New podcast spotlights rural B.C.'s Doukhobor community, legacy of sect's leader

·4 min read
Peter Vasilevich Verigin, the Doukhobor community's leader, pictured in 1922. His death deeply impacted the ethnoreligious community, who settled around Grand Forks and Castlegar in B.C. in the early 20th century.  (Submitted by Greg Nesteroff - image credit)
Peter Vasilevich Verigin, the Doukhobor community's leader, pictured in 1922. His death deeply impacted the ethnoreligious community, who settled around Grand Forks and Castlegar in B.C. in the early 20th century. (Submitted by Greg Nesteroff - image credit)

A new podcast is spotlighting an ethnoreligious group who have made B.C's Kootenay region home for more than a century, as well as the legacy of their leader, who died in what has been described as one of Canada's greatest unsolved mysteries.

In May, the Columbia Basin Trust and the Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine launched Headwaters: Stories from the Source, a podcast celebrating the region.

Produced by former CBC journalist Bob Keating and hosted by the magazine's editor-in-chief Mitchell Scott, Headwaters has released four episodes so far, including one about the Doukhobors, a religious community originally from Russia.

The Doukhobors dissented from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 18th century, rejecting organized religion while keeping its Christian teachings, according to the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC), the largest Doukhobor organization in Canada.

Later, at the encouragement of leader Peter Vasilevich Verigin, they also adopted a communal lifestyle, abstained from tobacco and alcohol, and practised vegetarianism and pacifism — opposition to war and violence.

According to the USCC, there are an estimated 30,000 Doukhobors living in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, the Kootenay and Okanagan regions, and in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

'A tragedy'

The episode explores an event that "shattered" the community's way of life — the death of Verigin, a Russian-born philosopher and activist who became the leader of the Doukhobors in the late 19th century.

According to the USCC, persecution from the state spurred the migration of more than 7,000 Doukhobors from Russia to Canada, where they would be free to practice their religion. From 1898 to 1899, they migrated with support from novelist Leo Tolstoy and the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, and mostly settled in Saskatchewan.

Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada

Later Verigin led about 6,000 Doukhobors to British Columbia, where they built communal villages in Grand Forks and Castlegar.

On Oct. 29, 1924, Verigin and eight other passengers, including Grand Forks-Greenwood MLA John McKie, were killed by a train explosion along the Canadian Pacific Railway's Kettle Valley Line.

"It was a tragedy," said Verigin's great-great-grandson and executive director of the USCC, John J. Verigin Jr.

"It unsettled the Dukhobor community in Canada ... it was a difficult time."

The cause of the explosion remains unknown and the incident has been described as one of the greatest unresolved mysteries in Canadian history.

In the podcast, Verigin Jr. recounts pilgrimages to a monument honouring Peter Verigin in Farron, B.C., about 45 kilometres northeast of Grand Forks.

"When we used to be kids, we used to walk all the way up here, and we would have a little bit of a morning prayer service," he said.

After Verigin's death, his descendants resumed the role of spiritual leader for the Doukhobors. His son, Peter Petrovich Verigin, established the USCC in 1938.

'An interesting historical figure'

Greg Nesteroff, a Castlegar-based journalist born to a Doukhobor family, has written extensively about the community and contributed reporting to the podcast.

Now 45, Nesteroff says he didn't learn about Verigin in school, but his parents told him stories about the Doukhobor leader.

"He was an interesting historical figure to me," Nesteroff said, adding it would be worthwhile for schools in the province to add Doukhobor history, including Verigin's legacy, to their curriculum.

Bob Keating
Bob Keating

The episode also tells the story of Mary Braun, a member of a Doukhobor faction called the Sons of Freedom, who became known for their public protests by setting fires and protesting nude. Braun was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 for burning a satellite building of Selkirk College in Castlegar.

It also features Kalesnikoff, a Doukhobor family-run forestry company.

LISTEN | Mitchell Scott and Greg Nesteroff on the Headwaters podcast

"[The Doukhobors] have a long history much longer than any of the rest of us," said Keating, who covered Braun's trial as a Nelson correspondent for the CBC.

"There are a lot of newcomers to the Kootenays [that] I'm not sure really know the full history, so there are lots of reasons to take it on."

Verigin Jr. says the USCC is also discussing plans to commemorate the centennial anniversary in 2024 of his great-great-grandfather's death.

Episodes of the Headwaters podcast will be released every Wednesday.

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