The Doukhobor Homestead Crisis, 1898-1907
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
In the final run, it was the naturalization issue, more than that of
cultivation of residence, that met with the most Doukhobor opposition.
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
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
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
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,
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,
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,
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.