Editor’s note: The following blog post is part two of a two-part series looking at the history and influence of Doukhobors in Alberta. Read part 1 here.
Written by: Matthew Wangler, Historic Resources Management Branch
Following the establishment of the community in British Columbia, Verigin sought to diversify and strengthen the Doukhobor economy by purchasing new land in southern Alberta. It was not the first time that the Doukhobors had considered Alberta as a home for their community. In 1898, members of a Doukhobor delegation had initially explored purchasing land near Beaverhills Lake by Edmonton, but the proposal was scuttled, as local Member of Parliament Frank Oliver was opposed to their presence. While some Saskatchewan Doukhobors were working in Alberta as agricultural labourers and construction workers in 1911 and 1912, the first Doukhobor villages in the province were established in 1915 in the Cowley/Lundbreck area. Additional land was purchased in the following years, and Verigin arranged to rent land in the Vulcan area on a crop-share basis. The Alberta Doukhobors dedicated themselves to growing grain and raising horses and cattle. The settlements were successful, and at their peak, they boasted 300 members in 13 small villages. The communities tended to 300 horses and 400 shorthorn cattle, and produced 100,000 bushels of grain annually; they also constructed two-grain elevators and a flour mill. The Doukhobors seemed well-suited to the physical landscape of southern Alberta, and found that the region was also distinctly accommodating to smaller religious communities. Anabaptist groups like the Mennonites and Hutterites had already established themselves in the area, as had Mormons fleeing persecution in the United States. During their time in Alberta, the Doukhobors also developed positive relations with their Blackfoot neighbours.
By 1920, the Doukhobors had established prosperous agricultural settlements in both British Columbia and Alberta. But community frictions remained endemic in both provinces, and would lead to dramatic fractures in the following decades. The most zealous Doukhobors, known as the Sons of Freedom, engaged in ever-intensifying protests against the perceived materialism and corruption of both Canadian society and their own religious community. To oppose the worldliness of their religious brethren, they marched naked and burned public buildings. To rebel against government demands on matters like the necessity of Doukhobor children attending public schools, the Sons of Freedom engaged in acts of sabotage and arson against government property, including railway lines. Not surprisingly, the actions of the Sons of Freedom attracted media attention, and tarnished the Doukhobor community as a whole in the eyes of many Canadians.
Arguably, the death knell for the Doukhobors’ original vision of communal life in Canada struck in 1924, when Peter the Lordly Verigin was killed in a train bombing in British Columbia. The crime was never solved. While the Doukhobors’ worldview was rooted in a radical vision of the equality of all people as vessels of the divine, it is undeniable that they viewed their charismatic leader as having a more profound and direct connection to God than others. His death devastated the community, and led to disputes over succession. One of the aspirants to leadership, Anastasia Federovna Holoboff (also known as Anastasia Lords), had been Peter’s companion for two decades, and staked her claim as his rightful heir. Ultimately, however, Verigin’s son, Peter, was summoned from Russia to assume the mantle of leadership. Embittered by the rejection, Anastasia established a new, separate Doukhobor community in 1926, known as the Lordly Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in the Shouldice area of southern Alberta. Her community accommodated 165 residents and contained 26 homes, a school, prayer home and a blacksmith shop. The settlement constituted a true rarity in Alberta’s history – an agrarian religious community led by a charismatic woman. Independent Doukhobors also acquired land in the Mossleigh/Shouldice area, and in the 1931 census, approximately half of the 786 Doukhobors in Alberta lived in the region.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Doukhobors struggled to negotiate conflicts within the community and with the outside world. Their desire to own property communally proved particularly challenging. In 1938, government and financial institutions foreclosed on a relatively minor debt held by the Doukhobors, effectively ending their experiment with communal living. The decades that followed witnessed both the growth of Independent Doukhobors farming privately held parcels and occasional radical demonstrations by the Sons of Freedom. The number of Doukhobors still active in their faith has steadily dwindled. Although estimates of the number of Doukhobor descendants in Canada today vary from 20,000 to 65,000, the number of those registering as actively involved in their faith is likely in the low thousands (the census of 2011 registered 2,290 who self-identified as Doukhobors).
The Doukhobor Prayer Home in Lundbreck (also known as the Doukhobor Hall [dom or house]) was built in 1953, many years after Peter the Lordly Verigin’s assassination and the loss of communal land holdings. Unlike early Doukhobor buildings in Saskatchewan, which featured the exquisite craftsmanship of community members, the prayer home in Lundbreck was largely assembled from mass-produced materials. The interior is simple, and provides the necessary space for the display of bread, water, salt and the celebration of sobranie. Interestingly, the walls of the prayer home feature photographs of Canadian politicians and certificates recognizing the Doukhobors’ registration as a religious organization. It is hard to imagine earlier generations of Doukhobors seeking to display their integration with Canadian society, but by the 1950s, community members were increasingly accommodating themselves to local culture and society.
Today, there is little evidence of the Doukhobor presence in Alberta. One can still visit the cemetery in Lundbreck, tour a Doukhobor barn on display at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village in Pincher Creek, or see the remnants of Anastasia’s village. Otherwise, the Doukhobors have left few traces on the landscape. A group in Alberta and British Columbia is aiming to increase awareness of Doukhobor history by developing an interpretive centre within the Doukhobor Prayer Home in Lundbreck. They believe that the Doukhobor’s vision of a simple, peaceful life is as relevant now as ever, and that Albertans can be enriched by immersing themselves into the joys and struggles of this remarkable people.
Note to Reader: There are many excellent online resources available to learn more about Doukhobor history. The Canadian Encyclopedia has an informative webpage on the community, as does Library and Archives Canada. The Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ website offers overviews of Doukhobor history, beliefs, and culture. The Doukhobor Genealogy website is an excellent source of information on Doukhobor family history. On the Larry’s Desk website, you can read interesting articles and anecdotes about community history from the former curator of the Doukhobor Discovery Centre in B.C.