‘Breach of Faith’ Land Loss in Saskatchewan in 1907

James Mavor’s letters in defence of Doukhobor communal land

by Koozma J. Tarasoff and Andrei Conovaloff, 7 Aug. 2012.

In the early 1900s, Community Doukhobors did not have to abandon their land on the Canadian prairies to form communes in British Columbia, and geographically divide the Doukhobor colonies. Contrary to myth, up to 1908 they had the right to individually register ownership without taking oaths. Under the law, they could have cooperatively shared their new land and equipment, but instead chose to flee.

Why did about 75% move from Saskatchewan and forfeit their developed land worth $11,400,000 leaving brick factories and flour mills? The answer is complicated externally by Canadian politics and the press, and internally by Doukobor leadership and zealots. Here a rational alternative is presented — stay in place and deal with the problems.

For Canada to secure their largest ever settlement of immigrants the government agreed to three conditions of the Doukhobors: (1) exemption from military service, (2) complete independence in the organization of their community, and (3) large blocks of land. Canadian Minister of the Interior Clifton Sifton negotiated the deal. By the end of 1898, the Canadian government agreed to all three conditions and immigration began.

Another myth is that Count Lev N. Tolstoy paid for the Doukhobor migration by selling his last novel, Resurrection. Data published by Adelman (table right) shows he covered almost one-fourth the total transportation costs of about $100 per person. Upon arrival, American Quakers and the Dominion Council of Women further donated food, and businesses allowed credit for food, livestock, machinery, and building materials.

Canadian administrators accepted the  Doukhobor heritage communal lifestyle (obschina, mir) as James Mavor documents in his letters below. Similar arrangements had been made earlier for immigrating Mennonites. Unfortunately the administration changed.

In 1905 the Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton was replaced by Frank Oliver who was racist, staunchly British, and favoured nationality over occupation. ‘Oliver is hostile to Slavs, opposed to communal structure, reverses Sifton’s policy. “Accept citizenship”, he warns, “or lose the land”.’ Oliver ‘rejects the village settlement provision … of the Homestead Act.’  The Rev. John McDougall became land Commissioner and the Liberal government verbally threatened and  denied the Doukhobors their legal and economic rights.

Confounding rational negotiation at this time, 1700 Doukhobors began public protests in 1902 which apparently helped Verigin to come to Canada from exile in Russia. When conservatives in the government threatened to negate on condition #2 (independence), in 1903 some extremists began protesting nude (52 in the villages and 29 marched to Yorkton). Later 10 extremists burned and destroyed farm machinery and wheat. In 1905, 28 marched nude to Yorkton. In 1907, 71 marched to Fort William, Ontario.

These protests launched the word ‘Doukhobors’ into the international press, especially the two small nude protests. Ignoring the breach of contract and governmental abuses, the press soon falsely presented all Doukhobors as crazy nudists who should be sent back to Russia.

The sensationalistic confusion in the press and injustice by the Canadian government led to a major split among Doukhobors. The minority (~1200, 16%) of ‘Independent’ Doukhobors each signed for their own land, while the majority (~5000, 66%) of ‘Community’ Doukhobors abandoned their land to be led west by Peter V. Verigin to the interior of British Columbia between 1908 and 1913, forfeiting their developed land worth $11,400,000 with brick factories and flour mills. See enlarged maps.

What is little known is that the Russian Doukhobor pioneers could have signed for their land because oaths were not required. However, it seems that Peter V. Verigin was not favourable to this. He wanted an opportunity to fully control his followers by taking them into the wilderness, exploiting their toil to the fullest, and claiming victory against the wayward Independents who went their own way.

If everyone signed for their land in Saskatchewan, then Verigin would have to openly and democratically discuss many issues with his brothers and sisters (followers) — and this was probably too much for him. Today practically no one raises this historic possibility for staying on the original land. Instead, the myth persists that the minority of faithless stayed in Saskatchewan while the majority of faithful refused oaths and went to BC.

