates a real legality of a marriage according to the law of God—not a record of the same in a police register and a money fee. Every marriage which has its source in this pure feeling of mutual love will be legal before God, although it were not registered and other people would not recognize its legality; and every marriage not the result of free will and pure love, but contracted unwillingly, or for lust, or money, or any other consideration, will be always illegal before God, although it should be registered in all the police records and considered legal by everybody. Therefore, we believe that legalization of the marriage bond belongs solely to God; and we cannot consent to transfer the legalization of our marriages from God to the police. As to divorce, we believe that every man who has divorced his wife is an adulterer, and forces her to become an adultress; and that every remarriage, or marrying a divorced man or woman, is also adultery. But we believe also that the law of God is the law of freedom, that an open sin is lighter than a secret one. and that if a marriage union is contracted otherwise than through a pure feeling of love, such a union is illegal from its beginning, and constitutes the sin of adultery; and that therefore when persons living in such an illegal union come to such a conclusion, and conceive the impossibility of making such a union legal, out of the two evils the lesser for them will be to divorce and to separate. And in such a case a divorce may become legal, if the heavenly Father will forgive the sin of the divorced parties, and so allow them to remarry with free consciences. As the forgiveness of God can be known only to two people concerned, no one, nor any human institution, can make a divorce legal or illegal, for they cannot be competent to know whether God forgave the sin of divorce or not. That can be known only to the consciences of the divorced themselves.

In consideration of the above, we cannot recognize as correct, and cannot accept any human laws as to the marriage union, being sure that all pertaining to it is in the province of God's will and human "conscience.

(3) There is another law in your country, which requires that every inhabitant shall give notice to the police of every birth and death in his family.

We cannot accept that law, for we see no need for it in the order of things prescribed by God. Our heavenly Father knows, without a police register, whom He sends into the world and whom He calls back. Only the will of God is important to humanity, for upon it depends our life and death, and not upon a police register. A man will live until he is called by his Creator, although he should not be recorded in a police register, and can die immediately after having been registered as living.

We do not refuse to answer, if called upon, about the number of births and deaths in our community. If anyone wants to know it, let him ask, but we will not, by ourselves, report it to anyone.

Having explained what in the laws of your country is irreconcilable with what we consider the Divine Truth, and which we cannot break, we once more petition the government of Canada to grant us exceptions concerning the use of lands, legality of marriage unions and registration, in order that we may live in Canada without breaking the Divine Truth as we understand it."

The attitude of the Canadian Government was exceedingly liberal. The authorities believed that, with patience, they could induce the peasants to acquiesce in Canadian institutions, and in the meantime the minimum compulsion was brought to bear upon them. Every possible latitude was allowed in connection with the land regulations. Indeed, the whole attitude of hostility, or distrust manifested by the Doukhobors was quite plainly the result of long and dreadful persecution. Their only relations with governments and government officials had ever been one of passive resistance to laws and regulations doing violence to their conscience. That the Canadian Government could really be their friends they could not comprehend. As one of the wiser members of their Order said in extenuation of their conduct, "A hunted hare fears every stump." Even as regards Doukhobor aversion to our marriage laws, the authorities felt that no severity was called for as yet, as those familiar with the sect agreed that real immorality was all but unknown among them.

A much more perplexing problem arose, however, when in 1902, a very large number of the Doukhobors in the colonies north of Yorkton became imbued with a notion that Jesus Christ was awaiting them somewhere and that they must go on a pilgrimage to meet him. After a march of thirty or forty miles to Yorkton, the authorities interfered to the extent of their detaining the women and children, one thousand and sixty in number. Some six hundred men and boys, however, marched eastward as far as Minnedosa, Manitoba, exposing themselves to the severities of a Saskatchewan November, sleeping on the snow-covered prairies and dependent for their food upon the charity of their amazed fellow-citizens. With a faith or credulity astonishing in the twentieth century, they were in momentary expectation of meeting their re-incarnated Saviour, who would lead them on to evangelize the world. On November 8th, the Canadian authorities took decisive action, and, though the party was already becoming disintegrated, it still numbered about four hundred and fifty. These were forcibly bundled into a special train and sent back to Yorkton and thence to their villages. A very large number of the Doukhobors had, of course, taken no part in the pilgrimage, and between them and their ultra-fanatical co-religionists serious dissentions arose.

