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Doukhobour Immigration to Alberta

The name Doukhobours, which literally means spirit wrestlers in Russian, was given to the group of Russian peasants who refused to give up their form of Christianity to join the Orthodox Church. The Doukhobours also resisted mandatory military service (called conscription) in the Russian army. Because of their stance on these issues, they were discriminated against and persecuted by other Russians. In 1895, Doukhobours set fire to their guns, knives, and other weapons in a pacifist demonstration. This act caused the czar’s agents to increase persecution of the Doukhobours.

In the late 1800s, the Canadian government decided to try to persuade settlers to come to the prairies by telling them they could live in bloc settlements, retain their religious beliefs, and be exempt from military service. This appealed to the persecuted Doukhobours. Russian author Leo Tolstoy admired the group and decided to help them emigrate. Tolstoy worked with the Quakers, another pacifist group, and with people in Canada to arrange the Doukhobors' immigration to the Canadian prairies. In 1899, 7,500 Doukhobours came to Canada and settled in Saskatchewan.

Doukhobor breaking prairie sod on Canadian Wheatlands project near Bowell, Alberta

In 1907, the Canadian government stated that no one could own land unless he or she swore an oath of loyalty to the State. Many Doukhobours felt that if they took such an oath, they would be forced to fight in the army if Canada ever went to war. Because engaging in war was something their pacifist beliefs forbade them to do, many Doukhobours left Saskatchewan and settled in British Columbia where they could buy land privately without having to take the oath. It was not until 1916 that the first Doukhobour settlements were established in Alberta at Cowley and Lundbreck in the southern foothills. These Doukhobour settlers came from British Columbia and kept strong ties with their family and friends across the Rocky Mountains.

The families in these settlements lived separately but prepared food together in a communal kitchen. As the years passed, more settlements were established throughout Alberta in places such as Mosseligh and Arrowwood and near Wetaskiwin. Whole families worked hard in the fields.

Perhaps because they are few in number, the Doukhobours in Alberta have not suffered from large amounts of persecution or discrimination. The violent actions of the Sons of Freedom, an extremist Doukhobour group, made Albertans less kind to Doukhobours living in Alberta. Yet, because there were no Sons of Freedom living in Alberta, this discrimination was not too severe.

In 1942, the Lands Sales Prohibition Act, an act by the Social Credit government of Alberta, identified Doukhobors, Hutterites, and other enemy aliens and prevented these groups from purchasing and leasing land. This law was deemed unconstitutional and was therefore amended in 1944. Some Doukhobours also suffered discrimination during the Cold War, when anti-Russian sentiment was pervasive and people remembered that Doukhobors had emigrated from Russia.

Music is an important aspect Doukhobours' life and many choral groups have been started within the last 50 years. These groups have helped the Doukhobours preserve their knowledge of Russian and their culture. They tend to sing a capella (unaccompanied). Much of their music consists of traditional hymns and folksongs. These Doukhobor groups have made recordings and have participated in such diverse events as Expo 67 in Montreal, Seattle’s World Fair in 1974, and a youth festival in Cuba.

Many Doukhobor children have moved from rural areas to the cities. They are no longer learning Russian and are beginning to marry people from other ethnic groups. As of the 1991 Census, there were 3,000 people of Doukhobour descent living in Alberta.

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