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The Doukhobor Homestead Crisis, 1898-1907

 

by Kathlyn (Katya) Szalasznyj

 

In 1899, the Doukhobors settled on homestead lands reserved for them in Saskatchewan by the Dominion government. Materially, they made substantial progress, opening up vast tracts to cultivation over a short period. Legally, however, they had problems with every step of the process. At base was their belief that land belonged to God and any division of land that recognized individual ownership was a violation of God’s laws. Exacerbating this was the Doukhobors’ misunderstanding about the way in which land would be granted, and the government’s misconception of the full implications of the Doukhobor commitment to communalism. By 1905, thousands of Doukhobors refused to take patents on their homesteads. Land hungry settlers and a growing public backlash forced the government to seek a speedy resolution to the 'Doukhobor issue' resulting in the cancellation of thousands of homestead entries in 1907. The following scholarly article examines the Doukhobor homestead crisis.  Reproduced by permission from "Spirit Wrestlers: Centennial Papers in Honour of Canada's Doukhobor Heritage", Kathlyn Szalasznyi, Gatineau, Quebec, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995 © Canadian Museum of Civilization. 

 


 

Saskatchewan was a place with a future in 1905. For many it was a promising place in which to build a home. Growing political maturity, culminating in the formation of the new province, raised many questions about provincial society and the ways in which its needs would be met. Clearly, "more" was a key superlative: more central homesteads, more roads, more railways, more bridges, more school districts and improved education were just a few critical concerns facing the young province in its first year.
 

The first harvest at Thunder Hill Colony, Manitoba, Fall 1899.  Library and Archives Canada, PA-022231.

 

There was another concern, one which flew in the face of the politician, the immigration official, the land agent, the farmer and the rancher, and drew hot and diverse opinions far beyond Saskatchewan's borders. It was termed "the Doukhobor issue", a fiery ethnic matter that involved over several hundred thousand acres of good prairie land, almost entirely in Saskatchewan, and Russian group settlers, who occupied the land but refused to obey the laws of the Dominion.

Public opinion tended to express the matter simply. Religious group settlers had arrived before the turn of the century, had been given a generous outlay of reserve land from which to select homesteads, and had been accommodated in their every request, including military exemption and communal residence. Six years later, their progress toward becoming Canadians, loyal British subjects and owners of the lands for which they had at last reluctantly signed, was practically non-existent. Refusing to take a stake and interest in Canada, their peculiar ways were more firmly entrenched than before and their leader, Peter Vasilevich Verigin, was the "King Bee" of a growing agricultural theocracy, with no regard for the rights and freedoms of the individual Doukhobor. How much longer could "these favoured children of the Department of the Interior" be allowed to tie up valuable central homestead lands and to perpetuate Little Russia on the prairie, with no interest in the development of local schools, churches or towns and or in the Canadian political process? One prairie editorial writer of the time stated it thus:
 

The Department of the Interior knows better than anyone else that somebody, they know who, got a good haul out of the treasury of Canada, which was cheerfully paid. A chronic "koff" almost became epidemic in this country then, and there is a peculiar value attached to a "koff" or a little "off" to one's name today. Such attachments make it easy to get in "on the groundfloor" in the land scramble, since yet it is only Russians who need apply?


As suggested above, the Doukhobor issue centred mainly on the lands upon which the Doukhobors lived. Still owned by the Crown long after the "ordinary" homesteader would have received patent, the Doukhobors still could not decide if they wished to become Canadian landowners. By 1905, land hunger in central homesteading parts and a growing backlash toward the government that brought the Doukhobors west demanded a speedy resolution to this problem. In accordance, in the following year, the new Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, who succeeded Clifford Sifton, appointed a commission to investigate Doukhobor lands and to bring the Doukhobor issue to a speedy conclusion.

