I’m excited to share that I’m embarking on some new ventures in my digital government journey. Late last year I made a big leap professionally and left the federal government after many years working on issues around using new digital technology to modernize the public service. Having successfully launched the Canadian Digital Service last year, after much reflection I decided that the right path for me to take professionally and personally was to leave the public service and continue working on these issues from outside of government. I took a 6-month “sabbatical” to put some focused efforts on the project that I’ve been working on for the past couple years to use digital media to preserve the history and traditions of my ancestors, the Saskatchewan Doukhobors (more updates on that to come soon) – but also to take some time to reflect on what my next steps professionally were going to be.
Over the past few weeks as my sabbatical period started coming to a close, what those new professional ventures are going to be have come into focus and I’m happy to share two new initiatives that I am going to be taking on:
I am partnering with the Institute on Governance (IOG) – an Ottawa-based non-profit with a mission to advance better governance in the public sector – to develop digital leadership/literacy training courses for government executives. I’m very excited about the possibilities to make a real impact through training to improve the level of digital literacy in government and ensure that those who are sitting at the management table of public sector organizations are prepared for the challenges and opportunities of leadership in the digital era. I’ve known of the IOG’s work for a number of years, and with their deep experience on governance issues and delivering training specifically tailored for public servants (not to mention their new training space that just happens to be located next door to the best Italian deli in Ottawa!), I think the possibilities are huge as to what we can accomplish together through this partnership. More details to come soon, but we are planning to run our first series of digital leadership courses for public service executives later this fall.
I’ve also kept a bit of space free on my dance card to take on some strategic consulting work in the digital government realm, and I am very happy to also report that I’m going to be working with the Chief Information Officer for Transport Canada over the next few months. I’ve long been a big fan of the work that Julie Leese has been doing at Transport to not only modernize the operations of her IT team, but also to more broadly lead a shift in how “digital” becomes an enabler for everything that the department is doing. I’ll be providing some strategic advice to Julie and her team as they continue their good work to establish Transport Canada as a leader in applying modern digital and design approaches to government service delivery.
With these new ventures now starting in earnest, I thought this was a good time to update my long-standing Life Calendar project (for those interested in the origin story of the Life Calendar and it’s evolution, you can read about it here, here, and here). It’s been a few years since I updated it last, so I’ve added on colours to represent my return to federal government in Ottawa from my time in Paris and my subsequent departure from the public service, the Doukhobor project that has been ongoing for the past couple of years, and just as of this week a new orange colour to mark the start these new ventures from outside of government. I still find it a bit humbling to look at one’s whole life laid out at a glance – if nothing else, it helps you to step back from the day-to-day and think about the context of our lives and how we spend our time.
P.S. I was recently contacted by someone in Germany to let me know about a project she has launched called kalenderkind.com to sell her unique variation on Life Calendars via Etsy. If you are interested in the Life Calendar concept it is well worth checking out, and you can go deeper down the rabbit-hole through her research page of different Life Calendar concepts from around the world (including yours truly’s).
For those who have been following this blog, you will know that over the past 18 months I have been putting a lot of time and effort into a project to preserve the history and traditions of my ancestors, the Doukhobors who settled in Saskatchewan from Russia almost 120 years ago. Since the start of the year I have been on a bit of a sabbatical after leaving my role with the federal government. It has given me a chance to both recharge my batteries and have some focused time to work on moving the Doukhobor project forward. I’m currently planning to stay “on sabbatical” so to speak until at least the end of June – so stay tuned for more updates on what is next for me professionally in the coming months.
For now, the focus is on this passion project of mine and I’m happy to report that we have some updates to share. Before diving in, I want to mention that we have set-up a new mailing list for those who have contributed to, or are interested in, this project about the Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan. While I will occasionally provide updates here at RyanAndrosoff.ca, if you would like to receive more frequent updates about the project and sneak-peeks of new content as we get closer to launch, please sign-up for the mailing list using the form below.
…now on to the updates!
First, we have updated the title of the project to the “Saskatchewan Doukhobor Living Book Project”. While the focus remains the prayer service and spiritual practices of the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, we have through the course of our work over the past 18 months collected a large number of oral history interviews. Our interviews reflect a range of Saskatchewan Doukhobors’ perspectives, with participants ranging in age from 10 to 93. We believe the Doukhobor concept of the “Living Book” fits well with what we are trying to achieve with this project and our hope is that this will become a truly “living” resource that will continue to grow over time.
Secondly, we have launched a website for the project which you can find at: http://DoukhoborLivingBook.ca – we are just starting to load content onto the site and over the coming months it will continue to grow. Here, you will be able to find the various video and historical products that we will be releasing as the project continues.
