On January 20, 1899, the first group of 2000 Doukhobors, members of an old Russian religious group, arrived at the Canadian port of Halifax. Pursued by the Tsarist regime, the Doukhobors were forced to leave Russia to find their new home in Canada with the help of prominent Russian writer and ardent supporter of the group Leo Tolstoy. Shortly after, 5000 more Doukhobors joined them.
The Doukhobor movement first appeared in Russia around 1740, quickly expanding in Central Russia and Ukraine. The group consisted mainly of Cossacks, who valued personal freedom and self-respect. The Doukhobor code stated that every person was a carrier of the Holy Spirit, thus equating man to God. A murder in the eyes of a Doukhobor was seen as blasphemy. Adamantly opposing church, rites, crosses and icons, they saw laws and government as a needless restraining measure for those who hadn’t yet discovered the truth. Not surprisingly, this group was resented and pursued by the authorities at all times, first under Catherine the Great and then under Paul I.
In 1801, Emperor Alexander I relocated the Doukhobors to the coast of the Sea of Azov, which they eventually turned into a thriving oasis. However, in 1841, the Doukhobors, suspected of planning a riot, were moved even further away, to Georgia. In 1887, when the Doukhobors refused to be recruited to the Army, they suffered another repression. Adamant adherents of pacifism, the Doukhobors went even further and asserted their creed on July 11, 1895, by organizing a mass incineration of the weapons as a protest against wars.
The government responded very harshly to such outrage. The members of the insurgence were severely punished as other repressions took place against the Doukhobors: they were put into prisons, tortured, killed, or starved to death, some were exiled to Siberia. It was then that Leo Tolstoy got involved in the fate of the persecuted folk. As part of his aid campaign he donated to the group all of his earnings from the novel “Resurrection”. Shortly after that, Tolstoy appealed to the British Consulate in the city of Batum, and suggested that the Doukhobors be relocated to the West of Canada, which they, being good farmers, could easily reclaim. In the May of 1898, the Doukhobors were allowed to leave Russia.
The first group of the Doukhobors arrived to Canada on January 20, 1899, followed by three more groups later, totaling 7000 people. Tolstoy’s assistant, Leopold Sulerzhitsky, who accompanied the groups to Canada, recalled how warm the reception of the Russians was by the inhabitants of the Saint John port:
“The Canadians were thickly lined up on the both sides of the way from the steamer to the train. When the first Doukhobor appeared on the stairway, the crowd went ecstatic. While he was walking to the train, they were waving at him with hands and hats, and yelling out cheers. The Doukhobor, bewildered by such an unthought-of reception, was bowing to both sides with a serious expression and kept saying ‘Praise the Lord!’ He must have been very relieved to finally get inside the fanciest train car with leather seats and bronze handles, comforted very cautiously by the clerk from the station… At the entrance to the train there were several bowls filled with candy – a treat from the ladies of Montreal to give to the little children and young girls.”
The work on the reclamation of the lands, however, was very laborious. The Doukhobors’ first winter in Canada was so harsh that many of them starved to death. The Doukhobor settlements were communities just like they had in Russia as they protested against private property. In the years of World War II the Doukhobors lent huge support to the Soviet people in their struggle against the Nazis. Their donations were used to provide the Soviets with medical care, clothes and food.
After a series of conflicts with the Canadian government, mostly about the status of land tenure– the Canadian government refused to recognize communities – the Doukhobors finally settled down, chiefly in the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Today, there are more than 30,000 Doukhobor descendants in Canada. However, more Doukhobor communities can still be found in the Caucasus and in the regions of the Central Russia.
Doukhobors today no longer live as a pure community – they allow mixed marriages and many of them work and study outside the community. However, they still uphold many of the Russian traditions and continue to practice crafts like knitting shawls with Russian patterns or cutlery, which are very much in demand in Canada.