From the Doukhobor perspective, the issue at hand was considerably different. Initial concessions from the Canadian authorities and the creation of the reserve of land were accepted by them on their arrival, but past experience dictated a wary existence with the state. What would the laws of Canada require of them? Over a dozen Doukhobor sympathizers across the globe had helped to negotiate an initial deal for Verigin's suffering religious people, a deal about which the Doukhobors knew extremely little. Homesteads of sixty desiatini in the Russian measure seemed generous. The Doukhobors were assured that block settlement was legally sanctioned by a cooperative farming and a hamlet clause in the Dominion Lands Act, but it was hardly what the Doukhobors later described as the desire to "live as one farm." Instead the Doukhobor reserve provided for the development of four or five colonies throughout the West, generally settlements of under one thousand inhabitants, thus selected in order that the Doukhobor men might obtain employment on incoming railroads more readily and that, as the immigration officials openly stated, the Doukhobors might be "more rapidly Canadianized."

Scrubbing and clearing, the Doukhobors made substantial material progress, proving their initial reputation as keen agriculturalists. In the beginning there were many problems impeding the orderly taking of lands, but the Doukhobors knew the majority of them were not of their making.

The Doukhobor reserve, a bare outline around almost unknown townships in 1899, was subject to considerable changes in its early years, shunting Doukhobor holdings back and forth. Oddly, land agents could not agree whether the Doukhobors were to possess all lands in each township or only the even-numbered ones, as in ordinary townships available for homesteading. While the North and South Reserves included all lands, Doukhobors on the Prince Albert Reserve were only allowed to settle on the even-numbered lands. Numerous village houses built upon arrival were later found to be on odd-numbered, railway lands and even outside the reserve, through no fault of the group settlers. Throughout the summer of 1901, the villages of Bogdanovka and Tikhomirnoe of the North Colony petitioned to be included in the reserve: "We are very sorry we did not know this before, as no one explained anything about it to us and now it is a year ago since we began to work the ground."
 

One of the communal "barracks" houses that the Doukhobors built at Thunder Hill Colony, Manitoba. Summer of 1899.  Library and Archives Canada, C-008896.


Two townships lacked water and were too heavily treed for settlement and another two overlapped with the Cote Indian Reserve. Five townships had been withdrawn for a sinister reason: because of the adverse opinion of ranchers, farmers and squatters toward the Doukhobors. Ranchers disliked the settlers for their fences. Others thought their insular ways hindered the normal social and economic development of districts and were quick to exhibit their prejudice against these "alien and servile Slav serfs of Europe, who are one degree above the monkey for civilization...." By 1900, there were reports of ranchers tearing down Doukhobor fences and driving cattle into their crops.

The early years in Canada proved that there were wide disparities in the Doukhobor understanding of landowning and village life, disparities that were not so apparent on arrival. Initially, communal holding of land, labour and capital was the general rule, imposed largely by difficult economic conditions in the settlements. Soon cracks in the communal model appeared. There were totally communalistic villages, such as Blagodarnoe in the South Colony, where "...everything to the last needle was held in common." In contrast, the Prince Albert colony Doukhobors showed a great willingness to take lands as ordinary settlers and to reside on homesteads. By September, 1899 ninety-seven Doukhobors had applied for lands, anxious for choice quarters in the district.

Between the two extremes lay the majority of settlers, which tried to interpret Canadian land law in the light of Peter Vasilevich Verigin's latest letters from exile. He said little about property-holding, but instructed the settlers not to build large buildings or to immerse themselves in husbandry, which suggested they might move again. Yet during the winter of 1899, Herbert Archer, a local immigration agent and J.S. Crerar, Dominion Land Agent at Yorkton, were able to complete lists of homesteaders in the North and South Reserves and to determine their potential land locations. Unfortunately, due to an oversight, the lists were not acted upon by the land agents until several critical issues preventing Doukhobor entry had emerged.

Could one hold land privately, live apart from the community and still be a Doukhobor? The "Independent" sector believed one could. The Communal Doukhobor, with the assistance of Russian ideologues living among them, held the opposite opinion. He saw the independent brethren falling to the temptations of greed and individualism. If property-holding was the temptation, then the Dominion that offered it was the tempter: compliance with the ordinances of the state could only signal spiritual decline.

