Located a seven-hour drive east of Vancouver, the Doukhobor Discovery Center occupies a handsome collection of red brick buildings flanked by manicured fields and gnarled apple trees. A white dove emblazoned with a crest on the side of a barn led me in, and a “Work and Peaceful Life” sign above the entrance porch suggested a quiet industrial atmosphere inside. Wrapped around a grassy courtyard, several carefully curated exhibition halls depicted the Doukhobors’ long journey from Russia to Canada and the united communal lifestyle that was once their hallmark.
Known today in Canada for their pacifism, their vegetarianism and their gentle Russian-speaking choirs, the Doukhobors escape all classification. Some historians point out their similarities to the Quakers and Mennonites. Others call them proto hippies. Possessing a strong work ethic, they have long been admired for their skills in carpentry and agriculture. When the Canadian government was looking for pioneer farmers to settle in its rugged interior in the 1890s, there were no better candidates.
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“The most central belief of the Doukhobors is that the spirit of God dwells in every living being,” said Dutchak. “This principle lends itself to a number of Doukhobor religious beliefs, including the rejection of religious icons, the emphasis on equality and community, and non-violence and pacifism.
Dutchak was redeemed a Catholic, but his grandmother was from a Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan. He was drawn to religion after attending one of Castlegar’s St Peter’s Festivals, a celebration of prayer, song and Russian cuisine that takes place every June. “I was drawn to their ideas about equality and pacifism,” he told me. “In the 1960s, the Doukhobors helped organize peace vigils in Canada and today they continue to assert their identity through pacifism.
Dutchak then learned Russian and wrote a master’s thesis on Doukhobor culture. He started singing in a choir and reconnected with his Doukhobor roots. “For me, the Doukhobors remain very relevant,” he said. “They have a lot to offer contemporary society.”
Between 1899 and 1938, the Doukhobors flourished in dozens of independent agrarian villages in Canada. The Discovery Center is essentially a reconstruction of one of their unique self-sustaining communities. Inside, I examined a suite of austere dormitories, barns full of old farm implements, a wood-fired oven for baking bread, and several Rumpelstilt skin spinning wheels that were used to make the distinctive tunics and shawls that the Doukhobors still wear on special occasions.