March 22, 2017


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Doukhobor faith is fading, but we can still learn from it

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/5/2015 (676 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the last year of the 19th century, Winnipeg had a problem -- more than 2,000 refugees were on their way to the city, and there was nowhere to house them.

The refugees were Doukhobors from Russia, and they were the first of about 7,500 members of that persecuted sect who passed through the city on their way to Saskatchewan in order to escape persecution in their homeland.

The Doukhobor faith emerged as a reaction to what they considered the excessive opulence, elaborate rituals and authoritative practices of the Russian Orthodox Church. They practised a simpler form of religion, rejecting the need for an intermediary priesthood and looking inward for the voice of God.

They were also radical pacifists who rejected secular political authority, believed in communal living and sharing and were vegetarian. Their motto was: "Work hard and live at peace with others."

Viewed as a threat to the established order, the Doukhobors were persecuted by both the Czarist authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, it was the Orthodox Church that gave them their name. It means "spirit wrestlers," because church officials accused them of wrestling against the spirit of God.

It was a name the group came to embrace. They did see themselves as wrestling against spirits -- the spirits of religious, societal and political conformity.

Since Canada was anxious to lure skilled farmers such as the Doukhobors to the Prairies, it made promises to the group of rich farmland, the right to live communally and to follow their ways. So they packed up and left Russia for new homes across the ocean. They even got help in their flight from Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who dedicated royalties from some of his books to their immigration fund.

The first of five trains carrying the new immigrants arrived in Winnipeg on Jan. 27, 1899. After a sojourn in Manitoba -- where they were housed in sheds and other buildings in places such as Brandon, Dauphin and Birtle, as well as Winnipeg -- they moved on to Saskatchewan, where they established about 60 new communities.

I have to admit I knew none of this until last month, when a trip to Saskatchewan on behalf of this newspaper gave me a chance to visit the National Doukhobor Heritage Centre near Canora.

Until then, if I thought about Doukhobors at all, it was to recall images of people stripping naked and burning down their homes in B.C. in protest against government policies, such as requiring their children to go to public schools.

But, as my Doukhobor hosts at the Heritage Centre, Eileen and Fred Konkin, told me, those protesters, known as "Freedomites" or "Sons of Freedom," were just a tiny minority of their faith group, and that form of protest, which included bombings of buildings and other public property, stopped many years ago.

Their actions were also condemned by other Doukhobors, who saw them violating their cherished principle of non-violence.

And how did those Doukhobors end up in B.C.? I learned that at the Heritage Centre, too.

In 1908, just seven years after they arrived in Canada, the government reneged on its promise of letting the Doukhobors live communally and not swear allegiance. In protest, about 6,000 members moved from Saskatchewan to B.C., where they were permitted to establish self-contained communities.

Today, there aren't many practising Doukhobors in Canada. According to the 2011 census, just over 2,000 people identified themselves that way, down from a peak of more than 16,000 in 1941.

Near Canora, home to so many Doukhobors over 100 years ago, the Konkins estimate there might only be 40 left, and most of them are elderly. When the last ones pass away, "maybe nothing will be left but the principles they stood for," Eileen says, adding, "those are good principles."

Maybe she's right; maybe the Doukhobor faith will one day be gone from Canada, with only some faded black-and-white photos and places like the Heritage Centre left as a memory.

Or maybe their principles will catch on again. We live in a time when many people are wrestling with the spirits of materialism, individualism and militarism, or seeking to find new ways to live in harmony with other and with the earth.

Perhaps those long-ago Doukhobor immigrants, the ones who passed through Winnipeg 116 years ago, still have a thing or two to teach us yet.


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