Updated: May 7
By Jonathan Kalmakoff and Greg Nesteroff
Between 1908 and 1912, about 8,000 Doukhobors migrated to British Columbia from Saskatchewan to maintain their communal lifestyle. But for several years prior, small groups of Doukhobors had been travelling to BC to seek employment — and coincidentally or not, to the very region where their brethren would one day move en masse.
During their early period of settlement on the Canadian Prairies, able-bodied Doukhobor men left their villages in Saskatchewan each spring to find work as farm labourers and railway navvies to earn much-needed money for the community, as most settlers were almost destitute.
Most journeyed by foot and obtained employment within a 100 to 150-mile radius of their villages. Less frequently, some small groups and individuals travelled even further afoot. For instance, 200 travelled to California to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad Coast line in 1900, and in 1901, a smaller group worked on the Ontario & Rainy River Railway line between Baudette, Minnesota and Fort Frances, Ontario. That same year, dozens made their way across the border to Pembina, North Dakota to assist with the fall harvest.
Doukhobor workers on construction of the railroad from Yorkton to Canora, Saskatchewan, ca. 1910. Image C-06515 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
The first sign of a Doukhobor presence in BC was in the Midway Advance of May 7, 1900: “Mr. A.J. Flett has returned safely from Grand Forks where he has been gathering information about a party of Doukhobors that are said to have arrived in that district.”
There was considerable industrial activity in and around Grand Forks in 1900 and the Doukhobors may have been hired as labourers at the newly-operational Granby Consolidated Mining, Smelting and Power Co. smelter, the 10-stamp mill construction for the Yankee Girl and Yankee Boy mines on Hardy Mountain, at the Franklin Camp mine, the Charles Simpson or Ed Spraggett sawmills on the North Fork of the Kettle River, or building the CPR Eholt-to-Phoenix extension.
But no other references to this group can be found (the Grand Forks newspapers for this period are missing), so it’s hard to know whether they were seasonal labourers or just passing through. Flett’s role, if anything more than just curious onlooker, is unclear; his name otherwise only showed up in local newspapers in relation to mining claims. Was he sizing up the Doukhobors as potential workers for those claims?
We know slightly more about the next group of Doukhobors in BC. In October 1901, 16 Doukhobor men in Calgary had a chance encounter with former Rossland police chief John Ingram, who had been recruited to find replacement workers for the Le Roi mine during a miners’ strike.
These men were likely the same Doukhobors employed as track maintenance on the CPR Calgary division who took part in a nationwide strike from June to late August 1901 and who would not have knowingly taken jobs as replacement workers out of solidarity with the striking miners.
According to the Nelson Tribune, “Ingram positively assured them that the labour troubles [in Rossland] were all settled; that 300 union men had returned to work and that 150 union men had applied to the Le Roi company for work but the company did not want them.” However, he apparently misrepresented the situation.
The 16 Doukhobors were among 67 men who left Calgary with Ingram. When they arrived at West Robson to switch trains for Rossland, they discovered the true state of affairs and 10 of them refused to continue. Another 23 men reached the boarding house of the War Eagle mine in Rossland — including the Doukhobors, who spoke little or no English. The cooks and waiters there refused to serve them and they were finally sent off to a cabin to do their own cooking. A union miner visited the party and left some literature explaining the dispute.
Few if any Doukhobor recruits would have had mining experience; the Evening World suggested it would take about two years for them to learn to be muckers, which seems to have been a thinly-veiled insult, as mucking involved shoveling broken rock into tram cars.
The rival Rossland Miner didn’t identify the men as Doukhobors, but it would not have been in their interest to do so as a pro-management paper.
Instead the Miner described them as “as fine a looking party of Canadians as ever came into the Golden City … The men who came into the city last night were a lot of sturdy Canadians who value free speech and action above the fetich of agitation. They will be first-class mine workers in a comparatively short period.”
However, there were no further mentions of the Doukhobor workers after that. They probably departed once they understood the dispute they were in the middle of.
A third early foray into BC by Doukhobors was reported in The Chronicles of Camille, a memoir by longtime Trail merchant Camille Lauriente, published in 1953.
Lauriente recalled working as a CPR section foreman at Murphy Creek, just north of Trail, in July or August 1902. A roadmaster assigned four Doukhobors to work with him, none of whom had any railway experience. (Therefore they probably weren’t the same men who arrived in Rossland from Calgary the previous year.)
One man was fired after Lauriente accused him of laziness; he then went to work at the Trail smelter. The other three were also fired once Lauriente found more experienced track men.
Another early mention of Doukhobors in BC was in the Grand Forks Sun of April 12, 1904: “Messrs. Harry Itter, Geo. H. Hull, Lee and Lawson went down to Cascade last Sunday to take snap shots of the Doukhobor colony at that place.” (None of those photos are known to survive.)
The report is so brief and casual that it seems to assume readers were familiar with the subject. Yet no other mention of Doukhobors in the area appeared in the Grand Forks Sun or Grand Forks Gazette that month.
The word “colony” is probably a misnomer, as it was very doubtful to have been a permanent settlement and more likely an encampment of seasonal labourers. But if this report is accurate, what were they doing at Cascade? Working at one of the mines or sawmills in the area? At the Cascade Water Power & Light dam on the Kettle River? Or for the CPR as railway labourers? And were these the same Doukhobors that A.J. Flett went to see at Grand Forks three years earlier?
Furthermore, was it just coincidence that in each case the men came to the region that would later be home to thousands of Doukhobors? Or did these early sojourns plant some small seed for that subsequent migration? Did any Doukhobors who came to BC prior to 1908 later return permanently?
We’ll probably never know the answers with any certainty. Unfortunately, we don’t know the names of any of the individuals either; no Doukhobors have been discovered in BC on the 1901 census.
— With thanks to Ron Verzuh, who found the story of Doukhobors hired to work in the Rossland mines. This story also appears on the Doukhobor Genealogy Website’s Facebook page and in the Oct. 22, 2020 edition of the West Kootenay Advertiser.
Updated on May 17, 2021 to add the details from Camille Lauriente’s autobiography.