The Dominion census of 1901 added fuel to the debate, as census-takers extracted information relating to families and their ages. At least three villages, Petrovka, Troudenia [Trudolubivoe] and Pozaraevka, petitioned for exclusion from this fourth census of the Dominion, writing that "...we now know that we have been written up in police-books, which we do not want."

Coincidentally, a chiding letter from Lev Tolstoy, whose strong support had so assisted their emigration from Russia, rebuked those who had taken homestead entry, insisting that "if a man acknowledges himself to be a son of God, from that acknowledgement flows the love of his neighbour, the repudiation of violence, of oaths, of state service and of property."

As land officials pursued the subject of homestead entry, it became clear to the Doukhobors that a separate issue, that of communal cultivation as a means of making improvements on their lands, had yet to be resolved. The Doukhobors generally cultivated lands within a six-mile radius of their villages, with hay meadows and grazing lands held in common, much as they had done under the mir landholding system in Russia. Would this cultivation be accepted in place of the cultivation regulations of the Dominion Lands Act, namely, fifteen acres on each quarter-section, usually completed within a three-year period from the date of entry?
 

The first Doukhobor binders cut the grain and placed it in swaths to be picked up, tied in sheaves and stooked by the women, 1903.  Library and Archives Canada, C-008893.


To the Doukhobors, communal cultivation was a natural part of operating "as one farm," their request upon arrival in Canada. The Lands Branch did not think so. Numerous meetings and much correspondence finally resolved the issue, at least for the time. Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior who had negotiated the Doukhobors' original agreement with the Canadian government, officially expressed homestead policy as it pertained to the Doukhobors in a letter of 15 February 1901:
 

And I have decided that those who will take their homesteads and accept of free land from the Government may live together in one or more villages, and instead of being compelled to cultivate each quarter-section held by each Doukhobor, that the land around the village itself may be cultivated and the work which otherwise would be required on each individual homestead may be done altogether around the village.

 

Sifton stressed that only Doukhobors applying for lands would be allowed to live in villages, clearly tying the cultivation concession to the larger and more immediate issue of homestead entry.

The divisive nature of Sifton's concession was clearly upsetting to the Doukhobors. It threatened to end any semblance of a unified Doukhobor existence, as only homestead entrants and their families could remain in the villages. Outside of a small number of entrants gained at the Prince Albert Dominion Land office, the Doukhobors adamantly refused to enter for homesteads, asking instead to buy lands outrightly at ten dollars a quarter-section.

Verigin arrived in Canada on the heels of this debate and on that of the first pilgrimage of "zealots," numbering approximately 1,800, who had repudiated all property and the enslaving of animals. He did not disappoint the Lands Branch, spending his first two months dealing with the question of landholding. For the first time on record, another key issue, that of taking an oath of allegiance in order to become British subjects, was discussed at length in relation to homesteading. Whether affirmed or sworn, oath-taking was a serious issue to the Doukhobors, who had suffered much persecution in Russia over it.

Upon inquiring of the regulations and questioning the Lands Branch closely, Verigin urged the Doukhobors to sign for lands without delay. Several years lay between entry and the time of patent, when the oath would have to be faced. Perhaps he realized that homestead entry, in itself, did not constitute placing one's seal of ownership upon the land, especially if the entry was accomplished by a proxy committee. During March and April, 1903, entries were made for over two thousand homesteaders, representing a total of 281,660 acres in northeastern Saskatchewan and 141,140 acres in central areas. Unused reserve lands would be held until the end of the year to accommodate changes and minors. The Doukhobor reserve finally came to an end on December 15, 1904, making over 100,000 acres at Yorkton and nearly 150,000 acres in Prince Albert available.