The common mythical reason often cited for the loss of land was that the Doukhobors would not take the Oath of Allegiance to the King (as they had earlier refused to do in Russia with the Tsar), hence swearing to defend violence (war). However, in 1978, a Doukhobor law student at UBC, Brian Juriloff, discovered that the Dominion Lands Act ‘did not require oaths upon application for homestead entries or patents until the Amendments in 1908’ [my emphasis] (p.16).  In other words, a cooperative structure was possible in Saskatchewan at this time; and there was no legal reason to move to British Columbia except for Peter V. Verigin’s strategic desire for power. That is a significant finding.

*    *    *

The 2-page and 4-page letters shown below were written by Professor James Mavor in 1907 and were addressed to the Prime Minister of Canada and several other officials. Mavor pleaded for justice for the Doukhobors who lived communally, but was eventually ignored. In the annals of history, this was definitely ‘a breach of faith’ and betrayal.

James Mavor (1854-1925) was professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, an expert on the Canadian prairies and immigration. He was a friend of Lev N. Tolstoy and Peter Kropotkin and served as an intermediary between the Russian Doukhobors and the Canadian Government. In April 1899, Mavor was sent by Clifford Sifton, Canadian Minister of the Interior, to report on the progress of a forthcoming Doukhobor settlement in Western Canada. He and Prince Khilkov lived for three weeks in one of the temporary villages built for the pioneers.

On April 13, 1907 Professor James Mavor sent an appeal to four government officials, charging the Canadian Government with ‘a breach of faith’ and ‘a momentous injustice’ in proceeding to take away two-thirds of the land from Saskatchewan Doukhobors later that spring.

The four recipients of Mavor’s letter were:

Following below is a clarified reprint of this historical document found in the Public Archives of Canada MSS Division, Interior Dept. Files – Dominion Lands Office, R.G. 15, B1, vol. 494483(6). Online: Letter from Mavor to Laurier, Cartwright, Fisher, Aylesworth and Fielding, Doukhobor Collection of James Mavor, Multicultural Canada. A larger image can be seen online at Simon Fraser University Library.

Mavor also sent an executive summary letter the same day, 13 April 1907, to Prime Minister Laurier, to be sure he got this critical message. Letter from Mavor to Laurier, page 1, page 2, clarified below.

Mavor’s 2 LettersCopy of letter to The Right Hon. Sir Wilfrid Laurier           [Page 1, Page 2]

G.C.M.G. London Toronto 13th April 1907

Dear Sir Wilfrid Laurier,

I take the liberty of sending you a copy of a circular letter [below] which I have sent to several members of the Cabinet now in Ottawa. The matter is so urgent that I trust you will pardon me for troubling you with it at a moment when you must be fully engaged. The main facts as I understand them are.

  1. The “village system” was an absolute condition of the Doukhobor immigration. It was agreed upon most explicitly by the Department and acted upon fully in the settlement of the people. In the region which was allowed to them by the Government any other system would have been wholly impracticable, at that time viz in 1899.
  2. Mr Sifton’s Despatch of 15th February 1902, is looked upon by the Doukhobors as a kind of charter and on the faith of this they have purchased large quantities of agricultural implements, etc.
  3. The land in question have been made the subject of homestead entry act of the necessary amount of cultivation according to the Reports of the Homestead Inspections.
  4. The fees for the Homestead Entries have been paid.

Under these circumstances to cancel the entries and resume possession of the land, cannot be considered otherwise than as an act of deliberate confiscation. Not only would it be a breach of faith on the part of the Government but it would of necessity create a spirit of uneasiness as well among the immigrants and new settlers in general as among the Doukhobors.

It appears to me with all respect, that the country would not get over the discredit of it.

