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Paradise denied

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

By Jonathan Kalmakoff and Greg Nesteroff


In October 1902, the British Columbia government received — and promptly rejected — a request to set aside land for a small subset of radicalized Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, who soon became known as Sons of God, Freemen, and later the Sons of Freedom. This refusal was immediately followed by the first (of subsequently many) recorded treks by the zealots across the Prairies in search of a Promised Land.

The previous year, Doukhobors in Canada received a book of letters by their leader, Peter V. Verigin, who was then exiled in Siberia. The book was hastily published by Tolstoyan Vladimir Tchertkoff, himself living in exile in England, and contained Verigin’s Tolstoyan-influenced philosophical theories, musings and fantasies. [1] The intended audience was his fellow exiles and other sympathizers of the Doukhobors; they were never written or intended for the Doukhobors themselves.

Doukhobors stopped during a pilgrimage on the Prairies, 1902. G. Riddington photo, taken from A Peculiar People: The Doukhobors, by Aylmer Maude (1904)

Some of the more extreme and radical ideas in Verigin’s philosophical letters included repudiating education and the suggestion that to become Christians, one should abandon physical labour and go out and preach the Gospel. [2] In doing so, he wrote, humanity would attain spiritual growth along with a natural earthly paradise. [3] In this paradise, man would survive off the fruits of the earth and have no need for clothes. [4] People would gradually become accustomed to physical nakedness. [5]

When these published letters reached the Doukhobors in Canada, they would have dramatic consequences, for they found fertile ground among some of the most radicalized members of the sect, who viewed Verigin as a living Christ, or at least divinely inspired, and who interpreted his words as sacred decree.

They were already disillusioned with life on the Prairies, both because of the cold climate and what they perceived to be government interference and were already circulating rumours of a Promised Land where true Christians could live in brotherly love in the spirit of Christ.

One of the foremost leaders of these zealots was Ivan Ivanovich Ponomareff (1847-1921/22). [6] In Russia, Ponomareff had been wealthy and prosperous, but distributed all his property among the poor and indigent Doukhobors in the 1890s. [7]

He delivered a prized purebred stallion of his to Doukhobor leader Peter V. Verigin in Siberia, and as his trusted ally, brought back his messages to his followers in the Caucasus. [8] Following his arrival on the Canadian Prairies in 1899, Ivan quickly became a prominent elder in his village of Trudolyubovoye.

At the end of 1900, he wrote to Leo Tolstoy about disagreements the Doukhobors were having with the Canadian government over land ownership and registration of vital statistics. [9]

Ponomareff and other leading zealots [10] began to spread their misinterpretation of Verigin’s letters. They said that they, the Sons of God, must give freedom to all creation. Thus they set free their cattle and horses on the open Prairie, and in their fervor of emotion to return back to nature, burned everything made of leather, including boots and harnesses. Furthermore, they decided to act as holy apostles and labour only in Christ’s service.

They began seeking a new homeland with a more hospitable climate, where, as Verigin wrote, they could live off the bounty of the land in a natural state and wouldn’t have to submit to the laws of man, but would be free to preach Christ’s word. Approaching the issue from multiple angles, they reputedly dispatched an envoy to Great Britain to ask that land be set aside for them in South Africa and also applied to the Russian government to return there. [11]

Furthermore, Ponomareff wrote to BC’s Lieutenant Governor seeking land in that province where they could settle. The text of the letter is not available, but it was submitted to Sir Henry Joli de Lotbiniere in French, and then translated into English for the benefit of the provincial cabinet, which discussed it on Oct. 22, 1902. [12]

Ivan Ponomaroff is pictured at right in an undated photo. Image C-01489 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

In an attached note to Premier James Dunsmuir, de Lotbiniere said he was confident “that it will meet with a prompt and positive refusal” and added that “It would be, in my opinion, a very grave mistake to grant their petition.” [13]

He further grumbled: “These people have been welcomed into Canada with more than ordinary hospitality, and because they are asked to conform to the laws of Canada, they complain that they are persecuted. They call themselves the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, and they ignore the teaching of Christ when He said: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s/And unto God the things that are God’s.’” [14]

Following the cabinet meeting, de Lotbiniere replied to the petitioners: “The government, while ready to welcome with pleasure desirable immigrants, refuse absolutely to enter into negotiations with a body of immigrants who at the outset declare they will not conform with the laws of the country.” [15]

The apostles among the zealots found the reply “short, curt and evasive, giving us no encouragement whatever.” [16] They were already actively mobilizing like-minded zealots to free their livestock, abandon their farms, and march somewhere warmer and better, although they weren’t sure where. Now, with BC’s reply in hand, they knew they weren’t headed west, so they chose east instead.

On Oct. 27, Ponomareff at the head of some 1,700 men, women, and children set off on foot toward Winnipeg. However, even while trekking from the Doukhobor villages via Yorkton, the idea of settlement in the warm, bountiful lands of BC hadn't left Ponomareff’s mind.

Four days later, at Saltcoats, near the Manitoba border, Ponomareff wrote to Thomas Ladner, the mayor of Delta, BC. [17] He complained the Doukhobors had been induced by the Dominion Government to leave their homes and acquaintances to settle on the Prairies by promising them large tracts of land where they would have free liberty of worship and action, provided they conformed to the laws of the country.

However, Ponomareff said, the North-West Mounted Police had not respected the concessions granted by government and the “Mission Tabernacle” (an allusion to the Kingdom of God on Earth they aspired toward, not an actual building or place) was not yet built.

Ponomareff acknowledged they had applied to BC’s Lieutenant Governor for entry into the province, where they would be law-abiding as long as they could preach their religious beliefs, but had been refused.

