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Manitoba History: The Doukhobor Settlers of the Swan River Valley

by Ella Thomson
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013

The following essay was the winner of the 2012 Dr. Edward C. Shaw Award in the Young Historians Competition sponsored by the Manitoba Historical Society. At that time, Ella Thomson was a student at Balmoral Hall.

The fascinating story of the Doukhobor pioneers, who settled in the Swan River Valley area, is mainly absent from the pages of Manitoba history. Most Manitobans are not aware of the role the Doukhobor people played in the early settlement of the Swan River Valley, and their contributions towards the success of the settlers in that area. People might not also be aware of the critical role the Doukhobor women played in the colonies. The women enjoyed freedoms and rights well before their counterparts in the rest of Canada. The Doukhobors need to be recognized for their contributions in early Manitoba immigration and settlement, as well as for setting the example towards the early women’s rights movements in Manitoba.

Postcard of Doukhobor settlers at Winnipeg, circa 1906.
Source: R. McInnes, WP1026

The Doukhobors were a group of people, native to Russia, with a distinct set of religious beliefs. They were pacifists who refused to enlist in the Russian army. They believed that God had a presence in every human being and they held their own worship services with their families and friends. On a social level, the Doukhobors believed in communalism (functioning as a community, be it through working or living together) and they spoke their own language. They were a group of people with beliefs that were different than those of mainstream Russian Orthodox society. Like many other groups throughout history who had different beliefs and customs, the Doukhobors were repeatedly persecuted in their homeland. They were prevented from openly practising their religion and were attacked and threatened by the ruling Czars.

The conditions of the Doukhobors did not improve until Lukeria Kalmakova, a female Doukhobor leader, came to power between 1836–1886. “Lukeria began what was to be the most peaceful and prosperous leadership in Doukhobor history.” [1] George Woodcock in his definitive history on the Doukhobors stated: “Lukeria Kalmakova took seriously the equality of women.” [2] However, upon her death, when Peter Veregin took over leadership, the Doukhobors once again experienced hardships.

Almost immediately upon his appointment, Veregin was captured by the Russian forces, who believed that his leadership was fragmenting the Doukhobor community. He spent the next sixteen years in exile. Without a leader amongst them, the Doukhobors knew that they could no longer call Russia home. “Constant persecution made escape from Russia their only option. The need to find a new home became evident by the mid-1890s.” [3]

Veregin’s exile proved to be beneficial to the Doukhobors. During that time, he became acquainted with the writings of the famous philosopher and author Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy shared similar beliefs with the Doukhobors and upon learning of their hardships, made it his mission to find them a new home where they could freely practise their religion and communal lifestyle. With Tolstoy’s support, the search for a Doukhobor homeland got underway.

Tolstoy’s representatives considered several options for a new homeland. The Canadian Prairies were eventually considered the best choice due to the similarity of climate and landscape to that of Russia. At the same time, Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, wanted to settle the West. He was willing to allow the Doukhobors to freely practise their religion and communal lifestyle. Perhaps the most important factor considered by Tolstoy’s representatives was the Mennonites’ successful experience on the prairies. The Mennonites arrived in Manitoba in 1874 and were granted the right to live in community villages rather than on individual homesteads. Through negotiations with the Canadian government, land was put aside for the Doukhobors in what was then called the North-Western Territory. The Doukhobors would be allowed to live communally, refrain from military service and freely practise their own religion.

In 1899 more than seven thousand Doukhobors emigrated from Russia and settled in the North-Western Territories of Canada. [4] Of this group, 2,400 settled on 69,000 acres of land, in an area that was known as the Swan River Colony (sometimes referred to as the North Colony or the Thunder Hill Colony). The Doukhobors were welcomed into Manitoba with open arms by the government officials, and were safely housed in immigration halls. They appreciated the aid that the Canadians gave them.

The group of Doukhobors who were to settle in the Swan River Colony went by train as far as Cowan, Manitoba, and then used wagons or walked on the new Cowan Trail, over the Duck Mountains, in the spring of 1899. Once they crossed the Duck Mountains, the Doukhobors, like all other settlers, stopped in “Tent Town” (now Minitonas) to check in at the land office and receive instructions as to the location of their land. The non-Doukhobor settlers in Tent Town were surprised and anxious with the arrival of the 2,400 unusual people in their small community. They were worried about the impact that these strangers would have on their small and mostly English-speaking community. However, by 1902, most non-Doukhobor settlers of the area could see the value of having the Doukhobors as neighbours.

