History From the Heart: Difficult Pasts and Possible Futures in the Heterogeneous Doukhobor Community in Canada

M.A. Thesis by Sonya Natal White

for the Graduate Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. 2011. 163 pp.

Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff

In February, 2011, Sonya White sent me the following letter in which she discussed her recently completed thesis project.  I was one of fifteen people who participated in Sonya’s oral history research, and it makes sense for us to now collaborate on the dissemination of her research findings.  This post exists in two parts: Sonya’s summary letter comes first and is followed by my review of her thesis.  Read History From the Heart: …(PDF file) .

Sonya White’s Thesis Summary Letter, February 2011

Dear Koozma,

I hope that this letter finds you well.  I am writing to convey good news at my end: I have finished with my analysis of the research data that was generated from interviews with members of the Doukhobor community in Canada.  You were one of the participants who contributed to my research and I want to extend my thanks and gratitude for the insights that you shared with me.  In turn, I now want to share some thoughts with you on the project and the written thesis that resulted from it.

The title for my thesis is as follows: ‘History from the Heart: Difficult Pasts and Possible Futures in the Heterogeneous Doukhobor Community in Canada.’  The title unfolded gradually; in writing about the elements of this title, I am able to speak of the analytical process that led to my research results and conclusions.

More than one participant evoked “the heart” as an important place of confluence.  The heart allows for all of the untidy unions that occur in real life: fear meets with courage, shame meets with pride, peace meets with conflict.  In making the heart a home for contradictions and curiosities, I want to suggest that such contradictions are important and valuable, even sacred.  They define much of human life, so understanding how contradictory experiences fit within the social representation of Doukhobor experience in Canada is a major goal of my thesis.

The stories and ideas that were shared with me during my interviews were extremely diverse.  When I began to read all of the fifteen research transcripts together, as a unified collection of stories and experiences, I was profoundly moved by the spectrum of difference within this collection.  Telling the story of Doukhobors in western Canada is not an easy task, nor a small task.  In order to remember without “throwing salt” in the wounds of the past, I believe that we must be willing to acknowledge these spectrums of difference without defending one experience as the “right” or “true” experience.  This is the logic that led me to speak of plural “pasts” and plural “futures” in the title of my thesis.


Remembrance presents many ethical challenges to those who remember.  My thesis deals at length with the ethical concerns that were raised during my research interviews.  Rather than walk away from the concerns, I treat them as valid and necessary for a progressive form of remembrance.  Building these concerns into collective practices of remembrance is a way of sustaining Doukhobor history without shying away from the difficulties of life in Canada.


In my thesis, I characterize experiences of philosophical conflict and controversial protest as “the Doukhobor troubles.” I make a point of exploring the effects and consequences of the Doukhobor troubles on the lives of people who make up the broad and diverse Doukhobor community in Canada.  In exploring how these consequences and effects are sustained in life today, I explain that the activities and experiences of the 21st century are intimately linked to the activities and experiences of the 20th century.  The people who were born into the Doukhobor community after the Doukhobor troubles occurred are still affected by these experiences.  In a sense, then, understanding life today requires an open conversation about life yesterday.  My thesis highlights inclusive dialogue as an important component of cultural sustainability.  Finding ways to create “safe spaces” for dialogue – i.e., places where contradictions can be explored without judgment – is one of the ongoing projects that I propose to members of the community.

If you would like to read my thesis in full, there are a few different options for accessing it.  Those participants who have access to a computer have been provided with a document attachment or a disc that has the document embedded in it.  Both of these options require computer access.  In addition, I will be collaborating with the publishers of various websites to promote access to the thesis.  For people who are unable to access a computer, I will place a copy of my thesis in full in the Selkirk College library.  I will also try to ensure that a copy is donated to the Doukhobor Discovery Centre and the Castlegar and District Heritage Society/Museum.  This will take some time, so please write to me or telephone me if you find that you are unable to locate a copy of the thesis when you desire to read it.

In reading the thesis, you will find that I have introduced all participants as they asked to be named.  Upon formal introductions, I revert to first names as a way of diverting attention away from those people who chose to participate as anonymous voices.

My permanent address remains in Cranbrook.  There will always be someone who can redirect letters or calls as necessary.  That contact information is:

Sonya White

1631 Staple Crescent

Cranbrook, B.C., V1C 6J1

Telephone: 250-884-0119      

Email: sonya.natal.white@gmail.com

Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff

In her thesis “History From The Heart” Sonya White presents a valuable oral history study of the Doukhobors. With the aid of a semi-structured interview guide, she recorded on an audio device the views of 15 individuals with varying Doukhobor connections.  The participants reflected diversity across gender, age, place of birth, and ideological affiliation: 7 women, 8 men; the youngest born in 1977, the oldest in 1918; 7 Orthodox Doukhobors, 4 Independent Doukhobors, 2 Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, and 2 participants who affiliate outside of common faith categorizations.  Sonya’s mother grew up in a West Kootenay Doukhobor family and taught her about Doukhoborism and Doukhobor experiences in western Canada.  Sonya’s curiosity about her identity, in a real sense, began at birth.

