Thursday, 31 May 2012

Q48: How Do Saskatchewan Doukhobors Preserve Their Heritage?

From: Jarred Webb

BC Doukhobor youth have a wide array of ways to learn and interact with their cultures, Youth Festivals, Youth Councils, Russian lessons in schools, among many more, but what do Saskatchewan youth do to preserve their heritage? Do they put on festivals there? Partake in Doukhobor celebrations? Learn Russian? Being of Independent Doukhobor origin, it has been easier for their families to assimilate into mainstream society; so how do the youth preserve their tradition?


Strong assimilative forces of the wider society have drastically changed the landscape of the Doukhobor youth in Canada since 7,500 of their ancestors arrived on the Canadian prairies in 1899.

Indeed, two large Community Centres (in Grand Forks and Castlegar-Brilliant), a strong USCC organization, Iskra publication, an active choral program peaking at the annual Youth Festivals in May, Russian language programs, sobranie gatherings, the Doukhobor Discovery Centre, and a number of Doukhobor-led organizations are major institutional supports helping BC youth to preserve their traditions.

With a smaller population, Saskatchewan Doukhobor youth have their supports, too, but in a more challenging manner. These supports include the following:

  • History — A historical tradition of adaptivity to education has led to an early examination of their cultural tradition, not as a sect, but as a social movement. See my Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor of 2002 for a classic treatise of this development.
  • Song — The choral singing tradition has been active over the years especially with earlier youth and student choral groups, early festivals, and recent opportunities to travel to British Columbia and participate in the annual Youth Festivals.
  • Holidays — A tie to the nonkilling Tolstoyan tradition has been strongly supported by the Annual Doukhobor Peace Day held at the end of June commemorating the mass arms burning event in Russia in 1895. Here is an opportunity for youth to renew their inner values of love and become active in the wider peace movement.
  • Volunteer — Saskatoon is a city where Doukhobor young and old from the neighbouring communities of Langham, Blaine Lake and Watson have actively supported the annual bread-baking event at the local week long industrial exhibition, and this has brought them local, national and international fame.
  • Museums — The National Doukhobor Heritage Village at Verigin, Sask. has been a hub of public education for many years, as has been the recent Doukhobor Dugout House in the Blaine Lake area. Public tours of traditional areas have facilitated the education process.
  • PublicationsThe Inquirer youth publication in the 1950s has set the trend for inquiry into the Doukhobor movement, which later led to The Dove (sponsored by the Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan) and the Doukhobor Sheaf (by the Doukhobor Society of Canada). Out of these efforts evolved major collections at the Saskatchewan Archives, along with major websites such as this one (Spirit-Wrestlers and Spirit-Wrestlers Blog), along with Jon Kalmakoff's Doukhobor Geneaology Website, and the Verigin Heritage Village site. Also many theses, publications and films were stimulated by these efforts.
  • Language — Some Russian language training has been promoted over the years, with recent ties to the University of Saskatchewan.
Over and above the community supports, mention must be made of the structures that have brought all the Doukhobors together, young and old. This includes many activities held during the 1995 and 1999 Centennial celebrations of the Doukhobors in Canada especially that of the unique Spirit Wrestlers Exhibit (1996-1998) at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Also one needs to mention two other structures that today serve as a unifying force: the CCUB Trust Fund Committee (established in 1980) and the Council of Doukhobors in Canada (which evolved out of the Centennial celebrations).

More: Questions and Answers, Comments


  1. Gunter Schaarschmidt4 June 2012 at 06:37

    In his blog, Koozma Tarasoff has presented an extensive and insightful outline of the sources and possibilities of Doukhobor heritage preservation. The comments below should not detract from this meritorious presentation but should be understood as a necessary clarification of the language component of Doukhobor heritage. When referring to “Russian”, the language of “Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Krylov and Lermontov” (in Vera Kanigan’s sub-blog) can only very conditionally considered to be part of Doukhobor heritage. The language most causally involved in that heritage is Doukhobor Russian or “Doukhoborese” as Dmitri \(Jim\) Popoff has labelled it in his ongoing series in Iskra (since January 2012). This language was formed as a compromise language in the early part of the 19th century and was transmitted orally as the carrier of Doukhobor culture in both its colloquial and ritual forms right into the 1930s. This language is now seriously endangered and will die unless immediate maintenance and revitalization efforts are put into effect. Such efforts would include instruction in kindergarten, elementary schools, and high schools along with Standard Russian (another compromise language, based essentially on the Moscow dialect). Parents need not be concerned that such dual instruction will be a burden: children’s brains can acquire any number of languages and can handle this kind of diglossia easily. From the very beginning, such instruction will need to involve Doukhobor elders as the last surviving carriers of Doukhobor language and culture and as an intricate part of the teaching process along the lines of similar maintenance and revitalization processes for Canada’s First Nations languages. This will be the optimal solution. Failing this, as much as possible of the language should be saved by way of texts, recordings, dictionaries, partial word-lists, and basic grammars to serve as a data-base because even as a “museum language”, such a collection will show what the elder generations know, “which we’ve forgotten or never knew – may someday save us” (K. David Harrison, The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2010, p. 274).

  2. Ryan Androsoff8 June 2012 at 11:15


    Good post which captures a number of key aspects of current landscape for Doukhobors in Saskatchewan. It is worth noting that there was a tangible resurgence amongst the Saskatchewan Doukhobor community, and the youth in particular, in the lead up to the 1995 centennial celebrations of the Burning of the Arms. I would consider myself to be a "child" of that resurgence and feel fortunate that I had the opportunity in my formative years to be actively involved with and learn about my cultural and spiritual roots and traditions. Was also very pleased to see you mention the annual Bread Baking at the Saskatoon Exhibition as I have many fond memories of working shifts on the ovens when I was growing up!

    In the past decade though I think it is fair to say that the momentum that existed within the community in the 1990s has been lost. The reasons why are varied and complex and worth further thought and consideration.

    As a final thought, it has occurred to me lately that one venue for preserving links to Doukhobor culture that has not been fully explored yet is through social media and Web 2.0 technologies (e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.). While the web now has a number of great resources about the Doukhobors (including this blog and others that you mention), newer Web 2.0 technologies present the potential for a much more interactive experience. With the reality being that in many Doukhobor communities we will soon lose the generation of elders who carry the cultural and spiritual traditions with them, there may still be a very limited window to capture and preserve some of this cultural memory in the robust way that online digital media now allows. Text is good, but we should not underestimate the emotional and educational power of visuals, video, and sound - of which Doukhobor spiritual and cultural practices lend themselves towards.