This Week in History: The 1912 Royal Commission into BC’s Doukhobor community

WatchThe BC Archives contain archival history of British Columbia, which is valuable for both research and the preservation of our province's past. One of the thousands of files concerns the arrival of the Doukhobors to Canada, from Russia.

Sally Butterfield is an archivist at the Royal BC Museum. And a 1912 file about a Royal Commission looking into the Doukhobors immigration to Canada is of particular interest to her personally.

“This was really exciting for me, because I’m from Grand Forks, so I went to school with a lot of people who are Doukhobors.  It was really interesting to read through all of these documents.”

Butterfield explains that “The Doukhobors are a religious sect that originate in Russia, and they came to Canada at the end of the 19th century because they were persecuted by the Russian government.   They’re most well-known for their pacifism, their communal living, and their ethos: ‘toil and peaceful life.’   They arrived around 1898, and they first settled in Saskatchewan, where they spent about ten years, homesteading and developing land there, but around 1908 they migrated again to the Southern Interior of British Columbia.”

The Doukhobors settled in the West Kootenays.

“There was a public inquiry to [look into] the social makeup of the group, their community organization, their religious beliefs, and their relationship with Canadian and provincial laws” Butterfield said.

“It was Commissioner Blakemore who was in charge of the commission.  Between August 1912 and December 1912, he visited Doukhobor communities in Grand Forks, and in Brilliant, near Castlegar, as well as Doukhobor communities back in Saskatchewan.  So [the report] begins with a really thorough history of the Doukhobors, and then it goes into talking about their habits, customs and practices, and their religious beliefs.

“Blakemore’s final recommendations were that they are desirable settlers, is his term, but that no more Doukhobors should come to Canada until [the government] can solve the question of vital event registration – so births, marriages, and deaths – as well as education, because the Doukhobor children weren’t attending public schools.

“Reading through his reports, he found that [the Doukhobors] were very forthcoming, they were very generous with their time, they volunteered a lot of documents to demonstrate the land that they own, and how they’ve developed it, and their religious beliefs, so the community really seems to have welcomed the commission” Butterfield concluded.

Many Doukhobors still live in the West Kootenays of British Columbia, working to protect and preserve their language, religion, and way of life.

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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