Doukhobor Immigration: The Potato Dilemma
Victor O. Buyniak
In the months prior to the Doukhobors'
arrival in Canada in 1898-1899, the Immigration Branch of the Department of
the Interior worked ceaselessly to coordinate the necessary arrangements for
their settlement. The following article by Victor O. Buyniak,
reproduced by permission from Saskatchewan History (38, 1985, No. 2) deals
with one aspect of the settlement arrangements: the exigency of providing
foodstuffs, namely potatoes, for the vegetarian settlers arriving in large
numbers on the Prairies in winter. It documents the many tasks in
which immigration officials were engaged as they worked with Doukhobor
organizers and the need for cooperative effort over very long distances.
It also reflects the inner workings of a government department which played
a pivotal role in the opening of the West.
The 1890's was a decade of accelerated settlement of the Canadian North-West
by new immigrants arriving in groups or on an individual basis. Many came
from Eastern Europe. The mass migration of the Doukhobors occurred at the
very end of the decade. Plans to transport and settle some 7,500 Doukhobors
on the Prairies were finalized in 1898. The very first train carrying
Doukhobor settlers was expected in Winnipeg late in 1898 or early in 1899.
In preparation for their arrival, provisions had to be purchased and stored.
Since the Doukhobors were vegetarians, most of the provisions were from
field, garden and orchard produce. A very sizeable amount of potatoes had to
be obtained and stored to last the new immigrants over the first winter and
spring, including reserves for spring planting.
This paper deals with the problems encountered by Canadian officials on
various levels and in various localities whose duty it was to buy potatoes
beforehand at the lowest price and to arrange for their transport to future
central points of Doukhobor settlement. They were also responsible for safe
storage of the potatoes during the winter of 1898-99. In those years the
process of obtaining, transporting and storing vegetables was much more
complicated than it is now. An additional factor made the whole procedure
even more difficult to carry out: the officials did not yet know for sure in
which regions of the North-West Territories the Doukhobors would eventually
settle. Yet sufficient stocks of provisions, situated in places easily
accessible to the new immigrants, meant the physical well-being, if not the
very survival, of the settlers during their first winter on the prairies.
The story is reconstructed in chronological order from correspondence in the
records of the Immigration Branch of the Department of the Interior of
Canada, (Volume 183, file 65101, part 1, 1898) available on microfilm at the
As early as 5 October, 1898, Aylmer Maude, an English Tolstoyan and friend
of the Doukhobors, who headed a Doukhobor delegation during the preceding
and fall to visit and select the localities for their future settlement in
Canada, raised the matter of food supplies in a letter to the Honourable
Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior.
|May I further request you to give
instructions to the Immigration Department, as soon as the
location for the Doukhobors is definitely settled, to buy such a
stock of potatoes, other vegetables & rye flour as will be
required to feed 2000 people through the winter. We will pay for
these things but we have neither the organization nor the
information to enable us to procure them in good time and at the
Doukhobor group in
Russia, just before emigrating. British Columbia Archives D-01139.
James A. Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior wrote William F. McCreary,
the Commissioner of Immigration, who was then located in Winnipeg, on 8
October, 1898, regarding the expected arrival of the Doukhobors and the
purchasing of food supplies.
Some time ago you wrote me with reference to the purchase of vegetables in
view of the likelihood of the Doukhobors emigrating to Canada before the
winter, and in answer to this I advised you to purchase in the meantime a
considerable quantity, leaving the quantity to your judgment.
I now have to say that since arrangements have been made with Mr. Maude he
has written me asking that the Department should arrange for a stock of
vegetables and rye flour to be purchased, such a quantity as would feed say
2,000 people during the winter. Mr. Maude agrees to pay whatever this supply
costs, but I am very anxious that you should purchase the potatoes, as well
as other supplies required, at the very lowest possible price, as I promised
Mr. Maude we would assist him in this matter. It may be possible that you
can purchase some of these at Brandon and also at Regina and other points
where they should be stored in the meantime, but I think it well to at once
arrange as these supplies will certainly be needed. As I have already
intimated to you some 2,200 of these people are likely to leave Batoum, on
the Black Sea, for Winnipeg in a few days so that we may expect them to
arrive about the middle of November. It will therefore be necessary to
arrange about the vegetables at once, but as to the rye flour I think they
can arrange that themselves just as well later on.
In the meantime there arose a likelihood of a second transport of some 2,000
Doukhobors arriving in the west that same winter. In addition to making the
necessary travel accommodation and settlement arrangements for this group,
Smart and his officials were responsible for supplying them with food
provisions. Regarding this second transport, Smart wrote Maude on 11
It appears to me to be very important that you should be fully advised
before leaving as to whether sufficient quantities of vegetables have been
purchased to meet the requirements of these people. I do not know whether it
is your intention to return to Winnipeg or not… I have sent full
instructions to Mr. McCreary in consequence of your request that the
officers of the Department should proceed to purchase supplies, so that
purchases will be made in this connection at Winnipeg, Brandon and Regina.
