Thoughts on the future of the Doukhobors in Canada

I’ve had Doukhoborism on my mind lately. A number of months ago I was asked if I would put some thoughts together about the modern day relevance of St. Peter’s Day (or Petrov Dien) for inclusion in the Canadian Doukhobor Society newsletter. I was happy to say yes as over the past few years I’ve been thinking more and more about what it means to be a Doukhobor in an era where increasingly the term is one talked about in the past tense rather than the future (or even the present).  I’ve been wrestling with the increasing realization that one day in the not too distant future I may very well find myself as literally one of the last of the Doukhobors.

Should you think that I’m being melodramatic, let’s look at some statistics. In May of this year the latest data from the 2011 Canadian census related to religion and ethnic origin was released. According to the census data, there are just 2,290 Canadians that self-identify as Doukhobor. This follows an unmistakable trend of a shrinking Doukhobor population in Canada in each and every census since the Doukhobor population’s peak in the 1941 census at 16,898. It is also a rapidly ageing population, with 38% of those self-identifying as Doukhobor being 65 years or age or older – more than double the rate of the Canadian population as a whole of which 15% are 65+. As they say, demographics are destiny.

When I think back to my own Doukhobor journey, I realize that I was fortunate to be a “child” of the brief resurgence amongst the Saskatchewan Doukhobor community in the lead up to the 1995 centennial celebrations of the Burning of the Arms and the 1999 centennial of the Doukhobor migration to Canada. The 1990s gave me an opportunity in my formative years to be actively involved with and learn about my cultural and spiritual roots and traditions. Many didn’t have those same opportunities however, and even fewer do today. The reality is that in many Doukhobor communities we will soon lose the generation of elders who carry the cultural and spiritual traditions of Doukhoborism with them.

Doukhobor Burning of Arms - June 29, 1895
The Doukhobor “Burning of Arms”, June 29, 1895. Painting by Terry McLean. From:

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take a Master in Public Policy degree. While there, I was part of a fascinating course on “Moral Leadership” which was designed for extensive self-reflection. As a focus for that reflection, we would often turn to the three questions that were originally posed by 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?

When I read those questions now, and think about them in the Doukhobor context, they haunt me. The Doukhobor story is an inspiring one that speaks to the vision of creating a more caring, loving and peaceful world. It is also a story that speaks to the great adversity that exists to any attempt to change the existing order, which is something that we reflect on extensively on St. Peter’s Day. Yet if I am being honest, I struggle with a vision of Doukhoborism that is anchored in the actions of the past. Being a “spirit wrestler” is, by its very definition, something that is active and fluid – yet too often our conversation is rooted firmly in a fixed past with little discussion about how to translate that to the problems of the present or a vision for the future.

I had the opportunity to talk about the Doukhobors and my own personal journey during another one of my leadership classes at Harvard. I had a remarkable exchange with my professor, whom is a world-renowned expert on the topic of adaptive leadership, which went on for over 20 min (while a class of over 100 from literally every corner of the world learned about the Doukhobors for the first time). At the end of it all, his final words on the subject were 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?”

There are no easy answers to some of the questions I am raising. What I do know with certainty is that Doukhoborism as we have known it for centuries is on the verge of disappearing. The time for a serious conversation about what parts of our collective past we want to preserve and be able to pass on is rapidly coming to a close. Simply put: we are out of time.

I believe though that there is a very limited window that still exists to do some important work as a community as we prepare for whatever Doukhoborism is to become in this next century. Specifically, new Internet and multimedia technologies provide us an opportunity that has not existed before to capture and share the essence of our Doukhobor “spirit wrestling” tradition in powerful new ways. In recent months I have been having discussions with a number of people, including some talented friends in the field of multimedia design and documentary film making, about ways in which we can capture that “essence” of Doukhoborism.

Ours is a story that needs to be not only preserved but also given life for future generations. So as I reflect on the modern relevance of St. Peter’s Day, I think the question that all of us should ask is: what steps are we taking right now to ensure that those remembrances, values and pieces of universal wisdom that are so core to what we celebrate on St. Peter’s Day aren’t lost to history?

It is a conversation that I think we need to have and I’d welcome your comments below.


Blaine Lake @ 100

I am reposting here the “Storifyed” recount of my visit to the Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan centennial celebrations this past August (in part to test out embedding a Storify on a blog – so far so good). Enjoy!

P.S. Still considering how to best use this piece of virtual real-estate. Stay tuned.