The new era of material prosperity under Verigin's leadership that followed him in from 1903 to 1905 was not without its problems. Many of them were tied to the land issue. Verigin's plan to bring all obedient followers together in the Yorkton-Swan River area was questioned by the Lands Branch, particularly when it appeared that incorrect names had been affixed to proxy entries in preparation for resettlement. Independents accused Verigin of tampering with the homestead entries of forty independent Doukhobors by not informing them of pending inspection of their lands.

A detailed inspection of all Doukhobor lands would help to clarify existing irregularities and also soothe public opinion. In the light of changing demographic situation in Saskatchewan, such a measure was justifiable. Doukhobor holdings, by 1904, could be considered old lands in the heart of settlement, as the recently-constructed Canadian Northern railway line through Canora to Langham brought more settlers and lands speculators in the vicinity of the Doukhobor lands. A barrage of letters to the Lands Branch indicated that many potential homesteaders were eagerly watching Doukhobor lands, prepared to file claims for inspection on lands not being cleared.
 

Sample household entry from the special investigation of Doukhobor lands, 1905.


Two special investigations of Doukhobor lands came in the summer and fall of 1905, preparing the way for the Commission a year later. The first was made "to see that no member of the community was intimidated or suffering in any way from any hardship from the fact that he may have decided to secede from the community and establish himself along independent lines." A team of homestead inspectors, including J. Seale, D.C. McNab, J.B. White and J.S. Gibson, spent several weeks touring the Doukhobor villages and recording cultivated acres, eligible homesteads and economic assets. What conclusions did these investigators reach? Doukhobor industry aside, Speers' report stated:
 

The individual homesteader has never been impressed with his rights as a settler [or] his independence as an individual. Peter Verigin and the Community have controlled all earnings, all revenues, all incomes from all sources and this ruling has been considered absolute. I would recommend that the individual homesteader be impressed with his own independence and also his individual rights, and that some kind of receipt or the interim homestead receipt be given to him personally.

 

They also found too many entrants for the size of the community, too many lands reserved for minors and over one hundred irregularities in the age category of homesteaders. Although they could not take issue with the number of acres cultivated per communal entrant, as the community Doukhobors had cultivated more than the required fifteen acres per entrant, the inspectors were quick to point out that the independent sector had cultivated even more. The Independents were "...the very best material out of which to make citizens superior to most of the foreigners finding homes in our land in intelligence, industry, aspirations and work accomplished." More importantly, the independent Doukhobors were "...rapidly absorbing Canadian sentiments and dropping notions peculiar to them."

The McDougall Commission, that was to bring the Doukhobor land issue to its final conclusion, set about its work in the summer of 1906 in a brisk and efficient manner, informing Doukhobors that the "government was re-arranging its own lands." Its first itinerary covered 1,200 miles, beginning in the Good Spirit area, then moving in a northwest direction to Buchanan, eastward to Canora, Verigin and Pelly, on to Swan River and finally, to the far western stretches of the Langham and Prince Albert lands. Its purpose was to record economic assets, inspect cultivation, take census, record homestead entrants and their whereabouts. Ideologically, the Commission was "...to discuss with the Doukhobors present their experience with and attitude towards this country, the Government and things in general."

The Doukhobors greeted the Commission with traditional, kind hospitality, and gave no indication of ill feeling toward McDougall. In the fall of 1906 Verigin met with the Minster of the Interior to discuss the cancellation of minors' homesteads and to try to obtain lands for communal Doukhobors from Prince Albert who wished to move to eastern lands. He also needed a letter of recommendation from Oliver for his coming trip to Russia, one purpose of which was to try to secure Russian workers for the building of western Canadian railways. There is no record that the work of the McDougall Commission was even discussed at that time.