Ponomareff now pleaded directly with the mayor to assist them in procuring a small tract of land along the banks of the Fraser River where they could build homes and live in “blissful happiness.” They had no interest in engaging in agricultural pursuit, he admitted, but promised they would comply with laws provided they could erect their own “tabernacle” and preach the second coming of the Saviour.

The zealots’ desire for a warmer climate where they could live in accordance with nature was fully articulated in the final paragraph, which stated “as the cold weather is at hand and our people are anxious to escape the trials and endurements of a long and tedious winter, we urgently ask you to give us an early reply” regarding their “proposed pilgrimage.”

The names of the three petitioners as printed in the Delta Times were garbled, but the first one was almost certainly Ponomareff’s. There is no recorded reply from the mayor.

Delta was then an isolated farming community, yet the writers said they weren’t planning to farm, in keeping with their misinterpretation of Verigin’s philosophical musings about “abandoning physical labour.” Evidently they hoped to live off the fruits of the land in an idylic Rousseauian state of nature.

Was Delta the only BC community they approached? Or was this letter just the only one to show up in a newspaper?

At the same time, a response was published to yet another letter Ponomareff sent prior to the trek; this time to US President Theodore Roosevelt requesting resettlement to America. An assistant lands commissioner who answered on Roosevelt’s behalf summarized Ponomareff’s request for public lands in the US:

You have discovered that, although in Canada there is religious freedom, still it is not what you were in search of; that you yield obedience only to the commands of the spirit of God in your heart and cannot submit to any human laws or become the subjects of any sovereign; that you are not compelled to bear arms or perform military service in Canada, but must become subjects of Great Britain and therefore you cannot obtain land on which to live without obeying “all the institutions and laws of Canada.
You therefore ask that you may be given refuge … where you may live by the labor of your hands, and where you “shall not be forced to obey human ordinances or be asked to become subjects of anyone except the good God.” You state that you use no meat or milk, but only vegetables and fruit; that you have no domestic animals, and all your work is done by your own labor, and ask only for such land as you can cultivate by manual labor without the assistance of animals, etc. [18]

The commissioner’s reply was more polite than de Lotbiniere’s, but the upshot was the same: he said public lands could only be granted to American citizens or those who intended to become citizens.

By this time, the zealots’ pilgrimage was over. Although the women and children had been detained in Yorkton, the men walked another 100 miles. In early November, police turned them around at Minnedosa, Manitoba and escorted them back to Yorkton and then back to their villages.

Peter V. Verigin arrived in Canada from Siberia in December and his first order of business was to tour all of the villages and quell the unrest and zealotry that led to the trek. Ponomareff and the other zealot leaders quickly fell into line with the leader’s dictates and participated in the establishment of his community.

As for Ponomareff, in late 1911 or early 1912, he migrated with Verigin’s Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood to Brilliant, where he last appeared in the 1921 Canada census. By then quite elderly and sick from poor food and hard work, he spent his last years bedridden in a small tin shack at the edge of the settlement. He reportedly died there within the following year. [19]

The zealotry that emerged among Ponomareff and other radicalized Doukhobors in 1902 was the birth of the splinter movement later known as the Freedomites or Sons of Freedom. While their eastward trek was chronicled extensively, it is not well remembered that it followed their failed attempt to settle elsewhere, including South Africa, the United States, and in particular, British Columbia, each of which refused to have anything to do with them. Ironically, in the decades to come, most Freedomites would nevertheless make BC their home.

NOTES [1] Letters of the Doukhobor Leader Peter Vasilyevitch Verigin (Christchurch, England, Hants, Tchertkoff, 1901)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ponomareff was born in 1847 in the village of Tambovka, Akhalkalaki district, Tiflis province, Russia and appears in the 1853, 1860, 1873 and 1886 cameral lists taken by Tsarist authorities (Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, private archival collection). He appears in Trudolyubovoye village, South Reserve, Saskatchewan in 1905 (LAC RG-15 Department of Interior File 5404680) but like many zealots, refused to be enumerated by census-takers in the 1901, 1906 and 1911 censuses.

[7] Simeon F. Reibin, Toil and Peaceful Life, History of Doukhobors Unmasked (Sacramento, CA, 1955), p. 145.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Leo Tolstoy and Russian Sectarian Writers: Selected Correspondence, Andrew Donskov, ed., 2008, p. 232-33

[10] Most notably Vasily Obedkoff (one of the messengers who visited Verigin in exile and returned to the Caucasus with his message to renounce meat, alcohol and tobacco) and Nikolai Zibaroff (pictured at right, ca. 1902, who went on to play a major role as a main leader of the Doukhobor Society in the North Reserve, Sask., and after 1909, in the Grand Forks, BC settlements).

[11] “Don’t want the Doukhobor,” The Vancouver Daily Province, 23 Oct 1902

[12] “Keep away from BC,” The Daily News (Nelson), 25 Oct 1902

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Doukhobors want to come to the Delta district,” Delta News, 22 Nov 1902

[17] Ibid.

[18] “No public domain here for Doukhobors,” Evening Times (Washington, DC), 22 Nov 1902; Friends’ Intelligencer, Vol. 59, 1902. Ponomareff’s letter to Roosevelt was written on behalf of Doukhobors belonging to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood at “Crowstand, Assiniboia.” Crowstand was a Presbyterian-run Indian residential school (1889) and rural post office (1898) near Ponomareff’s village of Trudolyubovoye in what would become the Kamsack district of Saskatchewan.

[19] Reibin, supra, note 7

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