For Mennonites on the Canadian prairies, the late 19th century is a significant time. That’s when the first wave of Mennonite immigrants came to Manitoba. But they weren’t the only pacifist group to come to Canada from Russia at that time.
In 1899, 7,500 Doukhobors boarded ships fleeing persecution — the largest mass migration in Canadian history. After a brief sojourn in Manitoba, they moved on to Saskatchewan, where they established about 60 new communities.
Like Mennonites, Doukhobors were pacifists, rejecting violence against other humans and also against animals. They believed in communal living and sharing, living in harmony with nature, and were vegetarian. Their motto was: “Work hard and live at peace with others.”
In Russia, they were seen as a threat to the established order, and were persecuted by both the government and the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, that’s how they got their name. It means “spirit wrestlers,” and it was given to them by Orthodox Church officials who accused them of wrestling against the spirit of God.
They came to embrace the name, seeing themselves as indeed wrestling against spirits of religious, societal and political conformity.
When the Canadian government offered the Doukhobors land and the right to follow their ways, including living communally and not swearing allegiance to the queen, they left their old lives behind and came to Canada.
But in 1908 the government reneged on the promises, requiring them to take on private ownership and swear an oath of allegiance. In protest, about 6,000 members moved from Saskatchewan to British Columbia, where they were allowed to establish self-contained communal communities.
By 1941, there were more than 16,000 Doukhobors in Canada. Today only about 2,000 identify as members.
I have to admit I knew none of this until spring, when I visited parts of Saskatchewan where the Doukhobors once lived. My trip included a stop at the National Doukhobor Heritage Centre near Canora. That’s where I met Eileen and Fred Konkin, an older couple who volunteer there.
I learned that my popular image — protesters who stripped naked and burned down their homes in protest against restrictive and coercive government policies — was just a tiny slice of that community’s history.
That fringe group was known as the “Freedomites” or “Sons of Freedom,” and its actions were condemned by other Doukhobors who saw them violating their cherished principle of nonviolence, the Konkins told me.
They told me that in the Canora area, which was once home to more than 7,000 Doukhobors, only about 40 practicing members of the group are left, all elderly. When they pass away, “maybe nothing will be left but the principles they stood for,” said Eileen, adding, “those are good principles.”
Maybe she’s right. Maybe the Doukhobor faith will one day be gone from Canada. Or maybe the principles they believed in might catch on again in a different form.
We live at a time when many people are wrestling with those same spirits of religious, societal and political conformity and coercion, along with materialism, individualism and militarism.
Maybe the Doukhobors have something to teach us yet.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.