The Doukhobor Colony in Hilliers
Researched and written by Richard de Candole
In the early 1900s more than 7,000 Doukhobors immigrated to Canada from the Black Sea region of Russia. They were a Christian sect fleeing years of persecution because they were pacifists and rejected the authority of the State and the Russian Orthodox Church.
After settling as homesteaders in Saskatchewan, they proved to be equally troublesome for the Canadian authorities, refusing to swear an oath of allegiance, refusing to send their children to school, and staging nude protest marches. They lived communally under the leadership of Peter “The Lordly” Verigin. Some Doukhobors began adopting Canadian ways and that led to a split in the community. Eventually the more fundamentalist group followed their leader Peter to the Kootenays where he had acquired 22,000 acres around Castlegar. Internal strife continued and out of this was born the Sons of Freedom. They were seriously radical, staging nude protests, refusing to register births, burning schools and even each other’s homes. They believed that the burning of possessions was purifying for the recipient and brought them closer to God.
On October 29, 1924 Peter the Lordly was killed when a bomb exploded on a train on the Kettle Valley Railroad.
Out of the ensuing turmoil emerged several competing leaders, one of whom was Michael “the Archangel” Verigin. For a while in the 1930s he operated a boarding house for Russians in Vancouver but became disenchanted with the Canadian way of life and returned to the Kootenays to form a community based on Sons of Freedom ideals. To his small group of followers he made a number of proclamations: they had been chosen to prepare the world for the Second Coming; they must renounce not only meat but also tobacco and musical instruments; and above all they must turn away from the desire to possess. Marriage was to be no more. Women were to be liberated and families must wither away.
He and his followers were not widely accepted in the Kootenays. Several of their homes were burned, as was their store. Then
Michael had a vision
Details of this vision appear in an account by well-known Canadian writer and pacifist George Woodcock following a visit he made to Michael’s new community at Hilliers in August of 1949.
Peter the Lordly (ca. 1916)
Two of his followers, Michael decreed, must visit Vancouver Island. There they would find a town where a clock had stopped at half past two, and then they must proceed eastward until they saw a white horse standing by the gate of a farm.
As was foretold in the vision, the followers did indeed find a clock in Port Alberni stopped at 2:30, and the horse was by the gate of a farm at Hilliers Crossing.
The farm, along with a second one on nearby Slaney Road, was bought in the spring of 1947 and Michael the Archangel led 80 of his disciples on an exodus. Immediately after arriving at Hilliers he added another prohibition - a ban on sexual relations. He said the ban would remain in place until the colony was deemed to be economically self-sufficient.
That moment apparently came less than two years later. A Sept. 26, 1949 story in Time magazine reported the ban followed by the arrival of the community’s first child. At an outdoor ceremony the baby was christened Gabriel Archangelovich First and then surrendered by the mother to the joint custody of the community.
By an amazing co-incidence, George Woodcock’s visit to Hilliers coincided with this historic moment. His account describes how the day unfolded.
“Sunday was the climax of our visit. The day began with morning service in the bare meeting house. Flowers and plates of red apples had been brought in, and the sunlight played over the white head-shawls and bright cotton dresses of the women. Bread and salt stood symbolically on the small central table along with a great ewer of water.
God within in.
The Archangel stood at the head of the men. He did not attempt to offend Doukhobor precedent by acting like a priest. Today, in fact, because a child was to be the centre of the festival, the children led off the service, choosing and starting in their sharp, clear voices the Doukhobor psalms and hymns for the day. Almost every part of the service was sung, and the wild and wholly incomprehensible chanting of so many people in the small meeting house produced in us an
extraordinary sense of exaltation. At the end of the service, we all linked arms at the elbows and kissed each other’s cheeks, first right then left, in traditional token of forgiveness.
“Later in the day we reassembled in the open air, forming a great V. The singing rose like a fountain of sound among the drooping cedar trees, and between lines of women waving flowers and men waving green boughs the mother carried her child to the table. The singing ended, and the mother, showing no emotion, handed the child to another of the women. The Archangel began to speak, in high emotional tones. The child would be named Angel Gabriel. It was he who would fulfil the great destiny and lead mankind back on the journey to lost Eden.
The women brought out pitchers of kvass (a type of low alcohol beer) and walked among the people as the orators began to speak. Emblematic banners were unfurled before the assembly. One represented women dragging the ploughs that broke the prairies during the hard early days in Canada. Another, covered with images of clocks and other symbols of time, depicted the important dates that charted the destiny of the world. Then everyone who wished to, spoke – elders and young women, even a Communist lawyer who was visiting. It was hot and tedious work as the sun beat down and Sunday day trippers from Qualicum Beach gazed in astonishment through the palisades. (As an aside, while talking to a friend recently about the Hilliers Doukhobors, he remembered how during his family’s annual holiday in Parksville in the late ‘40s his dad always took them on a drive out to watch the Doukhobors.) Continuing Woodcock’s account:
“The mother of the child Angel Gabriel did not attend dinner that evening, and we never saw her again. When we asked what had happened to her we were told she had gone willingly into seclusion.”