The first official report of the McDougall Commission of 25 November 1906 traced the root of all Doukhobor difficulties to their "abject communism" which resulted in "extreme passivity and lethargy." It blamed Verigin's one-man leadership and an economic system that kept superstitious and illiterate followers in isolated villages. While McDougall had to admit that communal entrants had cultivated an average of 21.8 acres, he complained that their fields were not symmetrical and that they had cleared the easiest land. McDougall concluded that Doukhobor homesteads, still Crown property, should be subject to stringent homesteading rules regarding cultivation and residence. Obtaining patent for any bona fide homesteads would have to be based on ordinary conditions as he considered "...these people are even as others and subject to the same law." He made no allowance for Sifton's letter of concession regarding communal cultivation. Doukhobors not complying fully with existing homestead legislation were to have their homesteads cancelled. They would have an opportunity to re-enter for lands in the regular way. However, any Doukhobor not proceeding towards naturalization or compliance with the definition of the "vicinity of residence" would have to be resettled on new reservation containing seventeen to twenty acres of land per capita.
 

Broadside concerning the Doukhobor reserve, 1907.  Library and Archives Canada, e000009389.


McDougall returned to the Doukhobor villages in 1907 as the Commissioner of Investigation and Adjuster of Land Claims for Doukhobor lands. His first itinerary that year cancelled a total of 2,503 Doukhobor claims. It left 136 entries intact. His second itinerary, to establish reentries for lands, brought a meagre 384 Doukhobor entries, largely made by those who had opted for independence before McDougall's work. A communal population of 8,175 had opted for relocation on the new reserves.

How had the majority of the Doukhobors arrived at their final decision regarding the land? Independently, it seemed, for Peter Verigin was abroad in Russia exploring the possibility of the Doukhobors' return when McDougall first made his rounds. Bulgaria appeared to be another possibility for them or the fruit-growing regions of Canada, which proved their ultimate destination.

Verigin returned to Canada in February 1907. He was strangely silent about the land issue. Perhaps any strong vocal ruling at that time might have been sure evidence of the very "dictatorship" that the Commission was trying to eliminate. It is also possible that he was aware that the resolution of the Doukhobor claims by dismantling the village system was a foregone conclusion.

In the final run, it was the naturalization issue, more than that of cultivation of residence, that met with the most Doukhobor opposition.

 

It was always the same case that your Commission thus met. They could not, they would not naturalize. In vain we told them that our Government had promised them exemption from military service, that Quakers and others had lived for many years in Canada and had never been called on to give military service. They insisted that if they naturalized and became citizens then they would be compelled to go to war. This they would not do, as some told us [they] "would die first." When we continued to reason with them they repeatedly told us "we do not want to own the land — all we want is to be permitted to make a living therein."

 

And this was the invariable answer of the leaders and representative men of these strange people on the question of land ownership, dependent as it is upon naturalization.

Verigin's reaction regarding the oath was simply, "whether you will take the oath or not, every man must act according to his conscience, but what must be first in our lives is reliance on the will of God in order to live within His law." A meeting of village elders in the village of Terpennie in May 1907 proposed that fifty men could take the oath and the lands could be saved, much as homestead entry had been made by a three-man committee. Verigin addressed them:
 

Brothers and sisters, for myself I speak thus: if we take the oath even by having some elderly ones take it, even by this we would separate ourselves from Christ's teaching of two thousand years. But you must see for yourselves.


The Doukhobor lands were opened immediately to settlers, facing such strong demand that only one township a day was released in each Dominion land office. The Lands Branch reported that it was delighted with the class of men receiving lands, who, even in entry, exhibited such will power, endurance and obedience to all rules. The land office staffs provided another perspective, as windows were smashed by those in line for lands and firehouses were turned on crowds. In many cases, land speculators catalyzed much of the action. Royal North-West Mounted Police inspector. Christen Junget, confessed that holding the mobs back was a nightmarish task:
 

I have never experienced a meaner job that this. Only the small percentage of those struggling for positions who get in are satisfied and pleased, the rest feel hurt and do not hesitate to trump up charges of any description against the police. This makes the work extremely difficult and discouraging.


A new reserve consisting of 766 quarter-sections in total was established for the communal Doukhobors. No claims for improvements were made relating to the lands lost in 1907, an estimated $682,000 worth of cultivation, clearing and crops. Yet, new entrants were required to pay the Lands Branch for improvements that had been made on the property they acquired.
 