Map of Manitoba and the North West Territories, Spring 1899, showing points mentioned in the text.

All the land assigned to the Doukhobors was located just west of the Manitoba border inside the North-Western Territories. This area became Saskatchewan after 1905. All thirteen villages in the Swan River Valley were in the vicinity of Thunder hill. That was an excellent location as it was west of, and very close to the villages of Swan River and Benito in Manitoba. This location put the Doukhobors within the economic sphere of those two villages. The geographic closeness of the Doukhobors to Manitoban communities allowed them to have a large impact on settlements in this province.

While living in Russia, the Doukhobors had acquired the skills required to operate a farm successfully. They knew how to make harnesses from raw leather and iron. Their blacksmiths knew how to forge implements including spades and shovels. The colony’s skilled workers also included carpenters, weavers, tailors and masons. The women were also known for being skilled seamstresses with experience doing needlework. These skills enabled them to build a good life for themselves and were also of great benefi t to the residents of the Swan River Valley. Within three years they were able to clear and plant 5,540 acres of land, a miraculous feat. [5] The Doukhobors were determined and able to build a good life for themselves in their new country.

During the first two years of life in the colony, the Doukhobors received much needed financial support from several humanitarian organizations and from the Canadian government. This fi nancial support, allowed them to successfully establish the colony, and helped them accumulate the resources to take on projects, such as constructing badly needed infrastructure including the flourmill and the brick factory. To supplement that income, most of the Doukhobor men, approximately 1000 of them, found work grading the railway bed in preparation for the laying of the track. [6] By 1905 the experience they gained while working with the railway engineers gave them the expertise to take on a large contract building 17 miles of grade for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. They were very skilled and very hard working. In 1906 a Manitoba Morning Free Press reporter visited the men on the job near St. Lazare, Manitoba and reported that, “ to say the Doukhobors are good road builders is putting it mildly. They are simply experts.” The high quality of their work not only benefitted their immediate community, but also helped other regions of the Prairies. The railway was essential for the development of Canada as a country. The Doukhobors contributed to the prairie component of this massive project and deserve to be recognized for their efforts.

It was not until 1902 that the Doukhobor leader, Peter Veregin, arrived in the Swan River Colony. He immediately took on the management of the colony’s business affairs and gave the community a legal system. It was then that the Doukhobors began taking on larger projects. Being resourceful and realizing that the clay in the Swan River area was suitable, they proceeded to build a brick factory in 1903. [7] It was a large operation that required 25 people to run. The availability of the bricks enhanced life for the Swan River residents. It helped them design and develop stronger and sturdier buildings. Some of these buildings are still standing to this day.

Another major project that benefitted all the settlers of the area was the flourmill built in 1904. [8] Wheat was a major crop in the Swan River Valley. Without the availability of a flourmill nearby, the wheat was processed elsewhere. Being successful farmers, the Doukhobors recognized the importance of having an accessible mill. They proceeded to build an efficient mill powered by a steam tractor in the village of Voznesenie, the colony’s headquarters, two miles west of what is now the town of Benito. The two-storey mill was able to meet the needs of the colony and the other local farmers. The Doukhobors believed in shared communal living and because of that they permitted all farmers in the region access to the mill. This allowed the farmers to progress forward and become more successful. This would not have been possible without the dedication shown by the Doukhobor community.

With the financial leadership of Peter Veregin, the colony was able to purchase farming machinery. This industrialized their farming strategy by 1905 and allowed them to clear and plough the land more efficiently, and to thrash larger fields of grain. This efficient farm machinery came to benefit their neighbours as well, seeing as the Doukhobors leased out their equipment, farming skills and time. This helped their neighbours to succeed as well and fostered a better relationship between the settlers. Many accounts describe the efficient help that the Doukhobors offered their neighbours.

