Many Canadians recall the Doukhobors of Western Canada best for their newsmaking in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the religious sect staged nude protests to resist compulsory education.

But their history in Canada goes back much further, and begins in Halifax in 1899 with the arrival of the ship Lake Huron, which carried 2,000 Doukhobors. Protestant pacifists who lived communally and rejected materialism, they ran afoul of both church and state in their native Russia. When persecution peaked in imperial Russia’s dying days, they migrated en masse to Canada.

When they arrived, inspection officials discovered one little girl was dying of smallpox. Everyone on board had potentially been exposed to the fatal disease, so government ordered them into quarantine on Lawlor Island. In primitive, spartan accommodations they took disinfection paths and awaited vaccination. Many of them wore goat-skin clothing, which health officials treated with formaldehyde.

The officials spoke English and the immigrants spoke only Russian, leaving both sides baffled and unable to communicate. Language was shaping up to be a major issue, when a bilingual Haligonian stepped up to translate.

They were devout vegetarians, particularly partial to cabbage soup. The workers who fed them stayed busy scouring the city for enough of the vegetable to keep them fed. Eventually they let the Doukhobor women into the detention building’s kitchen. They used the iron griddles to bake churek, a traditional Eastern European bread.

Doukhobor women and children. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Haligonians watched from the shore in amazement as the exotic detainees washed their clothes in the freezing water of Halifax Harbour.

Finally in February 1899, they were cleared to leave Halifax. As their ship sailed for Saint John, the Doukhobors sung thankful hymns that echoed over the water.

They eventually made their way to Western Canada, where they found ample farmland. Their nonconformist lifestyle and opposition to war made governments suspicious, while Doukhobor extremists launched arson attacks on public buildings and infrastructure. Until the 1960s, there were frequent clashes over issues like land ownership and compulsory education.

Today, about 20,000–40,000 of their descendants live in Canada, although only 2,290 people identified their religion as Doukhobor in a recent census.

Editor’s Note: Due to a posting error, this story originally had an incorrect byline. Our apologies to author Dorothy Grant.

Halifax Magazine