The Migration of Doukhobors to British Columbia

The steamship Lake Huron, which brought Doukhobor immigrants to Canada in 1899. © Doukhobors / Library and Archives Canada / C-005208

For the week of January 20, 2020

On January 20, 1899, more than 2,100 Doukhobor immigrants reached Lawlor Island in Nova Scotia. They came to Canada from what is now Mordovia, where their pacifism and religious dissent put them in conflict with Russian authorities and the Orthodox Church.

Most of the Doukhobors made their way to the historic North-West Territories. There, they settled in an area that is now part of Saskatchewan and is covered by Treaty 4, signed by the Cree, the Saulteaux, the Assiniboine, and the Crown in 1874. At the time, the federal government was encouraging European settlers and railway companies to move into western Canada by means of the Dominion Lands Act (1872). This legislation made 1.25 million homesteads available to individuals and religious groups, such as the Doukhobors. Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton also provided the Doukhobors with special concessions, allowing them to work the land communally. In 1905, his successor, Frank Oliver, demanded that they conform to the Act, which required that they register their homesteads individually. Some Doukhobors agreed and remained in Saskatchewan, primarily near Veregin, and further complied with requests that they enrol their children in English-language schools. They are known today as the Independents.

Others refused. Oliver reclaimed their land, which amounted to approximately 400,000 acres. This prompted a minority of Doukhobors to stage nude marches in protest and led the community to purchase land collectively in Alberta and British Columbia. The first group of 85 men arrived at Waterloo (now, Castlegar) and Grand Forks, British Columbia, in 1908, and immediately set to work clearing the land, building sawmills and dwellings, and planting vegetable gardens. Approximately 800 women and children followed a few months later. The migration of Doukhobors to British Columbia continued in stages until 1913, by which time their population had grown to 5,000. In the years that followed, the Doukhobor community expanded to several other towns surrounding Waterloo and Grand Forks.

The Migration of Doukhobors to British Columbia is a designated national historic event.

2019 marks 100 years since the founding of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Find out more on the HSMBC website.