Blaine Lake @ 100

Centennial celebrations for Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada (August 3-5, 2012) – through the eyes (and the iPhone) of Ryan Androsoff

Storified by Ryan Androsoff · Mon, Aug 06 2012 18:11:28

Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada (pop. ~500). Though I have never lived in Blaine Lake myself, it has always had a very special place in my heart. My family has lived and farmed in the Blaine Lake area since they emigrated from Russia in 1899 along with 7500 other Doukhobors. Both of my parents (Michael Androsoff and Virginia Cheveldayoff) grew up in Blaine Lake. Throughout my childhood all of my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Blaine Lake, and to this day my Uncles and Aunts on both sides of the family continue to farm near Blaine Lake.
This weekend the town was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its incorporation, and so I travelled back home to Saskatchewan from Ottawa to join my family for the festivities. Of course this is 2012 and the age of social media is upon us, so I decided that for the occasion of Blaine Lake’s centennial some live Tweeting was in order. What follows is the collection of my tweets and pictures capturing the Blaine Lake centennial through my eyes (or more accurately, the eyes of my iPhone).
Planning on using #BL100 as the hashtag for tweets from the Blaine Lake centennial this weekend (my spiritual homeland)Ryan Androsoff
The night before we were to head up from Saskatoon, I came across the “Big Blue Book” that is ubiquitous in the homes of those with roots in Blaine Lake. Though a bit dated now (it was published in the early 1980s), it remains an impressive collection of history of the town and region and the families who helped build it.
Studying up for #BL100 w/ Bridging the Years a.k.a. The Blaine Lake Bible a.k.a. The Big Blue Book Androsoff
IMG_0581Ryan Androsoff
The next morning we were up bright and early to make the approximately 100km drive north from Saskatoon to Blaine Lake.
Have finally arrived for #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0599Ryan Androsoff
Blaine Lake grain elevatorRyan Androsoff
As we came into town we drove past my grandmother Androsoff’s house (or as I have always called her: Baba Mabel), and I was pleasantly surprised to see the sign below on her fence. She is a very special and inspiring lady, still full of energy, life and fun at 88!
Seen along the parade route – very proud of my Baba! #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0604Ryan Androsoff
The sun was shining, and it was time for that essential of any small-town community celebration in Saskatchewan – a parade!
Amazing weather out today for #BL100 – I can hear the bagpipers for the parade getting closer…Ryan Androsoff
Parade has arrived #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0607Ryan Androsoff
The Blaine Lake RCMP – past and present #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0608Ryan Androsoff
Blaine Lake’s first, and still only, female Mayor (a.k.a. Baba) #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0612Ryan Androsoff
The first of many mini-horse drawn carriages #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0624Ryan Androsoff
The bagpipers #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0618Ryan Androsoff
Blaine Lake Jail on wheels (not sure of the historical accuracy on this one…) #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0621Ryan Androsoff
A brief history of farm equipment. First up: 1928 #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0627Ryan Androsoff
A brief history of farm equipment. Next up: 1934 #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0626Ryan Androsoff
A brief history of farm equipment. Next up: 1936 #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0628Ryan Androsoff
A brief history of farm equipment. Finally, a quantum leap to modern day #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0629Ryan Androsoff
Top marks for creativity on this one – guest appearance by Snoopy #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0639Ryan Androsoff
Though this may take the cake for creativity – a plumber taking a bath on a van #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0641Ryan Androsoff
Briefly mistaken for the Ghostbusters car, actually just an old-time ambulance #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0649Ryan Androsoff
Church on wheels #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0661Ryan Androsoff
Now the full-sized horses #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0643Ryan Androsoff
And closing up the parade, some live guitarists #BL100 Androsoff
IMG_0664Ryan Androsoff
Parade finished, it was time to find some lunch, explore town, and of course lots of visiting.
Parade done, next stop: Ukrainian Church for what will no doubt be an excellent lunch #BL100Ryan Androsoff
A line-up onto the street in Blaine Lake? Must be good eats inside! #BL100 Androsoff
Line up for Ukrainian lunchRyan Androsoff