Among the accounts is a letter written by A. J. Cotton and published in the book The Wheat King. Cotton was a member of the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame and a community leader who settled in the Valley in 1899. In a letter to a friend, Cotton writes: “ I had three Doukhobors hired all summer. They were fine fellows. They gave entire satisfaction and always do their work for the interest of the farmer.” [9] Cotton was not alone in his high opinion of the Doukhobors. In his book Between The Hills, F. A. Twilley, a well known Swan River valley historian, further emphasizes the fundamental role the Doukhobors played in the Valley. He wrote: “The advent of the Doukhobors to the district was a god sent.” [10] Charlie Banks, who arrived in the Swan River Valley in June, 1898 lived on a homestead a few miles from many of the Doukhobor villages. In later years, Banks wrote to his friend of his experiences in the Swan River Valley. He wrote: “ few who are living know about this sect as I do. They were very good to me and I had hundreds of friends in the colony including Peter Veregin.” His letter goes on to explain what he thought of the overpublicized photograph of Doukhobor women ploughing. He says, “ as you can see the women are dressed in their Sunday best. I can assure you they never moved the plough an inch that day. It was perhaps done to enable sympathy towards the sect.” [11] Whatever the reason, Banks believed it was done for public relations.

The photo, which the women so innocently posed for in the fall of 1899, became a cultural icon used extensively by journalists in newspapers across Canada for many years. Generally, an article was written either to gain public support for the Doukhobors or to demonstrate the idea that their unusual actions and beliefs made them unsuitable as Canadian citizens. In the early years, Canadians were divided in their opinion of the new immigrants and the press reflected this division.

When the Doukhobors arrived in Canada in 1899, feminist beliefs and women’s freedoms and rights were almost unheard of. Men ruled the Western world, and women were the homemakers. At that, women did not have a vote, and men held the vast majority of jobs. Women were not considered to play important or fundamental roles in their communities. The Doukhobors believed otherwise. They believed that God resided equally in each individual (both men and women) and therefore believed that everyone was equal. Their religious beliefs shaped the Doukhobor culture, and ensured that women were treated as equals to their male counterparts. Beginning with the brilliant leadership of Kalmakova back in Russia, the Doukhobor women were brought up with the belief that women are expected to take on leadership roles. Once settled in the area that was to be their colony, the women took it upon themselves to clear the land and build their first homes. When the Doukhobors settled in the Swan River Colony, they needed to make a living immediately. All the able Doukhobor men sought work outside the colony. The land was not cleared at the time of their arrival and while the men were away at work, the women took charge to clear and plough the land. In the first couple of years very few horses were available, so “24 women hitched themselves to the plow and pulled”, with an elderly Doukhobor man holding and guiding the plough. [12]

Postcard of Doukhobor women pulling a plow, circa 1908.
Source: R. McInnes, SK0092

This is the image that most people think of when reading about the Doukhobors. One of descendants of these women, Laura Veregin (no relation to leader Peter Veregin), tells of the pride the women felt at their ability to pull the plough and clear the land. [13] So much so that they posed for the press not knowing that the photograph would be used to demean and shame them. The men did not force the women to plough the land. The women did it willingly and for the good of the community. They were proud that they were capable of such hard and productive work, and of their contributions to the community. Perhaps what makes their contributions even more meaningful is the fact that the men respected them in their endeavours. The Doukhobor men recognized that had it not been for the involvement of the women in the community, and had the women not cleared and ploughed the land, their farming communities would not have succeeded. The Doukhobor men were among the first in Canada to understand the need, and to accept the equality between men and women. The largest Doukhobor organization in existence—The Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ—believed communal living to be especially beneficial to the women as it gave them freedom and equality in their communities. The husbands were not in control of the family finances and if the women were left on their own (due to death or divorce), their well-being was looked after by the community. In 1910 Jean Blewett, a feminist writer for Collier’s Weekly magazine, visited a Doukhobor village and reported, “The Doukhobor woman is eligible to membership to the council which is a parliament of the people for the people.” [14] It was Peter Veregin who assigned to women a place on the council. He said “Our women work as hard for the community as we, are equally interested in its welfare and prosperity. Why should they not have a voice in the council?” In her book A Reconstructed World: A Feminist Biography of Gertrude Richardson, Barbara Roberts paraphrased the words of Gertrude Richardson in the Midland Free Press. Gertrude Richardson, was an early settler of the Swan River Valley, and in 1911 wrote an article for the Midland Free Press in which she admired the gender equality she saw amongst the Doukhobors. She was the co-founder of one of the earliest suffrage groups in Manitoba and she was influential in the women’s peace movements in both Canada and England. [15]

The Doukhobors had a major impact on life in the Swan River Valley and across the prairies. Their contributions accelerated the growth and development of the entire area. However, because the Doukhobors had different religious beliefs and their communities were run differently from most Canadian communities, many of them were faced with unbeatable challenges in their new homeland.