Finally, we have just made available the full recording of the prayer service that was taped at the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Prayer Home as part of this project. You can access it via the DoukhoborLivingBook.ca website or directly via YouTube.
In the meantime, work is continuing on the two major products that are being produced as part of the this initiative:
Documentary Film: “We’ve Concluded Our Assembly”
This film will capture the oral history and spiritual traditions of the Saskatchewan Doukhobors by incorporating interviews with more than two dozen members of the community, a recording of a Doukhobor prayer service, and archival footage and photographs that help tell the story of how the Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan has evolved over the years. We are hoping to have the film ready for an initial premiere by this Fall.
Spirit Wrestler Soundscape
The recording of a Doukhobor prayer service will be used to create an immersive exhibit suitable for a museum or gallery that will allow viewers to experience being a part of the prayer service itself through using multiple audio and video tracks to create a 360-degree auditory and visual experience as people move throughout the exhibit space. We are working with our partners to have the Soundscape ready for public display in the Saskatoon-area for sometime in mid-2019.
We are also continuing to raise funds to cover the considerable costs involved in a professional-quality project of this magnitude. Currently we have a number of grant applications in with provincial and federal organizations which we are hoping will cover the vast majority of post-production expenses. In the meantime, we are continuing to accept individual donations to help offset our costs.If you or friends or family wish to contribute, they can find information on how to do so on our website at the following page: https://doukhoborlivingbook.ca/donate
Thank you to all of you who have supported and contributed to this project in ways large and small over the past couple of years! While there is much work left to be done, it is gratifying to be past yet another milestone and we couldn’t have gotten this far without the help of so many people along the way.
“Tanya: Did you know this would happen? Nikolai: Yes. Tanya: Then why did you do it? What did you achieve? Why have you brought us here? Why are we hungry? Why are we sick? Where are our homes? Where are our families? Why are we dying? What do you want? Nikolai: A narrow path. Tanya: A what? Nikolai: A narrow path. We achieved a narrow path…” – Excerpt from “Spirit Wrestler” by Greg Nelson
This past Thursday I had the great pleasure of attending the opening night of the play “Spirit Wrestler” being performed at the University of Saskatchewan’s Greystone Theatre. Spirit Wrestler was written by Greg Nelson in the early 1990s after being approached by George Stushnoff of the Doukhobor Society of Saskatchewan who was looking for someone to write a play about the Doukhobors for the 1995 centennial celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Burning of the Arms by the Doukhobors in Russia. The play is set during a time period that starts around 1895 in Russia and ends in Canada in approximately 1908. That period of just over a decade was a defining one for the Doukhobors which set in motion events that not just led to the Doukhobors immigrating from the Caucuses of Russia to the Prairies of Canada (and later on for many to the Kootenay Valley of British Columbia), but also the splits that happened in the community both back in Russia and once in Canada. It was first performed in Saskatoon at 25th Street Theatre in October and November of 1995, and a much younger version of me had the pleasure of being a part of that production as one of the Doukhobor choir members that sung in the background and were extras in various scenes.
Having the opportunity to see it performed more than two decades later was a real treat, and as always there are new insights when you get to see something with fresh perspective. What struck me most while watching it this time is that the play does a great job of embracing the complexity of people’s motivations. None of the characters are developed as pure good or evil (though Russian Governor Nakashidze and Canadian Professor James Mavor come closest on opposite sides of the spectrum), and the script is careful to show the often conflicting emotions and motivations that drive them. The evolution of the main character Nikolai in particular is a fascinating one to watch as he evolves from a young idealist in Russia to having to make some very difficult decisions later on in Canada as he struggled with his identity and the path that his life, and that of his community, would take in a new country. While the play itself is set during historic events, the playwright was careful to always emphasize that Spirit Wrestler is ultimately a work of fiction. It treads a fine line between historical accuracy and capturing a specific sense of emotion and feeling that it wants the audience to experience – for me it finds that artistic balance well if one can take an objective viewpoint going into it.
The students who were performing in this production of Spirit Wrestler did a wonderful job, and particularly impressive was the fact that they learnt in a very short period of time how to sing a number of traditional Doukhobor hymns in Russian in our unique 5-part harmony a cappella style (with help from members of the Saskatoon Doukhobor community who spent time mentoring them over the past few weeks). The performance was of particular resonance to me given the work that I am immersed in right now on our documentary film and multimedia installation about the Saskatchewan Doukhobors. While Spirit Wrestler essentially weaves the story of how the Independent Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan came to be during that critical decade at the turn of the 20th century, our project will pick up almost where Spirit Wrestler leaves off by telling the story of how the Doukhobor community here has evolved since first coming to Saskatchewan (the eldest person interviewed for our project is my Grandmother Mabel Androsoff who was born in 1924, just 16 years after the events of the “Spirit Wrestler” play conclude).
