Spirit wrestlers tame the Prairies

In the late 19th century, Canada needed to expand its population and the West needed to be opened to agriculture. Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, saw the solution in a group of Doukhobors, Russian farmers and religious dissenters. He invited them to Canada to settle the Prairies; rescuing them from religious persecution was of secondary importance.

doukhobor
At Kylemore, Sask., the Doukhobours were known as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. The leadership had purchased a total of 11,632 acres of land in the area and 250 people (all but one family) had come from B.C. to live and work. (Photo: Remembering Times)

The Doukhobors became an organized movement in the 18th century. They renounced the Russian Orthodox Church’s ritual of worshiping icons, giving them their original name “Ikono-bortsi” – icon wrestlers. In 1785, Archbishop Ambrosius called them “Doukho-bortsi”- spirit wrestlers – intending an insult by implying that they struggled against the Spirit of God. The dissidents adopted the name, declaring, “We are Spirit Wrestlers because we wrestle with and for the Spirit of God against those things which are evil.”

Doukhobors based their religion on two commandments: recognize and love God with heart, mind and soul; and, love one’s neighbour as oneself. Their highest moral development came at the end of the 19th century when, inspired by the leadership of Peter Verigin, they advanced the practical and ethical aspects of their lifestyle. Doukhobors believed that killing animals assaulted human sensibilities, and resolved not to consume animal flesh. They also rejected alcohol and tobacco as harmful to the human body, which they believed was created by God to be pure. Devoted to pacifism, they rejected violence and militarism. When 7000 protesting Doukhobor soldiers destroyed their weapons on June 29, 1895, the Czarist State expressed its disapproval and so, ironically, did Church authorities. The defiant act led to exile and persecution.

The Doukhobors’ situation received attention around the world. Russian author Leo Tolstoy, American Quakers and a great many Canadians helped the Doukhobors uproot their lives and make the journey to Canada, to the territories of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. In December 1898, the new settlers prepared for the largest single migration across the Atlantic to North America. Seven hundred men, women and children, volunteers from a large group of Doukhobors, carried boards on their shoulders through the port city of Batum, Russia. They built bunks in the holds of ships intended for freight and livestock, and loaded them with supplies for the month-long journey.

Four groups set sail, the first on the Beaver Line’s steamer Lake Huron, with enough food for 2140 people. Nearly 200 people stowed away, hiding in the bedding and among the coal in the boiler room. On January 20, 1899, when they reached Halifax, 2300 Doukhobors disembarked and were welcomed by James A. Smart, Deputy Minister of the Interior, and a large crowd curious to see the “new Pilgrim Fathers.””

From Halifax, the Lake Huron sailed up the Bay of Fundy to St. John, the eastern terminal of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR had been contracted to carry the immigrants west. They travelled in six trainloads, each train consisting of 40 coaches with a supply and commissariat car. A baggage train followed. Along the way, women’s groups gave the children fruit and sweets. In Montreal, a committee gave them heavy clothing to ward off the severe Prairie cold and in Winnipeg a committee took them to reception centres to prepare for settlement. The journey was repeated three times as the other ships arrived. By June, 7500 Doukhobors had settled in three communal blocs on 773,400 acres; they eventually established 61 villages in what is now Saskatchewan.

Though initially the Doukhobors received a warm reception, they were not welcomed unanimously across the country. Sifton’s plan was opposed by many – Conservative politicians, ranchers and some clergy – who expressed reservations, often spurred by fear of the unknown. Sifton was of the opinion that “A stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality.” No one knew these Russian peasants who rejected the church, refused military service, spoke no English, and lived and worked communally. The preferred vision of a good settler at the time was of British, French or German stock. Some contended that the Russian settlers were inferior, lacking the qualities necessary to make good Canadians.

Newspapers and speeches raised objections, noting that if there were a war, English settlers would have to fight “in defence of the favoured foreigner.” It would be better “to distribute them in small groups throughout the country” so they could easily assimilate and to “break up as far as possible [their] herding proclivities.” Nevertheless, Sifton’s plan was successful. Within six years of the Doukhobors’ arrival, the prairie population had increased fivefold, and the spirit wrestlers were meeting the challenges of cultivating the Prairies.

By Laura Neilson Bonikowsky

Editor’s note: The story and photos of the Doukhobor settlements near Kylemore can be seen here.

Wadena News

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