To:     Sir Wilfred Laurier, London

Sir R. Cartwright, Ottawa

Mr. Aylesworth, Ottawa

Mr. Fisher, Ottawa

April 13, 1907

My dear Sir:

I venture to trouble you about a letter which seems to me of much urgency and importance. You may be aware that in 1898 I opened negotiations with the Government through Mr. Sifton, then Minister of the Interior, at the instance [at the request of] of friends of mine in England and in Russia with the object of procuring land for about eight thousand Russians who were known as Doukhobors. In November of that year the negotiations were completed rather hurriedly and as I understood it the primary condition of the immigration namely that the people should be permitted to settle in the villages was agreed to. This condition was afterwards confirmed fully by Mr. Sifton in a despatch dated 15th February 1902, addressed to Ivan Ivin and another, delegates from the Doukhobors. This despatch was written  from Winnipeg and contained the following:

I  understand that there are among you a few people who object to making an individual entry for a homestead. I do not understand why these people refuse the free gift of land by the Canadian government, as my government promised your people before they left Russia that this would be done, and when I offer the land to you free of charge it is refused by some of them. I am pleased to see however that a large number are not ungrateful or unmindful of the interests of their community, and that most of the Doukhobors will make their entry for homesteads even though they afterwards give the land to trustees. And I have decided that those who will take their homesteads and accept free land from the government may live together in one or more villages, and instead of being compelled to cultivate each quarter section held by each Doukhobor, that the land around the village itself may be cultivated and the work which otherwise would be required on each individual homestead may be done altogether around the village. But it would not be fair that those who take up their homesteads and live in their village should be troubled with those who will not do so and as those who do not take up a homestead will not be protected by the government after the first of May this year [but] they will simply have to leave the villages to those who take up the homesteads and buy land elsewhere from some other person. If for instance a village wants fifty homesteads around the village, I will be satisfied if the amount of improvements required on each  quarter-section is done around the village, only for the whole fifty. This would enable all those in the village to live together and to work together in and around t he village without being compelled to go a long way out to their individual homesteads.

The underlined passage in the above seems to me to make perfectly clear that the people were not to be compelled to cultivate the homesteads individually provided the total amount cultivated was sufficient to cover the total requirements under the Homestead Acts. I am informed that individual entries have been made on the faith of this promise, that the homestead entry fees have been paid on the faith of this promise, that villages have been built and common stables for the horses of the villages, sheds for the agricultural implements, etc.; and that more than the necessary cultivation has been effected. The people had also acquired a large number of steam ploughs and had installed flour mills, flax mills and stores to a very large extent. All of this was done on the promise of the responsible minister that they should be allowed to cultivate their land in their own way. Mr. Oliver [Frank Oliver, new Minister of the Interior] seems to have taken it upon himself to have threatened to cancel the homestead entries, to deprive the people of their lands, and to break up their village communities. The pretext upon which this being done is I understand that some of the land has not yet been brought into cultivation but the unreality of this pretext  is sufficiently shown by, first, — The Report of the Government Inspectors in 1905, that already more than sufficient duty has been done and second, that some of the land which it appears Mr. Oliver has marked out for confiscation is now in cultivation. But the particular pretext upon which this act of expropriation is based, is not important beside the act of expropriation itself. Apart altogether from the transparent dishonesty of the transaction the impolicy [injudiciousness] of it is very obvious. I venture to predict that immediately after active steps are taken to deprive the Doukhobors of their lands that they will and must leave their villages and wander southwards looking in their simple-minded way for a warmer climate and a more honest government. The agents who were employed by Mr. Sifton and who superintended the immigration of the Doukhobors chiefly the late Mr. McCreary of Winnipeg and the late Mr. Crerar of Yorkton, would I am satisfied never have approved of so gross a breach of faith as this which Mr. Oliver proposes to perpetrate. I believe that on the first of May this expropriation is to take place and that without any proper, official intimation  [announcement]. The only intimation which has reached me is a circular issued by a person who signs himself as Commissioner for Investigation of Doukhobor Claims and who coolly [displaying indifference] proposes to disperse the Doukhobors and to break up the villages without any regard for deliberate undertaking which the Department of Interior had previously entered into. [The Commissioner was John McDougall, Methodist clergyman and author who in 1876 was present for the negotiation of Treaty No. 6 and later was Commissioner  for the Department of Indian Affairs.]

