Third in a series marking the centennial of the First World War
When the Doukhobors emigrated to Canada from Russia, it was with the understanding they would be exempt from military service, a key consideration given their pacifist beliefs. The First World War put that promise to the test.
The minutes of a privy council meeting of December 6, 1898 relate how since their settlement in the Caucasus, Doukhobors had “by their good behavior, diligence, sobriety and hard working qualities brought nothing but prosperity to the barren localities in which they were originally settled.”
However, as they were “averse to bearing arms” — they burned their weapons en masse three years earlier — the Russian government permitted (or encouraged) them to leave the country.
Canada considered Doukhobors a “most desirable class of settlers” to locate on the Prairies, and interior minister Clifford Sifton felt it “expedient to give them the fullest assurances of absolute immunity from military service in the event of their settling in this country.”
A section of the Militia Act already contained an exemption for Quakers, Mennonites, and others with religious objections. Sifton suggested it be extended to the Doukhobors as well.
Following the approval of an order-in-council, about 7,400 Doukhobors came to Canada, first to what’s now Saskatchewan and then BC, where they bought land, planted orchards, built sawmills and factories, and lived communally.
Carload of jam
During the First World War, Doukhobors were taken aback when asked to fill out registration cards, which they suspected was the first step toward conscription.
In January 1917, a delegation led by Peter Makaroff, then a Saskatoon law student, met with solicitor general and future prime minister Arthur Meighen in Ottawa. They said they will be willing to have their taxes doubled so long as they were not called to fight. Meighen assured them the government would uphold its end of the bargain but seven months later introduced a conscription act that ensnared at least some Doukhobors.
Meanwhile, to quell any resentment among neighbours over their special status, Doukhobor leader Peter (Lordly) Verigin (pictured at left) announced he would contribute $100 per month to the patriotic fund in Grand Forks and that his people would help the war effort by donating a carload of jam from their factory at Brilliant — 12 tons in the form of 5,000 five-pound tins, worth $5,000 (the equivalent of $92,500 today).
That included 7,500 lbs. of strawberry jam, 7,500 lbs. of raspberry, and the remainder of plum, peach, and black currant, which came at the expense of families at Brilliant who cut back on their personal allowances. (Earlier, the Independent Doukhobors of Thrums contributed 19 sacks of potatoes to the patriotic fund.)
The jam was intended for wounded soldiers in BC, but the donation was so large that it was shared with other western provinces: two tons went to St. Chad’s Military Convalescent Hospital at Regina, two tons to the Returned Soldiers’ Association in Winnipeg, one ton to the Returned Soldiers Association of Alberta, and the rest to the Military Convalescent Hospital at Esquimalt. A small amount was also distributed by Victoria women’s patriotic organizations.
The donation’s novelty earned headlines around the continent.
“The gift is noteworthy because of the anti-war philosophy of the Doukhobors, this being the first time they have taken part in any of the war activities,” said the San Jose Evening News.
However, the Wall Street Journal was unimpressed. In an editorial, it wrote: “Salute the better understanding of Ottawa. Salute the simple, primitive faith of simple folk, whose true home-made charity works briberies into our system in spite of all conviction.”
Enlisted and conscripted
By some accounts, Peter Verigin didn’t think independent Doukhobors who had left communal life should be entitled to the military exemption. He also noted “a number of young men in his settlement have already enlisted for service at the front, and many others will enlist in the near future.”
Jon Kalmakoff’s Doukhobor Genealogy Website has identified 62 such men, mostly independents from Saskatchewan who signed up voluntarily, although some were drafted. There were also two from BC: John Nevacshonoff and Demitri Kolesnikoff, both of Thrums.
Nevacshonoff was only 15 when he lied about his age and enlisted in June 1916. He served in France with the 232nd Battalion, but regretted his participation, saying he had “given three years of his life to the devil.” He implored his sons never to go to war.
According to a family obituary, Nevacshonoff claimed to have participated in a Christmas truce with his German opponents, who “amongst themselves decided it was a senseless war and that they would no longer shoot each other.”
He also said that late in the war, Russian-Canadian soldiers refused to kill Russian troops, and were captured and marched for a week without food. Many died and others were placed in a prisoner of war camp and finally dishonorably discharged. (Nevacshonoff’s online attestation papers don’t indicate whether this was his fate.)
Kolesnikoff, meanwhile, was 36 when he was conscripted in June 1918 into the 1st Depot Battalion at Calgary, having failed to report for duty the previous year. His fate from that point on is unclear, although it appears he and wife Mary had two sons, John and Peter, who died in Grand Forks in 1975 and 1966 respectively.
While the federal government for the most part kept its promise to exempt Doukhobors from military service, it punished them in another way. They, along with other religious groups and conscientious objectors, were disenfranchised by the Wartime Elections Act of 1917.
This probably had little practical effect on orthodox Doukhobors who were unlikely to vote anyway, but may have affected some independents. Doukhobors had their franchise returned after the war, but taken away again from 1934 to 1955.
Despite the jam donation, anti-Doukhobor sentiments grew in 1918, fanned by the Great War Veterans Association. At a farmers meeting in Grand Forks, a resolution was unanimously passed calling for conscription of Doukhobors.
It stated that “all our young able-bodied men have been taken away from our farms and necessary industries for the successfully carrying on of the war, and the Doukhobors and other aliens are taking advantage of the scarcity of labor and are retarding the work of the country by holding out for exorbitant wages.”
After the war, people at a public meeting in Grand Forks urged the government to buy out the Doukhobor colony and replace it with a settlement of returned soldiers. Nothing came of it.
In their new book, From the West Coast to the Western Front, Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson explore the relationship between Doukhobors and World War I, along with other minority groups, such as Japanese-Canadians who fought for Canada, only to be interned during World War II, many in West Kootenay/Boundary.
“Doukhobors make donations,” Grand Forks Sun, December 22, 1916
Trail News, December 29, 1916
“Doukhobor jam for wounded soldiers,” Daily Colonist (Victoria), January 7, 1917 and Nelson Daily News, Jan. 11, 1917
“Doukhobors not to be asked to fight,” Manitoba Free Press, January 15, 1917
“Anti-war sect gives jam to the soldiers,” (San Jose) Evening News, February 3, 1917
“Doukhobors are ready to fight,” Vancouver Daily World, August 30, 1917
“Several groups barred,” Vancouver Daily World, September 4, 1917
“Jam as a justifier,” Wall Street Journal, January 25, 1918
“Want Douk labor conscripted,” Grand Forks Sun, May 10, 1918
“Do not like Doukhobors,” Vancouver Daily World, May 14, 1918
“Doukhobors must live up to laws,” (Spokane) Spokesman Review, October 8, 1918
“Another drive on the Douks,” Grand Forks Sun, April 11, 1919
John Earl Nevacshonoff obituary, Grand Forks Gazette, May 2010
From the West Coast to the Western Front, Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson, 2014, p. 174-75