All these troubles resulted, in part at least, from the lack of any recognised leadership among themselves. Partly, they were the result of the machinations of a few irresponsible busybodies. These troublemakers were possessed of an elementary education which, after their arrival in Canada, made them the spokesmen of their illiterate brethren and otherwise gave them a hitherto unknown importance. All this fostered foolish ambitions and in various ways these dangerous individuals proceeded to show their influence. In December, 1902, however, Peter Verigin, after fifteen years' exile in Siberia without trial, was at last released, and joined his people in Canada.

Verigin is admittedly a most perplexing character. In appearance he is tall and distinguished looking. His eyes are thoughtful and his manner is that of a brave and earnest man who has been tried by great suffering. As a theologian or philosopher he is impractical in the extreme, but as a business man he very soon demonstrated the possession of exceptional practical ability. He immediately set himself to the task of restoring harmony among the members of his disintegrated flock, and to guiding his people in such a direction as would lead to material prosperity.

Already a considerable number of the Doukhobors were showing a tendency to discard communism for individualism in the matter of real and personal property, and through Verigin's arrival checked this growth of individualism, in the Yorkton settlement especially, recent government reports indicate that by 1912 about thirty-five per centum of the members of the Brotherhood have broken away from communal conditions. It may be remarked in passing that their more orthodox brethren have not hesitated to punish this procedure by social and religious ostracism and the forfeiture of all share in the communal property.

Under Verigin's guidance and encouragement several grist mills and saw mills were set up. a considerable number of steam threshing outfits were purchased, and several hundred additional horses were placed .upon the farms. Owing to the communistic tenets of the sect, the property of the individual members of the community is practically all held in Verigin's name.

While Verigin's influence is most extraordinary, it is exercised without ostentation. Indeed, taught caution by their experience in Russia, the Doukhobors maintain the utmost secrecy as to how the affairs of their community are managed. They are careful never to implicate their leader when announcing their decisions.

Even Verigin, however, has not been able to restrain some of his fanatical followers from extraordinary acts of folly which have brought the whole Brotherhood into disrepute. A small number of the colonists decided among themselves that a restoration of the conditions existing in the Garden of Eden would require that the faithful should not only go abroad preaching their gospel through the world, but should discard their clothing— which was considered an outward visible sign of man's fall.

The first of these extraordinary nudity pilgrimages occurred in 1903. It was not quelled until twenty-six of the pilgrims had been taken into custody at Regina. Other such outbreaks of fanaticism occurred later, the last pilgrimage moving East in 1907. Some of this party advanced as far as Fort William, where eighty of them marched nude through the streets on New Year's Day. In considering these outbursts of religious mania it is only fair to remember that the overwhelming majority of the Doukhobors viewed them with the utmost disfavour, and while the handful of lunatics were causing so much perplexity to the police, the remaining thousands of the Doukhobors were soberly and industriously labouring for the general good, and doing much valuable work in the development of Saskatchewan.

Some of the members of the sect have always objected to the use of beasts of burden. On one occasion six of these fanatics decided to remove temptation from among their brethren by the destruction of machinery requiring horsepower. On Verigin's own instigation these deluded reformers were arrested and given two years in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary. This did not settle the matter, however. They argued that they were being sinfully detained in custody and that for them to do anything which would facilitate such detention would cast the moral responsibility upon themselves; consequently they decided to refrain from taking food in prison. So steadfastly did they stand by this amazing resolution that the authorities ultimately found it necessary to release them to prevent the whole party from dying of starvation. Indeed, they were already in such an emaciated condition at the time of their release that one of them died the following day. When people have the courage of their convictions developed to such an extent as this and yet recognize no authority except that of their own unenlightened consciences, they certainly present a difficult problem to those entrusted with the oversight of public affairs.

In 190S it became evident that a very large number of the Doukhobor sect would never fulfil the necessary homestead duties, and that indeed the territory reserved for this purpose had been unnecessarily great. The situation was investigated by a Government Commission and one thousand seven hundred quarter sections were cut off from their reserves and thrown open for general homestead purposes. Two years later rather than cancel the remaining Doukhobor holdings, in their entirety, for failure to take the oath of citizenship and otherwise to fulfil the land regulations, the Government decided to solve the problem by allotting fifteen acres for each man, woman and child. The rest of what had been the Doukhobor Reserves was then thrown open to public settlement on ordinary terms.

Meantime the dissatisfaction of those Doukhobors who still clung uncompromisingly to their communistic principles was increasing. They had been industrious and economical and were accumulating money very rapidly, but mere individual financial independence was not an end that to them seemed desirable.