I have taken this preliminary step of bringing the matter before some of the members of the Cabinet and I have sent a copy of this letter to Mr. Oliver. I wait to hear what steps are being taken in the matter. I may add I have been made aware of the recent interviews between the Doukhobor delegates and Mr. Oliver and with their unsatisfactory result. It does not seem to me that the public will receive with equanimity the statement which will certainly be made namely that the Department of the Interior is confiscating on a technical pretext 100,000 acres of land from settlers to which it had been granted, who had cultivated the necessary portion of it and who had paid the necessary fees.

The unsettling effect of this upon recent settlers who had previously supposed their homesteads to be inviolable and upon intending immigrants who were relying upon the good faith of the government and its agents may quite easily be imagined. The breach of faith must inevitably be advertised widely both in Europe and in America with highly injurious results to Canadian interests, to say nothing of the shock to the public conscience of the folly and iniquity of depriving 1000 families of simple-minded peasants of their means of livelihood.

Of course, I cannot be supposed to have been made aware of all the intricacies of Doukhobor affairs but from what I do know it seems to me that the Minister of the Interior does not in the least realize that he is putting his head into a hornets’ nest, from which he cannot withdraw it uninjured. It seems to me at the very least that this whole question ought to be referred to a Commission of responsible persons who will take the trouble to go into the whole case, all notices being meanwhile withdrawn.

Yours faithfully,
[signed] James Mavor


  • Brian Juriloff. ‘A Legal History of the “Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood — 1899-1942 : Some Legal Problems of the Doukhobors in Canada.: For Legal History Seminar, Prof. D. Sanders class, Faculty of Law, by Brian Juriloff 04773670, April 1978. 45 pp. plus I-VII.  Page 16: ‘The Dominion Lands Act did not require oaths upon application for homestead entries or patents until the Amendments in 1908.’  In other words, a cooperative CCUB structure was possible in Saskatchewan at this time, and there was no need to move to BC except for Peter V. Verigin’s strategic desire for power.
  • For details of the critical land issues, see Koozma J. Tarasoff’s book Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers’ Strategies for Living, 2002: pages 4-11 and 418-421, and reference pages on 468 for ‘Land Loss.’ Maps page 10.
  • Kathlyn Rose Marie Szalasznyj’s MA Thesis : ‘ The Doukhobor Homestead Crisis 1898-1907’ (University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Sask., 1977).  Summary comment on page 244: ‘As the last of the Doukhobor reservation lands were auctioned off in July, 1918, the Doukhobor homestead crisis was completely over. It had spanned 20 years and nearly three-quarters of a million acres of land. It had directly affected the lives of over 9,000 settlers and swerved the course of Doukhobor history on the prairies.’
  • Tracie, Carl. Toil and Peaceful Life: Doukhobor Village Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1899-1918. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1996. ISBN 0-88977-100-6, at Amazon.com.
  • Religion and Tradition in the Cultural Landscapes of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan” by Carl J. Tracie, in Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives textbook edited by Bernard D. Thraves, M.L. Lewry, Janis E. Dale and Hansgeorg Schlichtmann, 486 pages. CPRC (Jun 4 2007) pages 288-292, on Google Books.
  • 1919 Open Letter from James Mavor, with Introduction by Larry A. Ewashen, Larry’s Desk website. Mavor calls this cancellation of 2500 homestead entries of some 300,000 acres of improved lands as ‘a monstrous national crime’. He asks the Canadian government to set up  ‘a serious inquiry by competent people’ to seek justice for these ‘innocent, inoffensive, industrious people’.
  • Woodcock, George. Russian Writers and the Doukhobors. Canadian Literature, 120 Spring 1989).

Doukhobor Genealogy Website, by Jonathan Kalmakoff