Bottom line: if you are at all interested in Doukhobor history (or more generally, the history of early settlers on the Prairies), Spirit Wrestler is definitely worth seeing. It runs every night until March 31 (except for Sunday, March 25), and tickets are available online or at the theatre.
It has been exactly six weeks since I officially left the federal government and took the first steps towards whatever 2018 (and beyond) will bring. Truth be told, it feels much longer than six weeks. Yes, I’ve been busy with family and all the usual holiday season goings on. I’ve also been working on my documentary film/multimedia installation project about the Saskatchewan Doukhobors. But I’ve also been spending time reflecting on a lot of things. Unstructured reflection to be sure, but trying to take advantage of this rare deceleration period and get into a bit of a different headspace.
As I was digging into my “deep archives”, so to speak, I came across a quote that I first stumbled upon at an art gallery in Nashville almost 10 years ago by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. It struck a real chord with me then (during what was a similar “in-between” period in my life), and it did again reading it today:
“We must let down our buckets into our own souls where joy and pain, mirth and sadness, still flows swift and deep and free, and drink until we are drunk as with an overpowering desire for expression”
Finally, this gem of a song from Macklemore (featuring – to my honest surprise – Kesha) came up on my Spotify playlist. This really hit home for me:
“Never thought we’d get old, maybe we’re still young May we always look back and think it was better than it was Maybe these are the moments Maybe I’ve been missing what it’s about Been scared of the future, thinking about the past While missing out on now We’ve come so far, I guess I’m proud And I ain’t worried about the wrinkles around my smile I’ve got some scars, I’ve been around I’ve thrown some pain, I’ve seen some things, but I’m here now Those good old days” – Good Old Days by Macklemore (feat. Kesha)
As 2017 comes to a close, I wish you all my very best as you pursue your dreams and aspirations for the year to come!
If you regularly read this blog you will know that for the past 18 months I have been working on a project to capture the spiritual traditions of my ancestors, a group of religious refugees called the Doukhobors, that immigrated to Canada from Russia almost 120 years ago. We are planning to produce both a documentary film and multimedia installation exhibit as part of this project, and have already recorded the vast majority of the video and audio that we will need (over 80 hours of footage to date).
None of this comes for free though, and the project to date has been crowdfunded through the generous donations of over 100 supporters from across Canada, the United States, and Europe, as well as financial support from a number of Canadian Doukhobor organizations and a research partnership with the University of Saskatchewan. So far we have raised just over $20,000, which means we have now covered all of our production expenses to date. However, we are doing one more final fundraising push as we move into the holiday season to ensure that we have some much needed funds in the bank to cover the thousands of dollars of specialized post-production work that will start in the New Year.
That’s where you come in. By this Friday (December 15th) I’m asking if you will:
“Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?” -“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd
Let’s start with the punchline: November 17th will be my last day as a public servant in the Government of Canada.
A few months ago I wrote about my journey over the past decade working on what these days we call “digital government”. It has been an amazing adventure, with the full range of triumphs and challenges that any good journey contains. Not the least of which has been the recent launch of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) this summer.
For me personally, CDS represents the culmination of almost a decade’s worth of work in my professional career. In particular, the past 18 months since returning to Ottawa from my year at the OECD in Paris, creating CDS has been my all-consuming obsession, and through it I have had the incredible opportunity to build a new organization from the ground up. It’s an amazing team with an ambitious mandate to play a lead role in changing how government leverages technology to better serve the people who use government services. CDS is also equally about changing the culture of government, both by bringing in talent from outside for “tours of duty” in the public service, and by demonstrating a different way of working in government which embraces openness, agility, innovation, and a focus at the centre of everything we do on the real people impacted by our work.
All of this begs the question of course: why leave now? While CDS may have only just recently launched and most of the team is coming into this fresh (relatively-speaking), for me this has been a multi-year journey leading up to this point. My goal was always to get CDS off the ground and build the momentum we needed to sustain through the hard work ahead during the next few years of our mandate. On that count, I feel increasingly confident that we are there. We have secured funding for the next three years and established the organization; built an initial core team of two dozen passionate and talented people and are actively recruiting our next wave of recruits; we have built relationships across Canada and internationally and are starting partnerships with organizations like Code for Canada to enhance our capacity; and we have started our first project work with departments to begin making tangible improvements in how government delivers services in a digital world.