Homesteaders seeking Doukhobor lands, 1907.  Library and Archives Canada, C-025694.


The Doukhobor reserve created in 1907 lasted only a decade. As the last of the communal Doukhobors left for British Columbia, the Doukhobor homesteading era closed.


Much has happened since the Doukhobors had turned their first furrow in 1899. Eastern and western land-use systems clashed. In an empty prairie, there was room for compromise. As the West filled, mir and homestead systems found themselves in full conflict, especially when public opinion was so adversely fixed on the village system that was the foundation of Verigin's rule.
 

The Doukhobor homestead crisis said much about the settlers Canada had accepted in 1898-1899. They were a complex people and subject to differences among themselves. The land question mirrored the emergency of three different Doukhobor ideals regarding landowning: the Community believed the land could be for its use but not for personal ownership; the Independents saw no conflict between being private farmers, Canadians and Doukhobors; and the Freedomites or Zealots, a small but ever-present group by 1907, would not consent to use the land, let alone to own it.
 

The land issue also said a great deal about the workings and misworkings of the Department of the Interior as well. In the context of the broader demographic scene, the McDougall Commission's recommendations and actions were probably inevitable. The government could simply not afford to offer concessions to one group of settlers while others waited eagerly for lands.
 

In the broader light, it must be admitted that homestead regulations were enforced to the letter for all by 1906. Proxy entry was eliminated. 15,000 entries that had been granted prior to June 1902 and for which patent had not been obtained, were inspected and cleared. Seven inspectors were employed in Saskatchewan to investigate irregularities regarding railway lands and to pressure railway companies to complete their selections. Maps showing available quarters were revised and posted daily.
 

Numerous mistakes and miscommunications by Lands Branch officials clearly added fuel to the land issue. Local land agent, Herbert Archer, of Swan River was horrified by the mistakes made by the Department of the Interior in connection with the Doukhobor lands, particularly the even-odd controversy over the early reserve, stating: "...if such a very serious blunder has been made by the Interior, the effect will be very bad."
 

Many questions remain unanswered. Why was the list of Doukhobor homesteaders compiled in 1900 never filed? Why were the Doukhobors' special farming conditions never recognized on paper? Their proxy homestead entries were made in the standard way, using ordinary forms, even though local land agents inquired whether the Lands Branch would issue special forms to reflect the Doukhobors' special farming conditions. Later, Lands Branch officials wrote: "... they made entry on the ordinary forms, and these forms were accepted, and their entries stood in the book against lands subject to the ordinary homestead conditions."
 

Doukhobor land rush in Yorkton, 1907. Library and Archives Canada, PA-022232.

 

The prairie "Doukhobor issue" had been resolved to the satisfaction of the Canadian public. A measure had been meted - not of quarter-sections and acres cleared - but of the extent to which Canada would or could allow its landholding system and social value to be challenged by "ethnic peculiarities." From the Doukhobor perspective, the land issue confirmed their attitude toward the state: as brief sojourners in a temporal land, they would continue to seek the kingdom of God within and prepare for whatever adversities might lie ahead.

 


 

For More Information

 

For a detailed, in-depth scholarly analysis of the Doukhobor homestead crisis, see the Master of Arts thesis, The Doukhobor Homestead Crisis, 1898-1907, completed by Kathlyn (Katya) Szalasznyj at the University of Saskatchewan in 1977. It provides an overview of events using the Land Records of the Department of the Interior in Ottawa and other key sources, tracing pre-immigration negotations, the granting of a Doukhobor reserve of lands for entry and the complexities of communal settlement at a time of increasing prairie land hunger and growing adverse public opinion. From the effects of the arrival of Peter V. Verigin, to the work (and blunders!) of individual land agents and including such factors as the emergence of the Sons of Freedom, this thesis is an in-depth look at Doukhobor prairie life prior to the establishment of the McDougall Commission of 1907, which resulted in the cancellation of homestead entries and Doukhobor movement to British Columbia.