On 14 October, 1898, McCreary notified Smart from Winnipeg with regard to
the arrangements being made in view of the possible arrival of this
additional group of Doukhobors:
Some time ago potatoes could have been secured more cheaply but owing to the
very heavy rains a great many of them have been lost, and difficulty is
going to be experienced in getting the others out of the ground as the
ground is so wet and it is costing from four to six cents a bushel to dig
them and put them on the ground. I also believe as there is quite a
scarcity, potatoes will be dear later on, and especially so next spring, so
that these people ought to secure sufficient vegetables now and have them
stored to last them as food till next July, and sufficient for seed next
There is further correspondence regarding the matter of purchasing potatoes
for the Doukhobors as McCreary wrote to Smart on 21 October, 1898:
I made strong endeavours to purchase potatoes here: secured one load at 32 ˝
and one at 30 cents, but there was so much mud attached to them and they
were so wet that I felt that they would not keep. Then again, the price
commenced to run up, and this morning I cannot buy at less than 45. Quite a
large quantity of potatoes here will never be taken out of the ground - in
fact, one man who had agreed to let me have a thousand bushels at 35, but on
going to his field found five inches of water over his potatoes—so he gave
However, I have now made arrangements with two men, one James Flanaghan to
purchase me potatoes at Portage la Prairie and McGregor at 30 cents, and
another, Pace, to purchase them at that point at 28.1 have got half rate on
these from the C.P.R. from these points to Winnipeg, and will make
arrangements here for storing them, so that they can be shipped to any
point, if necessary. I shall probably get five cars, about three thousand
bushels, from these two sources.
I wrote Braun to try and purchase two or three thousand bushels at Brandon.
He says they can be got there for 25 cents, but I rather imagine the
quantity is limited. However, I intend running up there next week to look
over the shed and the accommodations for cooking and will discuss the
purchase of vegetables with him at that time. In the meantime, his
instructions are to go on and purchase two or three thousand bushels at 25
cents, if he can get them, and put them in the Post Office cellar, and any
other place he can get.
There is no money lost in purchasing potatoes at this price, as I am quite
willing, if the Government will allow me, to take them off their hands at
these figures, in fact, I could turn them over today and make money. The
great point to be considered however is to get them in such places as they
will keep till next spring, because there is no doubt that potatoes will
then reach to $1 to $1.50 per bushel, and other vegetables in proportion.
What quantity of potatoes do you think should be purchased for food for
these people till, say, next August, with sufficient for seed for the entire
colony? ... I was thinking it would require about ten thousand bushels for
food and about six hundred to a thousand for seed. The latter would have to
be kept in some cool place till next June.
Doukhobor women baking
bread in outdoor ovens. British Columbia Archives E-07248.
Commissioner McCreary informed his superior Frank Pedley, Superintendent of
Immigration on 4 November 1898 that it was possible to arrange with the
Canadian Pacific Railway officials to transport the vegetables at half price
but he could not make the same arrangements with another company. Writing to
Pedley again on 16 November 1898 he outlined developments.
You are probably aware that I was instructed to buy a large quantity of
vegetables for the Doukhobortsi who, as I was informed, would arrive here
about the 15th November. I have already purchased between eight and ten
thousand bushels of potatoes at Winnipeg, Brandon, Portage la Prairie,
Yorkton and Dauphin . . . also about 15 tons of cabbage. These potatoes
average probably 30 to 40 cents delivered in the warehouse here. . . . The
potatoes, however, I think we shall be able to save, though it will cost a
little more for warehousing than I anticipated. However, from the present
outlook potatoes are going to be worth from sixty cents to $1 next March,
and I think I could easily place all the potatoes I have on hand at profit.
While all these solicitations were being made by all these officials on
behalf of the arriving Doukhobors, it was learned that their departure from
the port of Batoum had been postponed for six weeks. As a result the first
trainload of Doukhobors did not reach Winnipeg until 27 January 1899. An
unexpected turn of events occurred in December 1898, when the Customs
Inspector in Brandon, George H. Young, cabled Smart on 21 December:
"Quantity potatoes stored in cellar public building here think require
attention decaying smell through offices very bad most unhealthy for
officers and presume potatoes spoiling." McCreary was ordered to investigate
and apparently the matter was taken in hand and resolved as nothing more was
said about the matter.
The importance of potatoes as part of the diet of an agrarian population
like the Doukhobors can be seen from continuous efforts by immigration
officials to secure enough of this produce during the first year of the
Doukhobors' settlement on the Canadian prairies. On 16 May, 1899, Harley
wrote to Smart from Swan River: "I have bought 50 bushels of splendid
potatoes for seed here at $1.25 per bushel . . ." And McCreary wrote to
Smart on 4 November, 1899:
I have already bought at Yorkton about a thousand bushels of potatoes, and I
am sending to-day another carload to Swan River . . . and as they will
likely use most of the potatoes which they are buying now, seed potatoes,
probably 2500 to 3000 bushels, should be got there before the 5th of April...
Once firmly established on Canadian soil, the Doukhobors produced enough
crops, among them potatoes, not only for their own consumption and seed
reserves, but also for marketing.
article originally appeared in the pages of Saskatchewan History, an
award-winning magazine dedicated to encouraging both readers and writers to
explore the province's history. Published by the Saskatchewan Archives since
1948, it is the pre-eminent source of information and narration about
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