There is never an easy time to make a decision like this to leave. But at the same time, this was always going to be a natural inflection-point for me. When I joined the federal government in 2010 I did so with the intention of it being a relatively short tour of duty. More than seven years later, while I have been here much longer than I anticipated, I am grateful for having stayed this long and being able to see many parts of that vision of a modern, digitally-enabled government start coming to fruition. That said, there is much work to still to be done and many parts of that same vision which remain unfulfilled. For this type of large-scale transformation to be successful it needs people both inside and outside of the system passionate about change and working actively to make it a reality. As I have reflected in recent months on what my personal next steps should be, it has increasingly become clear to me that where I might be able to best add value right now is to be an informed voice from the outside where I can work on these issues from a different perspective.
So what’s next? To start, I’m going to take a little bit of time off. Though not really, because as anyone who knows me knows, I’m not very good at actually taking time off. At the end of November I’m going to head back home to Saskatchewan for an extended visit to both see family but also do some work on the documentary film and multimedia installation project about the Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan that I have been working on in my (non-existent) spare time these past 18 months. It deserves some focused attention from me, particularly as we move into the “creative” phase of storyboarding and editing which is something that you just can’t do a few hours at a time on evenings or weekends after coming home tired after yet another 12+ hour day at the office.
After that? We will see. While my intent is to stay actively involved working on issues around digital transformation in government, I’m keeping myself open to possibilities on what shape that will take. The New Year will bring new adventures, and I am conscious of how relatively rare it is in life to be able to make the choice to have a blank slate to work with – put another way, I am grateful for the opportunity to start 2018 with no idea how 2018 will end (terrifying as that might be at times, if I am being honest)!
Bottom line: stay tuned, and stay in touch. I will be on the usual social media places (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram), and of course, keep an eye on this space (which I suspect may become a bit more active) – including signing-up for my mailing list to get blog updates directly to your inbox:
One last thing: Thank You. I didn’t want to turn this post into an Oscar-speech-gone-bad with an endless list of people to thank. But that is only because it is true. The list IS endless, and there are so many people to whom I am eternally grateful for the impact you have had not just on my career, but on my life, in ways big and small. The only way I can repay those contributions is to hopefully have just as big of an impact for all of you, even while we explore different paths forward on this journey together. As always, I remain optimistic that the best is yet to come.
We are excited to be moving into the next phase of this project, and happy to be able to provide an update on our progress as we launch our new crowdfunding campaign to support this work. For those who have been following our work on this project since last year, you will know that the goal of the Prayer Service Preservation Project has been to preserve the spiritual traditions of my ancestors, the Saskatchewan Doukhobors, for future generations through the creation of a documentary film and immersive audio/visual exhibit that will tell the story of how the Doukhobors in Saskatchewan practice their faith and how the community has evolved over the years.
Over the past year we have spent significant time and effort professionally capturing over 80 hours of unique audio and video recordings of the Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan that will be used for both the documentary film and multimedia exhibit. This has included:
Recording session at the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Prayer Home last October where we professionally recorded both audio and video of a prayer service as it is practiced by Saskatchewan Doukhobors today
Interviews with 25 individuals from across the generations of our Saskatchewan Doukhobor community in late 2016 and early 2017
Video and audio recording this past July at the Heritage Days celebration at the National Doukhobor Heritage Village in Veregin, Saskatchewan including the history tours, molenya (“prayer service”), and choir performances that were held
This summer we also began work on reviewing archival footage and other historical materials from the Saskatchewan archives as well as those that have been generously shared with us by Doukhobor societies and individuals from the community in Saskatchewan. We have also been working with our audio and video experts to start to the process of preparing our recordings for editing and production.
We also had some media coverage on the project last year as it was kicking off:
For those who want to go into more depth, we also recorded a full radio show about the Doukhobors and the project on the Tuesday Morning Special Blend (CKCU 93.1 FM in Ottawa, Ontario) with Mike Powell and Adam Coombs (runs approx 1 hour): https://soundcloud.com/ryan-androsoff/ckcu-show…
What’s next? By the end of the year we will be launching a website for the project which will include the full professional-quality recording of the prayer service that was recorded in Blaine Lake last October. We will be devoting significant time in the coming months to the editing and production of the documentary film portion of the project which we plan to release sometime in 2018. Currently we are also in talks with a number of organizations about finding a home for the immersive audio/visual exhibit portion of the project.