Her key words in this study include ‘heterogeneous Doukhobor community’, ‘the Doukhobor troubles or depredations’, memories, dialogue, and ‘unification and reconciliation’. The metaphor of the ‘heart’ is used as the sensitive mechanism that can help deal with all the contradictory stresses of life and hopefully provide a collective vision for the future.

In a sensitive and organic manner, Sonya’s bottom line is to find a way to understand the depredations (burnings, bombings, and nudity) of the 20th century within a representative history of Doukhobors in Canada. She discovers that differing needs of different groups require differing strategies of history and reconciliation in a heterogeneous Doukhobor community.

Singing and working, she notes, have strong resonance in Doukhobor culture as practices for dealing with contradictions and conflict. This includes singing (such as with joint choirs), sewing (such as is done in the Cultural Interpretive Society in Castlegar), spinning, and woodworking. Meeting together at the coffee shop helps, as does sharing ideas in the media such as Mir and Iskra.

The Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations (KCIR), established in 1979, was correctly identified as a dynamic venture that involved people of diverse Doukhobor affiliation, members of the British Columbia civil service, and local residents of the municipalities affected by the area depredations. Sonya’s father sat on the committee and this connection provided an opportunity  for her to discuss the committee’s role in facilitating dialogue during times of extreme agitation.

In parallel to KCIR, Sonya discusses the Joint Doukhobor Research Committee and its impact on community dialogue.  I would like to have read a more extensive analysis of the impact that this pioneering group made through its 68 public Symposium Meetings from 1974 to 1982. (See Summarized Report compiled and translated by Eli A. Popoff, and published by Selkirk College, Castlegar, BC, 1997: 698 pp.).

Also missed was the fact-finding and reconciliation role played by The Inquirer which was published by the Union of Young Doukhobors from 1954 to 1958 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. This monthly journal was the first Doukhobor publication in the English language and like Mir later was a positive and progressive antidote to the sensationalist journalism that it competed with.

Although the author states (p.30) that the Union of Young Doukhobors began in 1968 in Vancouver, in actual fact an organization with the same name originated in the early 1920s when Peter G. Makaroff and others invited Quakers to come for a joint meeting in Saskatchewan. Much later, in the early 1950s, university students in Saskatoon adopted the idea and formed the Union of Young Doukhobors at a meeting of the Union of Doukhobors of Canada in Canora, Saskatchewan. The Inquirer directly evolved out of that meeting. All of these were early sources of both Socratic-type inquiry and reconciliation.

There were other important events that ought to be mentioned here, all of which would further support Sonya White’s thesis. The most prominent one is the First International Doukhobor Intergroup Symposium featuring Doukhobors, Molokane and Dukh-i-zhiniki, Mennonites and Quakers (joined by members of other groups), held in Castlegar, BC, June 25-28, 1982. This wide spectrum of groups represented concerned peoples from across North America, Europe and the USSR. They discussed not only the important issue of peace making, but also looked at how they can best preserve their cultural heritage as well as fully participate in the wider society. In dialogue side by side, they were there to map out their future.

In a larger context, the thesis is about how ‘difference’ is represented in Canada, and how these representations impact on the extension and negotiation of citizenship and cultural membership.  It deals with problem solving a set of complex human issues that involve seeking truth in our lives, creating a good self-image, accepting diversity, and discovering the possibilities and limitations of framing history through a lens of ‘right and wrong.’ For those people whose futures are held back by real or perceived ‘troubles and depredations’, the study articulates some alternative strategies such as ‘cultural engagement, silence, therapy, forgiveness and dialogue’. Besides those strategies, the impact of active websites by Doukhobors on their history and reconciliation deserves more consideration. The power of the new media must not be neglected as we work on both our old and new historic paths.

Sonya identifies the broader vision of the future as including: ‘wellness, love, connection, encouragement, recognition, influence and peace’ (p.135). These are noble values that most citizens, Doukhobor and non-Doukhobor, would readily support.

Sonya White concludes her thesis with the following resounding upbeat statement which is a good summary of her intent: ‘In turning to the future, dialogue suggests tremendous potential for the collective practice of peace. Finding ways to speak and hear across differences of  ideology, gender, age, and location are central to the inheritance and sustenance of a Doukhobor legacy in Canada’ (p.143).