For over a day they trudged through the city in pairs, 700 men, women and children, carrying boards on their shoulders. Bewildered spectators watched. It was the port city of Batum, Russia, in December 1898. The 700 were volunteers from a large group of Doukhobors, Russian dissenters, preparing for the largest single migration across the Atlantic to North America.

Peter Verigin's powerful personality enabled the Doukhobors to weather their difficult first decades in Canada (courtesy NAC/C-8882, photo 1902).
Four groups crossed the ocean in ships intended for freight and livestock. The first group sailed on the Beaver Line's steamer Lake Huron. Before sailing, the immigrants prepared the ship, building bunks in the hold from the lumber they had carried across the city and loading it with enough supplies to feed 2140 people during the month-long journey. Nearly 200 stowed away, hiding in the bedding and among the coals of the boiler room. On January 20, 1899, when they reached Halifax, 2300 Doukhobors disembarked.

The Doukhobors emerged as an organized movement in the 18th century. They renounced the Russian Orthodox Church's ritual of worshiping icons, hence their original name "Ikono-bortsi” (icon wrestlers). In 1785, Archbishop Ambrosius referred to them as "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 all thy heart, mind and soul; and, Love thy neighbour as thyself. Their highest moral development came at the end of the 19th century when, inspired by the leadership of Peter Verigin, they advanced the practical, moral and ethical aspects of their lifestyle.

Believing that killing animals also assaulted human sensibilities, they resolved not to consume animal flesh. They rejected alcohol and tobacco as harmful to the human body created by God to be pure. Devoted to pacifism, they rejected violence and militarism. On June 29, 1895, in protest, 7000 Doukhobor soldiers destroyed their weapons. Ironically, their stand against killing was disfavoured by Church authorities, as it was by the Czarist State. The defiant act led to exile and persecution that had never "been more cruel and oppressive.”

The Doukhobor plight garnered international attention. Leo Tolstoy, American Quakers and a great many Canadians helped the Doukhobors immigrate to the territories of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. They were invited by Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, because they were successful farmers and the prairies wanted settling. Humanitarian motives were secondary.

Upon arrival in Halifax, the Doukhobors 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, NB, 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.

At stops along the way, women's groups gave the children apples, oranges and sweets. In Winnipeg a committee took them to reception centers to prepare for settlement while a Montreal committee gave them heavy clothing to ward off the severe prairie cold. Three other shiploads followed. By June Canada had become home to 7500 Doukhobors who settled on the prairies in three communal blocs on 773,400 acres, eventually establishing 61 villages in what is now Saskatchewan.

The Doukhobor pilgrims enter Yorkton, Sask, 1899 (British Library).
The Doukhobors' warm reception was not unanimous. Opponents of Sifton's plan-press, Conservative politicians, ranchers and some clergy-expressed their reservations, sometimes vehemently, motivated by fear of the unknown. No one knew these Russian peasants who refused military service, rejected the church, lived and worked in communal colonies and spoke no English. And they were not of the preferred British, French or German stock. Some contended that they were therefore inferior, possessing none of the qualities that make good Canadians.

Objections were raised in newspapers and political speeches. If there were a war, English settlers would have to fight "in defence of the favoured foreigner.” It was better "to distribute them in small groups throughout the country so they could easily assimilate.” It was necessary to "break up as far as possible [their] herding proclivities.”

Nineteenth-century Canada's great needs were population and the opening of the West to agriculture. Within six years of the arrival of the Doukhobors, Sifton's plan was so successful that the prairie population had increased fivefold, and the new Canadians were meeting the challenges of cultivating the prairies. Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is a subject editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.