As this project has been conducted on a volunteer, non-profit basis, the financial support of everyone who has donated has been incredibly important. Our fundraising efforts to date have raised $14,140 from over 90 individuals across Canada, the United States, and Europe, as well as including donations from the Blaine Lake Doukhobor Ladies’ Club, the Doukhobor Society of Saskatoon, the Calgary Doukhobor Society, and the Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan. We have also received contributions of $4370 in research funding from our partnership with the University of Saskatchewan for this project.
The total of $18,510 in financial support raised is against just over $20,000 in expenses to date. These expenses have included $17,255 for professional video and audio recording services for the recording session in Blaine Lake, interviews with community members, and recordings in Veregin this summer, as well as $1950 for data storage equipment (physical and online), and $900 for administrative and service charges related to the project.
With further expenses to come related to the editing and production of the various film products, we are launching another round of fundraising. Our goal is to raise $5000 by the end of this year which will cover all of our expenses to date and should provide the additional resources needed to complete this phase of the project. We are re-launching our crowdfunding campaign, and if you are inspired to do so, we would gladly accept donations of any amount to help us achieve our goal. As with any good crowdfunding campaign there are perks! For example, for donations of $50 you will receive a complimentary copy of the film on DVD, and for donations of $100 you will receive the DVDs along with a ticket to the grande premiere of the project. Full details on the project and how to make a donation online are available via Indiegogo: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/phase-ii-doukhobor-prayer-service-project
(for those who prefer to donate by cash or cheque, happy to accept donations made payable to: “Spirit Wrestler Productions” – contact me for details).
Thank you for your continued support of this project and stay tuned for future updates!
“I spent a lot of nights on the run And I think oh, like I’m lost and can’t be found I’m just waiting for my day to come And I think oh, I don’t wanna let you down ‘Cause something inside has changed And maybe we don’t wanna stay the same” –“Spirits” by The Strumbellas
It’s been a big few weeks as far as milestones go in my professional life. July 18th saw the launch of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), a project that I have poured my heart and soul into for the past year and without doubt ranks as one of my proudest professional accomplishments. The week after marked 7 years since I joined the Canadian government as a public servant, all of which I have spent working on initiatives at the intersection of public policy, innovation, and technology. For those following our work, you will be hearing lots about CDS in the weeks and months to come on our blog and on social media. However I wanted to share some of my own personal reflections on the journey that led here. This will be far too navel-gazing (and long) for the CDS blog, hence why I am publishing it here instead. So with that fair warning, here we go…
For me this journey actually starts almost a decade ago. Having spent the early part of my career working in politics both on Parliament Hill and back home in Saskatchewan, with a stint down at the World Bank in Washington DC in-between, I had decided that the time was right to go pursue a Masters degree. Fast forward to the fall of 2008 and my first semester at the Harvard Kennedy School. President Obama was making his first run for the White House and there was much chatter on campus, both in and out of the classroom, of the impact that his campaign’s groundbreaking use of social media was having. That chatter soon turned to what people were calling “Government 2.0” and I had the privilege to learn about and discuss it with some of the early pioneers and big thinkers in the field; people like Nicco Mele (who ended up becoming my thesis project supervisor), Beth Simone Noveck, John Della Volpe, Vivek Kundra, Jerry Mechling, Jonathan Zittrain, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, to name but a few. There was genuine excitement as to what new platforms and technologies like social media and open data would mean for the future of government. It was early days, but as the song says, “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”.
I had made up my mind by the end of those two years in Boston that something was indeed happening here, that the impact of the internet and new online technologies was going to be one of the biggest storylines on the future of government, and that I wanted to roll up my sleeves and help shape that story. Why? Because it matters. A lot. As I wrote in the intro of my MPP thesis research project, “Either government must change to adapt to and harness the opportunities of new technologies and societal structures, or citizens will have no choice but to work around government and find other ways to get things done.” As someone who both passionately believes that government can be a force for good, and had always had a healthy personal interest in technology, I knew this space is where I needed to be active for the next chapter of my professional life. The question was just “where” and “how”.