Accordingly, on behalf of his brethren, Verigin purchased some ten thousand acres of fruit land at the junction of the Ivootenay and Columbia Rivers in British Columbia and a very large number of the Doukhobors moved from Saskatchewan to settle on this tract. There they established a thriving settlement with a number of important and remunerative industries. Even in British Columbia, however, they have not found themselves able to entirely ignore the authority of provincial laws, and at the time of writing, January, 1913, a general exodus is contemplated to Colorado.

A word must be said regarding their treatment of their women. The public are familiar with pictures showing Doukhobour women hitched to ploughs like oxen, and these portrayals of the manner of life have resulted in serious misconceptions. It has already been remarked that so many of the Doukhobor men had lost their liberty and even their lives in Russia for conscience sake, that their number in the Canadian Colonies were most disproportionately small. On their arrival in this country they were almost destitute of means, and as the quickest way to earn a little ready money, a very large proportion of the men temporarily left their colonies to work with railway construction gangs. In consequence, if the early crops were to be planted at all it was manifest that the work must be done chiefly by the women. Moreover, they had not nearly a sufficient number of horses and oxen for their agricultural needs. The women, therefore, took counsel together and determined to perform the task themselves. The reader will agree, therefore, that these scenes of women toiling in the fields like oxen reflect not discredit 011 the man, but glory upon the women, whose undaunted courage enabled them to meet a distressing crisis.

It is, of course, not to be understood that Doukhobor women are unaccustomed to manual labour in the fields. They, like most other European peasants, have never experienced and probably never desired any such definite division of labour between the sexes as is customary in Anglo-Saxon communities. Perhaps this has not been an unmixed disadvantage, if one may judge by the stalwart vigour characteristic of these peasant women.

The great majority of the Doukhobors, including practically all their women, were illiterate when they came to Canada, and serious difficulties have been met in connection with the establishment of schools among them. Suspicion and ignorance are congenial companions, and a totally unlettered community, the members of which believe themselves in exclusive possession of all knowledge of supreme importance regarding the duty and destiny of man, is not likely to assume with readiness the burden of maintaining public schools. Verigin, however, has expressed himself as favourable to obligatory elementary education.

The first schools in the Doukhobor communities were established and supported by the Society of Friends. Indeed, that Christian body has distinguished itself by the disinterested and self-sacrificing efforts of its members to assist the Doukhobors in every possible way. Miss Nellie Baker, Mrs. Elizabeth Yarney, Joseph S. Elkinton, and Joseph Elkinton. Jr., have been among those most active in guiding the spirit of Westlers along the pathway of Canadian citizenship.

Many districts which were formerly settled almost exclusively by Doukhobors now contain numerous settlers of other sects and races. In these localities and among the non-communal Doukhobors generally, schools have been established as in ordinary foreign communities. When the people are thought to be ready, an official school organizer is sent among them by the Department of Education, and during its early years a new school district in such a community is managed by an official trustee appointed by the Government.

Even if the community Doukhobors determine to withdraw from Canada it must not be forgotten that during their sojourn they have done much useful labour in the development of the resources of Saskatchewan and other provinces, and in connection with the building of railways. Real crime has been practically unknown among them. Indeed, not only are they free from the vices of indolence and intemperance, but they are also possessed in a marked degree of many substantial positive virtues. If they determine to remain in the land which has treated them with such patience and generosity, their sterling qualities will doubtless in course of time render them valuable citizens.

Though this chapter is devoted almost exclusively to the Doukhobor immigration, the reader must not forget that it accounts for but a small proportion of the sons of South Eastern Europe who are now dwelling in the Canadian West. Most numerous of all are the Ruthenians,—immigrants from the provinces of Galicia and Bukowina in Austria-Hungary. These people have done valuable service in railway construction and are extremely industrious. In the cities their violent passions and inordinate love of strong drink have made them unpopular with many, but they have substantial virtues and are achieving rapid material betterment. The Ruthenians are especially marked by the desire to become real Canadian citizens; and now that elementary schools are doing effective work among them the work of assimilation will proceed much more rapidly than heretofore. The chief Galician settlements in Saskatchewan lie north of the main line of the Canadian Northern and east of the Prince Albert branch. Scattered among them are many German-speaking settlers and a few French. Galician settlement in the vicinity of Rosthern commenced about 1897 and many of the pioneers are now wealthy.

The South Eastern European is so out of touch with the ideas and ideals that constitute the characteristic and most valuable elements in Anglo-Saxon civilization that the problem of assimilation is a serious one, but it is one that British America must face with kindness and resolution.


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