The beginning of the demise of the Doukhobor colonies began with the appointment of Frank Oliver as the new Minister of the Interior in 1905. [16] In his role as the previous Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton was known for his dedication to settling the Canadian West at any cost. However, Frank Oliver did not share the same beliefs in regards to how the settlement of the West should be accomplished. He did not believe that it was just to give special privileges to the Doukhobors, and did not approve of their customs, traditions or way of life. As a result he declared that Sifton’s arrangement with the Doukhobors no longer applied and that the Dominion Act, which applied to all individual settlers, be followed by the Doukhobors as well. In order to save their hard-earned farms, Peter Veregin recommended to his followers to become British citizens. Veregin’s recommendation was not well received by all of the Doukhobors in the colony.

When Veregin realized that most of his followers wished to continue to live the communal life, he took money from the various villages and bought land in British Columbia in 1907. By doing so, the Doukhobors who wished could move to BC and pursue their lifestyle on privately owned land. Some of the Doukhobors were more than willing to end communal living. Supported by the government, they were able to own their own land, plant their own crops and reap their own profit. Largely, the Doukhobors who chose to become independent farmers or pursue a different path, were happy with their decision. The Doukhobor colony was dissolved in 1917–1918, and Laura Veregin, one of the present leaders of the Benito Doukhobor society says there are currently only fifty descendants living in the Swan River Valley. Most Doukhobors moved to British Columbia to continue to live communally on the land purchased by Peter Veregin. Here they formed the Christian Community of the Universal Brotherhood.

Regardless of the fact that the Swan River Doukhobor Colony did not survive, the contributions the Doukhobors made to the prairies should not be ignored. The Doukhobors changed the face of the Valley and must be recognized for their efforts. They need to be recognized as important players in the early settlement of the Prairies. The women must be recognized for the example they set towards achieving gender equality. The Doukhobors helped to build the infrastructure of the Swan River Valley. In Canada, it is all too often that we view the French and English as the only two founding groups of our country. However, we cannot and must not forget the contributions, both large and small, of others groups that settled within our borders. The Doukhobors need to be recognized as important contributors to early Manitoba immigration and settlement as well as the role they played in the women’s rights movement.

Charles W. Banks, who arrived in the Swan River Valley in June 1898, would recall in a letter many years later that the Doukhobors “were very good to me and I had hundreds of friends in the colony including Peter Veregin.” Banks viewed the widely circulated photographs of Doukhobor women pulling plows as publicity stunts.
Source: L. Banks

Notes

1. Maude, Almyer. A Peculiar People, The Doukhobors, London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1905, p. 150.

2. Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumovic. The Doukhobors, Toronto/ New York: Oxford University Press., 1968, p. 69.

3. Adelman, Jeremy. “Early Doukhobor Experience on the Canadian Prairies.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 25(4), p. 1 (1990-1991).

4. Adelman, ibid.

5. Blow, E. H. “Visit to the Doukhobors.” Manitoba Free Press, 26 September 1902, p. 1.

6. “How Doukhobors Build Railways.” Manitoba Free Press, 27 June 1906. p. 2.

7. Kalmakoff, Jonathon, 1999–2012, “Doukhobor Historical Maps”, accessed at Doukhobor Genealogy website: www.doukhobor.org.

8. E. H. Blow, op. cit., p. 3.

9. Owen, Wendy, ed., The Wheat King: Selected Letters and Papers of A. J. Cotton, 1888–1913, Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1985, p. 131.

10. Twilley, F. A., Between the Hills: Life in the Swan River Valley 1787– 1958, Swan River: self-published, nd, p. 67.

11. Letter from Charles W. Banks to Fred A. Twilley, 8 March 1963, p. 3. Privately held by Leone Banks, a granddaughter of Charles Banks.

12. Sulerzhitsky, L.A., To America with the Doukhobors, English Edition. Regina: University of Regina, 1982.

13. Veregin, Laura (active member of the Benito Doukhobor Society), telephone interview, 10 March 2012.

14. Blewett, Jean, “The Doukhobor Woman.” Collier’s Weekly 1910, p. 7.

15. Roberts, Barbara, A Reconstructed World: A Feminist Biography of Gertrude Richardson, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, p. 88.

16. “Forging our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada, www.cic.gc.ca/ english/resources/publications/legacy/chap-6a.asp

Page revised: 7 January 2018

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