As is so often true in life, once you are clear on your intention, the opportunity presents itself. For me it came in the spring of 2010 as I was finishing up my time down at Harvard and exploring options for what was next. A friend shared with me the annual report by the Clerk of the Privy Council to the Prime Minister that had just been published (the first by Wayne Wouters in his role as Clerk) which highlighted the need for government to take advantage of the “Web 2.0” revolution. The next day I received an email informing me that I had been accepted into the Government of Canada’s Recruitment of Policy Leaders program. Shortly after followed a week of interviews in Ottawa where I got to meet seemingly countless numbers of passionate public servants who made up what a former boss of mine called the “fight club” of government – all of whom were dedicated to modernizing how government works from the inside out and using these new technological tools to get it done. That week was capped off with a job offer from the then Government of Canada Chief Information Officer, Corinne Charette, to come join her team and lead policy work on social media. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’ll be honest, I never expected to spend more than a couple years inside the public service. I knew from my previous work on the “other side” of government just how big, slow, and bureaucratic it was likely to be. But the opportunity to work on the issues I was passionate about from inside the machinery of government, and hopefully make things a little better in the process, was too intriguing to pass up. Yet after what I assumed would be a relatively short tour of duty, here I still am seven years later. Two years developing and implementing the first government-wide policies on social media usage in the Government of Canada. Two years leading the GCtools team, scaling-up internal collaboration tools to over 100,000 public servants across the country. One year in Paris at the OECD working with their Digital Government team and getting a chance to learn first-hand about how governments around the world are thinking about digital transformation in places ranging from Slovakia, to Northern Ireland, to Morocco, to Ecuador, to Japan. And then, since returning to Ottawa last spring (following an unexpectedly early return to Canada), an unrelenting marathon of work these past 15 months to create a new digital team at the heart of the Canadian government that can spark a change in how we deliver services to people and use technology – informed in part by an ambitious cross-country engagement tour late last year – and all culminating in the launch of CDS last month.
Trying to transform an organization as large and complex as government is not for the faint of heart or for those lacking in patience or perseverance. As the saying goes, if it was easy it would have been done already. From the vantage point of today, the arc of the storyline seems clear and logical. Yet at the time, it was anything but with many moments along the way where the path ahead seemed cloudy at best, with the occasional crisis of faith sprinkled in for good measure. As a friend once memorably said to me during one of those more difficult moments along the journey, you don’t work in government because of the speed of the impact you will have. You do it because of the scale of the impact you can have. You are trying to push on a mountain, and you may only be able to move it an inch – but – you’ve moved a mountain an inch.
The Canadian Digital Service is my inch of the mountain, and I couldn’t be prouder to have spent these past few years pushing alongside so many countless others to get here.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve embarked on an exciting – and fairly ambitious – project to preserve the spiritual traditions of the Saskatchewan Doukhobors. Details are on the crowdfunding page for the project (more on that in a moment) but for readers of this blog I wanted to share some of my inspiration for this project and an update as to where things are at.
First let’s back up for a moment and try quickly tackle the question of “who are the Doukhobors?” for those who may not be familiar. The Doukhobors were one of the founding cultural groups of Saskatchewan, where some 7,500 first settled when they migrated to Canada from Russian in 1899 as refugees fleeing religious persecution. Inspired by their concept of the “Living Book” – that the spirit of the divine resides within each person – the Doukhobors adopted pacifism and resisted military conscription. Isolated and persecuted by the Russian authorities for their beliefs, they developed a unique form of spiritual worship based on their Christian origins but adapted to their communal lifestyle and world-view. The Doukhobors’ spiritual beliefs and practices were transmitted and maintained orally over the generations, and even once they had settled in Canada it has remained largely undocumented.
This is a project of personal passion for me as one of the last direct descendants of Saskatchewan branch of Doukhobors (for a number of complex reasons – including issues around losing the original land granted to them when they immigrated to Canada – the community in Canada split around the 1907 time period). For a number of years I have felt the need to take action on preserving the essence of the traditions and history of the community, particularly with regards to our spirituality. While there have been a number of documentaries and historic texts created over the years that have captured Doukhobor history and culture, there has been little focus in these works on the spiritual practices of the Doukhobors in detail.
With the rapidly declining membership of Doukhobor societies in Saskatchewan and the aging of those who are left, there is a limited window left to capture and preserve the experience of a Doukhobor prayer service for future generations. Hence this project was born. The plan is to create two products out of our labours over the coming year:
A documentary film that combines footage of a prayer service, interviews with members of the Doukhobor community, and archival footage, to explain how a Saskatchewan Doukhobor prayer service works and how they have evolved over the years.
An immersive exhibit suitable for a museum or gallery that will use the audio and video captured from the prayer service to allow viewers to experience being a part of the prayer service itself. Inspired by the Cardiff “sound sculpture” at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa (but also adding in a three-dimensional video element) the idea behind this exhibit is to allow people to walk within the space that a Doukhobor prayer service would occupy and experience the unique feeling of being part of the community singing to each other in spiritual communion.
