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Doukhobor, Settlement

Doukhobor is a Russian term that, when translated, means "Spirit Wrestler." The name Doukhobor was bestowed upon the Doukhobor peoples by Russian authorities during the 18th century when the Doukhobors refused to give up their faith in favour of the Orthodox Church and resisted performing what was then mandatory military service in the Russian Imperial Army.

In 1895, after refusing to serve in the Tsar's army and taking an oath of allegiance to the Tsar, Russian Doukhobors set fire to all of their own guns and knives in a protest against militarism. Their actions infuriated the Imperial administration and led to increased persecution by the Tsar's agents. With the assistance of the great Russian writer Lev Tolstoy and other pacifist groups such as the Quakers, 7500 Doukhobors emigrated to Canada in 1899, hoping to establish bloc settlements and start a more peaceful life where they were free to practice their beliefs.

Unfortunately, the experience of the Doukhobors in Canada has been, at times, difficult and tragic. By 1905, after enduring the hardships of establishing three agricultural bloc settlements in Saskatchewan, the Doukhobors had become the largest communal settlement in North America. However, their convictions were at odds with the economic and political views of others who saw free enterprise and military service as essentials for Canadian society. With Clifford Sifton as Minister of Immigration, compromises between the Canadian government and the Doukhobors were realized.

When Sifton was replaced by Alberta's Frank Oliver, the tide turned. The renowned Methodist minister John McDougall headed a land commission that recommended communal landholding be abolished. Doukhobors were required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown before they would be eligible for free homesteads. In conscience and believing that this would end their exemption from military duty, most Doukhobors refused. As a result of their refusal to comply with government officials, three-quarters of their settlement was sold at public auction.

The effects of the government's policy on landholding dealt a devastating blow to the Doukhobors and split the group in three. Independent Doukhobors, who affirmed their allegiance rather than take the oath, were allowed to keep their homesteads while Community (Orthodox) Doukhobors lost most of their lands and moved with their leader, Peter Veregin, to a new settlement in southern
British Columbia, where they were allowed to maintain their communal lifestyle. Finally, The Sons of Freedom, a small group of outspoken activists who fit in neither group, were involved in notorious eccentric forms of protest activities, including arson and marching in the nude. The Sons of Freedom became outcasts within the Doukhobor community as the large majority of Doukhobors reject extremism and violence as forms of expression.

The first Doukhobor settlements in Alberta were established in 1916 at Cowley and Lundbreck in southern Alberta. Families lived separately but shared food preparation in a communal kitchen. Such communities would continue to be established until the end of World War I at places such as Nanton, Mossleigh, Arrowwood and near etaskiwin.

Overall, the Doukhobor population of Alberta remained much smaller than its counterparts in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Like many rural communities, younger generations of Doukhobors began to move to the cities to pursue economic and educational opportunities. This has led to marriage outside the Doukhobor community and a shift in self-understanding and adherence to the ideals and practices of earlier generations.

Breaking the Ground

Breaking the Ground

Orthodox Doukhobors

Orthodox Doukhobors