CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 6 . . . .November 12, 2004
Mention the word "Doukhobors" to most Canadians, and it conjures up images of fire and nudity shrouded in religious fervor. This videocassette from the National Film Board of Canada will help put substance to these images and assist the viewer in understanding the religious sects that continue to be misinterpreted and maligned to this day.
My Doukhobor Cousins is a quest by three modern-day cousins to solve the mystery of their roots and find answers to questions that have puzzled them throughout their lives. Why did the adults around them speak Russian in hushed tones? Why did people keep disappearing? Why were RCMP officers keeping constant watch over their communities? All through their youth, Janice Benthin and her cousins, Lance and Marilyn, were kept ignorant of the events that shaped the lives of their relatives, members of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors.
Through visits to ancestral sites, interviews with long-lost relatives and friends, and research in the archives of Canada and British Columbia, the third-generation Doukhobors dug up their roots which had been shrouded in secrecy for decades. Janice explains her need to find answers:
"That" refers to the secrecy kept hidden by the older generation concerning the circumstances surrounding their history since migrating to Canada at the end of the nineteenth century. Janice remembers her grandmother telling her the Doukhobors were a
The cousins' research helps dispel the confusion between the orthodox Doukhobors, the independents and the freedomites, better known as Sons of Freedom Doukhobors. Over the years, all of these sects have been lumped together in the media, while, in fact, most of the negative images reflecting their unorthodox behaviour are more synonymous with the actions of the freedomites.
The word "Doukhobors" translates to "Spirit Wrestlers." Throughout history, they have wrestled with the governments that have harbored them and the neighbours that have scorned their presence. They follow the precept "Toil and a peaceful life -- the welfare of the whole world is not worth the life of a single child."
While in exile in Siberia for fifteen years, their leader Peter "Lordly" Verigin sought the advice of his mentor Leo Tolstoy about migrating. Tolstoy helped him choose Canada as a destination, personally assisted with the arrangements to move over 8,000 Doukhobors the largest single migration in Canadian history and donated the royalties from his book Resurrection to fund their cause. Their settlement in Canada was mutually beneficial: Canada needed people to settle the West, and the Doukhobors needed a new home. Labeled heretics by the Russian Orthodox Church, they had endured having their children confiscated by the State and had been banished to the far reaches of the Empire. They craved freedom and a peaceful co-existence.
They settled in the Saskatchewan community of Swan River in 1899. These orthodox Doukhobors believed they were settling in a place where they would be allowed to live according to their beliefs and would not be subjected to state intervention into their lives. Upon their arrival, they were allowed to co-exist harmoniously in a communal environment. By 1902, they had built 42 villages rich with dwellings, horses and cattle, roads and modern conveniences like telephones. Their standard of living and their focus on materialism, after years of deprivation and persecution, was the envy of the local residents but also the source of the scorn.
Many of the Doukhobors believed material wealth would corrupt their spirituality, and three years after migrating to Canada 1,500 of them set their animals free, left their homes and set off on a pilgrimage across the Prairies. Many became the original independent Doukhobors, squatting on common lands and living off the generosity of others.
Further to their struggles, a change in government to the Borden administration in 1905 put pressure on the orthodox Doukhobors to conform to regular agreements of the Homestead Act. They were forced to register and own land individually, thus forfeiting their communal status, take out titles and swear oaths of allegiance. Over 5,000 lost their land with the new legislation, and swearing allegiance was viewed as a first step to military service.
Those who refused to sign the government papers were forced to relocate once again. Their peaceful communal lives had come to an end. Six short years following their migration to the Promise Land, the divisions in the Doukhobor community had torn families apart and become a fact of life.
Those who signed the papers were denounced by Peter "Lordly" Verigin, the leader of the orthodox Doukhobors. Those who relocated to British Columbia's Kootenay Region became known as the freedomites, or the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors -- those usually associated with the fires and nudist activism popularized by the media.
Between 1908 and 1911, over 6,000 Doukhobors settled and prospered in the Kootenay Valley until the breakout of WW1, when the B.C. government introduced military training in all its publicly funded schools. The Doukhobors withdrew their children from the schools and were subsequently exempted from military service. During the war years, they continued to prosper, much to the resentment of the Veterans who had fought for their country and temporarily put aside their personal advancement. This resentment was further fueled by the Russian Revolution of 1917, when many Russian descendants were accused of being communist spies. It was a struggle to maintain their cultural and religious heritage, but when Peter "Lordly" Verigin was killed in an explosion believed to be government-involved, they burned down several schools in retaliation and in fear that their children would be turned against their Doukhobors beliefs.
Verigin's son was brought from Russia to take his father's place. A controversial leader, he mortgaged the Doukhobors' assets during the Great Depression and expelled all families who could not pay their dues. Fires resumed in protest, and many removed their clothes as a symbol that they had been left with nothing. In retaliation, over 600 of them were confined to the Oakalla Prison Farm on Piers Island -- a chapter in B.C. history camouflaged in file after file of censored documentation housed in the British Columbia Archives.
Numerous new stories of fires and nude protests spread throughout the country, in retaliation against fierce police brutality and the confiscation of babies taken from their families, many of whom died while in the care of authority. Those who survived were institutionalized or placed in private homes or orphanages.
Perhaps the most emotional segment of the videocassette features testimonials from older Doukhobors whose families were destroyed by government intervention when the children were taken away. Months or years later, some were returned to their loved ones, but their family ties had been forever altered.
By the 1950's, the children of Piers Island had grown into angry adults, and 400 of them were imprisoned for nudism and arson. They had refused to pay taxes and register births, deaths and marriages. During the Cold War, many were confined on charges of terrorism. But the one event that fueled the most public paranoia against the Doukhobors was the publication of the book Terror in the Name of God. In it, author Simma Holt stated that children should be taken away and given "enforced education" so they can be educated against the "training in crime" practiced by their parents. In support of this view,
The children remained institutionalized until the age of fifteen, and families were granted occasional visits across fenced compounds, with no allowances for physical contact. History was repeating itself: Doukhobors had left Russia to avoid persecution and the loss of their children, only to be similarly prosecuted in their adopted home.
My Doukhobor Cousins is set against the backdrop of current terrorist events. As the descendants of the Doukhobors unearth their family histories, they are proud to belong to a people whose beliefs are grounded in pacifism. The Doukhobors are experiencing a current rapprochement between the Sons of Freedom, the orthodox and the independent sects. It is only fitting that J.J. Verigin, great-grandson of Peter "Lordly" Verigin, is a prominent voice in this documentary. He speaks eloquently of his beliefs and hope for a unified Doukhobor reconciliation. The secrets revealed here reconcile the turbulent history of this secret spiritual community with the gentle, troubled people the three cousins encounter in search of their past.
Carole Marion, a Branch Librarian at Calgary Public Library's Shawnessy Branch, has worked with children, teens and their caregivers for almost twenty years.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.