To bring this all to reality I’m partnering with Saskatoon film production company Bamboo Shoots and Gemini nominated composer and audio-engineer Ross Nykiforuk to do a professional recording of a traditional prayer service with the Saskatchewan Doukhobor community this October. Saskatoon-based media producer Brad Proudlove will also be supporting the production, as will Dr. Ashleigh Androsoff (Department of History, University of Saskatchewan) who is contributing to the historical and ethnographic research involved with this project.
None of this would be possible without the support of the local Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan. I’m honoured to have the Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan and the local Doukhobor organizations across Saskatchewan supporting the project and actively working towards the recording session of a prayer service this October. Last week I was in Saskatoon and I had an opportunity to attend a choir practice of the core group planning to be a part of the project; I have no doubt this is going to be a powerful experience for everyone involved!
I’m really pleased that the project is gaining attention and momentum, and hope that we can continue to spread the word. Because of course, nothing in life is free. Though this is being run on a non-profit basis, to fund the technical costs for the first phase of the project we are anticipating that we need to raise approximately $15,000 over the next couple of months. I decided to take the route of running a crowdfunding campaign over the summer to put together the seed money we need to make this project a reality.
This is where you come in. If you are inspired to do so, we would gladly accept donations of any amount to help us get towards our goal. As with any good crowdfunding campaign there are perks! For example, for donations of $50 you will receive a complimentary copy of the film on DVD, and for donations of $100 you will receive the DVDs along with a ticket to the grande premiere of the project next year. Full details on the project and how to make a donation online are available here via Indiegogo: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/doukhobor-prayer-service-preservation-project
From the bottom of my heart: thank you! I sincerely appreciate all of your support and encouragement on this project. It’s going to be a lot of work, but well worth it. I hope that I will do my Doukhobor ancestors proud on this one.
Below is an editorial that I wrote for the April edition of “The Dove” – the quarterly publication of the Doukhobor Society of Saskatchewan. Posting here as I thought it may be of interest to a bit of a wider audience, and at the very end it teases a side-project linked to my Doukhobor heritage that I was able to get started while I was back in Saskatchewan at the start of the year. I’m excited (if perhaps a little daunted) at this new challenge given that it is outside my usual comfort zone of professional competencies, but it is something I have wanted to do for a number of years and – if I may borrow a quote from the editorial – if not now, when?
Also just to note for those who may be wondering, I’ve been back in Ottawa for just over a month now and am happily settling back into life here. Some great opportunities ahead with my work for the federal government, specifically around some new initiatives I am working to get off the ground on improving digital service delivery to Canadians. Much more to share on all of this the weeks and months to come, but in general I can say that life right now feels a little bit like this epic scene from that classic “The Blues Brothers”:
So more to come (as always), but without further ado, the editorial on “Spirit Wrestling in the 21st Century”:
The start of this year I found myself back home spending some time with family in Saskatchewan as I had the rare occasion of having a few months off before returning to my work with the federal government in Ottawa after finishing a one-year posting with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. This time back home gave me the opportunity to re-connect with our Doukhobor community, and in February I had the great pleasure of being invited to present at the Doukhobor Cultural Society of Saskatchewan (DCSS) annual conference in Saskatoon.
The theme of this year’s DCSS conference was Doukhobors and their interaction with the wider community. To me, implicit in this topic are questions that speak to the core of who the Doukhobors are, what they have been in the past, and what they will be in the future. Almost three years ago, I wrote an article expressing some of my emerging thoughts at the time about the future of the Doukhobors in Canada. I picked up on many of those same themes in my presentation to the DCSS conference this year, including the famous “three questions” from the Jewish elder Hillel some two thousand years ago:
▪If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
▪When I am for myself, what am I?
▪And if not now, when?
To my mind, the paradox of the Doukhobors is this: as much as we have at times in our history as a community – through either choice or circumstance – been isolated from the wider world, both our fate and our identity is equally bound to our interactions with others. One example which I shared was the famous (perhaps some may say infamous?) photograph of Doukhobor women pulling the plow to break the prairie soil when they first were settling what is now Saskatchewan.
The reaction to this photo took many forms in the press and other writings of the day, with some denouncing what they saw as the barbaric treatment of Doukhobor women, while others championing them as feminist icons of their day. The truth of course was not nearly as black and white as any simple narrative would pretend, the reality being that they were just doing what they had to do to survive since most of the men were away earning wages to be able to buy the animals that would in years to come pull the plows. However the point remains: if we do not make the choice to own our narrative, others will shape it for us.
