Canada’s little-known Russian sect

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Located seven driving hours east of Vancouver, the Doukhobor Discovery Centre occupies a handsome ensemble of red-bricked buildings flanked by well-tended fields and gnarly apple trees. A white dove emblazoned on the side of a barn ushered me in, and a sign reading “Toil and Peaceful Life” over the entrance porch suggested an atmosphere of quiet industry inside. Wrapped around a grassy courtyard, several rooms of carefully curated exhibits depicted the Doukhobor’s long journey from Russia to Canada and the tight-knit communal style of living that was once their hallmark.

Known today in Canada for their pacifism, vegetarianism and dulcet Russian-language choirs, the Doukhobors evade neat classification. Some historians point to their similarities with the Quakers and the Mennonites. Others refer to them as proto hippies. Possessors of a strong work ethic, they have long been admired for their carpentry and agricultural skills. When the Canadian government was looking for pioneering farmers to settle its rugged interior in the 1890s, there were no better candidates.

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“The most central Doukhobor belief is that the spirit of God dwells within each living being,” Dutchak said. “This tenet lends itself to a number of Doukhobor religious beliefs, including a rejection of religious icons, an emphasis on equality and collectivity as well as non-violence and pacifism.

Dutchak was bought up Catholic, but his grandmother hailed from a Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan. He was drawn to the religion after experiencing one of Castlegar’s Peter’s Day festivals, a celebration of prayer, singing and Russian cooking held every June. “I was attracted to their ideas about equality and pacifism,” he told me. “In the 1960s, the Doukhobors helped organise peace vigils in Canada and they continue to assert their identity through pacificism today.”

Dutchak went on to learn Russian and write a master’s thesis on Doukhobor culture. He started singing in a choir and reconnected with his Doukhobor roots. “For me, the Doukhobors remain highly relevant,” he said. “They have a lot to offer contemporary society.”

Between 1899 and 1938, the Doukhobors thrived in dozens of independent agrarian villages in Canada. The Discovery Centre is essentially a reconstruction of one of their unique self-sufficient communities. Inside, I examined a suite of austere dorms, barns full of old farming implements, a wood-fired oven for making bread and several Rumpelstiltskin-like spinning wheels that were used to make the distinctive tunics and shawls that Doukhobors still wear on special occasions.

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