Afternoon of visiting with family. Now getting ready to head out to the hottest ticket in town: the steak supper #BL100Ryan Androsoff
The evening events took place in the heart of Blaine Lake, right next to the railway and the former train station (which is, at least according to my reading the night before in the “Big Blue Book”, the raison d’être for Blaine Lake’s existence). A 500 person steak supper (which had been sold out for weeks), followed by a street dance was on the agenda.
Train StationRyan Androsoff
The Blaine Lake Snowmobile Club in action, keeping us well fed #BL100 Androsoff
Steak dinner chefsRyan Androsoff
Main Street Blaine Lake at dusk #BL100 Androsoff
Main Street at DuskRyan Androsoff
IMG_0674Ryan Androsoff
Of course to close out the day, fireworks #BL100 Androsoff
Fireworks 9Ryan Androsoff
Fireworks 7Ryan Androsoff
And fireworks… #BL100 Androsoff
Fireworks 5Ryan Androsoff
Fireworks 6Ryan Androsoff
…and more fireworks #BL100 Androsoff
Fireworks 4Ryan Androsoff
Fireworks 3Ryan Androsoff
Though most people were out on the streets until the wee hours, catching up with friends and family they hadn’t seen in years, that didn’t mean that there was time to sleep-in the next morning! After a little bit of early morning rain, the sun was up and shining again and it was time for a community breakfast.
Sunday morning and time for, of course, a pancake breakfast at #BL100 Androsoff
Sunday breakfastRyan Androsoff
Participated in #BL100 Non-Denominational service this morning w/ Gospel Chapel, Ukrainian Orthodox, Roman Catholic & Doukhobor communitiesRyan Androsoff
My Doukhobor heritage has always been a big part of who I am. The Doukhobor community, which played a central role in the founding of Blaine Lake, participated in the morning’s prayer service through the singing of some traditional psalms.  After getting my arm-twisted a little bit by my Baba, my Mom and a few others, I ended up getting a unique vantage point on the service. Thankfully my “muscle memory” from singing in Doukhobor choirs when I was growing up kicked-in, along with a little help from a songbook that has English phonetics for the Russian psalms.
I got drafted to be part of the Doukhobor choir so here was my view of the service #BL100 Androsoff
Non-denominational serviceRyan Androsoff
Feeling spiritually nourished, it was off for some nourishment of the more earthly type.
Now, as is usually the answer to the Q "what’s next" at any Blaine Lake event, time for more food #BL100 Androsoff
Sunday lunchRyan Androsoff
Discussion over lunch: starting a "draft Mabel for Mayor" campaign so Blaine Lake can start it’s next 100 years with a female Mayor! #BL100Ryan Androsoff
And now for the unveiling of monuments and plaques #BL100 Androsoff
Mill Stone UnveilingRyan Androsoff
Plaque explaining this history of the grain milling stone #BL100 Androsoff
Mill Stone PlaqueRyan Androsoff
The milling stone itself – this is an original from the site of a local Doukhobor village #BL100 Androsoff
Mill Stone 1Ryan Androsoff
Mill Stone 2Ryan Androsoff
The Memorial Park plaque that was unveiled – includes the names of my grandfather and my uncle #BL100 Androsoff
Memorial gardens plaqueRyan Androsoff
The other new memorial in town unveiled this weekend was a statue of wheat sheaves #BL100 Androsoff
Wheat SheavesRyan Androsoff
Blaine Lake Library – haven’t been inside here since I was a kid #BL100 Androsoff
Blaine Lake LibraryRyan Androsoff
In fact here is the kids section where I used to take drawing classes during summer visits to see my Babas #BL100 Androsoff
BL Library – Kids AreaRyan Androsoff
I discovered that the Library now has a little two-room museum in it as well. Amongst a number of interesting items I found a 1970’s typewriter donated by my grandmother from my mother’s side (or as I have called her since I was little: Baba Chev). She was a secretary in the local school board office for many years, so her typewriters were always cherished items to her.
Baba’s TypewriterRyan Androsoff
Baba’s Typewriter – signRyan Androsoff
Found inside the Blaine Lake Library: a copy of the very first edition of @TheStarPhoenix from Oct 17, 1902 #BL100 Androsoff
First edition of the SPRyan Androsoff
Seems the writing style of 1902 wasn’t that different than Twitter today: an aversion to periods! #BL100 Androsoff
Wordy article from first SP editionRyan Androsoff
After spending the afternoon taking in some history and reliving some childhood memories, there was one last stop on the itinerary.
Sign w/ historical info outside the cemetery where much of the Cheveldayoff side of my family is buried #BL100 Androsoff
Cemetery SignRyan Androsoff
Amazing prairie landscape from near the original Cheveldayoff homestead; Blaine Lake on the horizon #BL100 Androsoff
Prairie Sky – Long ViewRyan Androsoff
With that, it was time to head back to Saskatoon, feeling grateful that I could be in Blaine Lake to celebrate the history of this place that is such a big part of the story of my family.
Very happy to have been part of Blaine Lake’s centennial this weekend – thanks to all the organizers! #BL100 Androsoff
Blaine Lake Centennial BannerRyan Androsoff