Our Doukhobor community has done much in the past century to engage with the wider world, which has largely taken three forms. The first is sharing our culture through community events like Saskatoon Folkfest and the ever popular Doukhobor bread-baking booth at the Saskatoon Exhibition. The second is engaging through song, with the many Doukhobor choirs over the years which have performed not just locally but also nationally and internationally. The third is the involvement of Doukhobors in the international peace movement, going back to serving as conscientious objectors during the first two world wars, to being part of the nuclear disarmament movement during the Cold War, to more recently being active members of organizations such as the Saskatoon Peace Coalition. Most recently, as the world has gone digital so too have the Doukhobors. In my younger years I was proud to have put together one of the very first Doukhobor websites – the Doukhobor Homepage (now since defunct) – way back in 1996. Since then many new initiatives have emerged to capture and share the Doukhobor story through the internet, including for example Jonathan Kalmakoff’s Doukhobor Genealogy Website and the recently created Doukhobor music archive.
So while we have come a long way from when we were part of an isolated community in the Russian steppe of the 19th century, the question of our identity and shaping our narrative into the future is more relevant now than ever. As we know, our community is shrinking in the traditional way that we think about it. Moreover, if we are being honest, much of our identity as we express it in the songs and hymns we recite are rooted in past struggles as opposed to creating vision for the future.
In my presentation at the DCSS conference I shared the story of my Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz, with whom I had a long discussion in class about the Doukhobors in the context of his course on “adaptive leadership”. His summation at the end of our discussion (which thankfully was recorded, as all of our discussions in that class were) always deeply resonated with me, which was as follows:
“The adaptation of the values and virtues and competence and wisdom embedded in these loyalties [to the Doukhobor community] as it applies to today’s problems, right now, may require preserving and conserving and holding constant a lot of that wisdom, but not all of it. But you don’t know which of it to value and which not. As you put your hands though it, you have to be able to approach it with an open mind to begin to figure out what adaptations are required to apply the best of my Spirit Wrestling tradition to the problems of people today. You probably do have, and your community probably does have, real contributions to make to lots of peoples in the world. But not by simply in a wholesale fashion, almost a mindless fashion, just applying the software you’ve got to this particular application. It would have to be reconfigured a little bit, wouldn’t it?”
So where do we go from here? What is Doukhoborism in 2016? Where will Doukhoborism be in 2036? These are hard questions for which we can spend endless time thinking and debating, but the example of our ancestors should tell us that the best way forward is to have a bias towards action, grounded in our best spiritual wisdom and understanding. In that spirit I would propose two concrete ideas to consider as to how we might see the Doukhobor community evolve, and indeed thrive, in the years to come while preserving the best of our collective past.
The first is that as Doukhoborism becomes part of the digital age, there is great opportunity to reconnect those whom have links to and interest in the Doukhobors both in philosophy and ancestry. We have seen just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible in this regard through some of the examples I mentioned earlier, but the possibilities for connection that social media and live video/audio through the internet gives us means that our traditional spiritual practices can evolve in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. The reality is many of our Prayer Homes in Saskatchewan have already closed their doors, and the ones that are still open are continuing to dwindle in numbers of active members. But why couldn’t we build a “virtual Prayer Home”? A space online to discuss, to pray, and to share community with those scattered across the globe who identify as Doukhobors. This is not only possible, but with the technology of today relatively easy and inexpensive to put in place. Other faith traditions have started experimenting in this way, for example a good friend recently shared with me her experiences interacting with the Abbey of the Arts which is a “virtual monastery” that connects people from around the world to deepen their spiritual reflections through shared activities. We can do the same.
Secondly, for the past few years I have been interested in putting together a project to capture our spiritual practices as Saskatchewan Doukhobors. This is an area of our Doukhobor tradition that has not been well documented, and the window is closing to be able to do so while we still have sufficient numbers left to participate in a traditional Molenya. I was able to take advantage of my time back home in Saskatchewan earlier this year to put this project into motion, and I am working with the Doukhobor societies in Saskatchewan as well as some local and national film and audio experts to put together what will be an exciting opportunity to professionally record a Saskatchewan Doukhobor prayer service. The vision of this project is to create both a documentary film about Doukhobor prayer services as they are practiced in Saskatchewan, as well as an in-person multi-media installation/exhibit that will let others be able to experience what it is like to be part of a prayer service. We will be holding the recording of the prayer service on Saturday, October 22nd at the Blaine Lake Prayer Home and will be encouraging as many Doukhobors as possible from across Saskatchewan to participate. Details on the special prayer service recording session as well as how you can contribute to fundraising efforts to support the project will be shared in the next edition of The Dove, so please check back for more info then.
Doukhoborism as we know it is going through a transition. With any change, while there is uncertainty, so too is there opportunity. Thus I end this article as I ended my message at the DCSS conference: with a call to action. Indeed, if not now, when?