In the same account Woodcock describes being shown around the second farm - the property that would one day be owned by my parents. His tour guide was Joe Podovinikoff, the community’s second in command.
“This is the other place,” explained Joe. “Most of the young people stay here. The old ones live up there with Michael Archangel.”
Joe showed us the new bakehouse on which a man was laying bricks. He then tried to entice us into the bathhouse.
“I looked through the doorway and saw naked people moving like the damned in the clouds of steam that puffed up whenever a bucket of water was thrown on the hot stones.
Later when everyone stood in a circle around the great oval table for the communal meal we began to see the kind of people the Doukhobors were. There were 20 of them, singing in the half-Caucasian rhythm that penetrates Doukhobor music, the women high and nasal, the men resonant as bells. Most had Slavonic features but a few were so un-Russian as to suggest that the Doukhobors had interbred with Causcasian Moslems. They sang of Siberian and Canadian prisons, of martyrs and heroes in the faith.
“The food was vegetarian, the best I have ever tasted, bowls of purple borsht, dashed with white streaks of cream, and then casha, made with millet and butter, and vegetables cooked in oil, and perogies stuffed with cheese and beans and blackberries, and eaten with great scoops of sour cream. Slices of black bread passed around the table, cut from a massive square loaf that stood in the middle beside the salt of hospitality, and the meal ended with huckleberries and cherries.
The next day we met the Archangel at the main farm. His house was one of the larger buildings, but we were not allowed to go in. We waited outside. The Archangel would meet us in the garden.
A tall man in his late fifties came stepping heavily between the zinnia borders. The Archangel bowed in the customary Doukhobor manner. He spoke a few sentences in Russian, welcoming us and wishing us good health, and he affected not to understand English, though we later learned that he was effectively bilingual.
He picked two small pink roses from a briar and gave one to each of us. In five minutes he was gone, leaving our questions about his archangelic powers unanswered.
For the rest of that day we wandered around the community, talking with people we encountered. Under the prophetic discipline there were certain signs of strain. I found empty beer bottles in a corner of one field, and in the shelter of the ten-foot plumes of corn which were the community’s pride a young man begged a cigarette and smoked hasty gulps to finish it before anyone came in sight.
Yet there was also an atmosphere of dogged devotion. Much of the land had been irrigated, and it was growing heavier crops of corn, tomatoes and vegetables than any of the neighbouring farms, while the houses were surrounded by rows of hotbeds and cold frames where melons and gerkins ripened.
We left the next day. The Archangel received us once more in his garden, gave us a white rose each, and said we would meet again before long. “It’s a prophecy,” Joe whispered.
And indeed it was. Months later, I was broadcasting at the CBC in Vancouver when I heard that Michael and Joe were locked up in the nearby court house. I went over, and for a couple of minutes, in that grim barred room, I was allowed to talk to Michael. He was pleased to be recognized, and even willing to talk a little English.
“I am free soon,” he said, as he was led away.” Not long after he and Joe were found guilty of conspiracy to commit arson and sentenced to two years in jail.
During the early years of the colony there was a number of suspicious fires in the Kootenays and in Hilliers. The dining hall at the main farm was the first to burn, then the Hilliers school. Finally the Hilliers community hall burned.
The provincial government convened a public inquiry and the upshot was that Michael and Joe Podovinkoff were arrested. Testimony from the trial in June of 1950 appears in Simma Holt’s best selling book Terror in the Name of God. The jury concluded that Michael and Joe were pulling the strings and found them guilty. Indeed most of the followers who testified admitted setting fires because of the Archangel’s proclamations and exhortations. The convictions were appealed and subsequently a new trial was ordered because the judge said the jury had not been fully instructed on the use of sworn statements.
By a twist of fate Michael suffered a stroke a month after the trial and he died a year later at the age of 69. A stay of proceedings was eventually entered against Joe.
The Archangel’s funeral on July 27, 1951 attracted a large gathering of Doukhobor and non-Doukhobor dignitaries and he was buried unmarked in a small graveyard on my family’s property, now a registered cemetery. Among the dignitaries attending was Stefan Sorokin, spiritual leader of the Reformed Sons of Freedom.
“The Sons of Freedom were destroying all Christian principles by their previous course of action,” said Stefan as reported in the Parksville Progress. “I want them to follow the example set by the Hilliers group. At Krestova (in the Kootenays) they have no schools and lack the cultural life.”
Among the dozen or so unmarked graves in the cemetery, there are two marked graves, one containing the ashes of my father Corry de Candole and another for David Priestman, a Quaker living in Hilliers with close ties to the colony. Curiously, his wife suffered the loss of her home in a fire under suspicious circumstance a year after David’s death. 15 years ago I contacted the Priestmans’ daughter and she told me that the fire had been deliberately set because it started simultaneously at the front and back of the house. My father’s marker depicts an orca whale and the log house he spent 10 years building across the creek from the graveyard. An inscription reads: Quam hunc recessum amabat - a nod to his life-long proficiency in Latin and classical Greek. It means “he who loved this place.”
The Hilliers colony never recovered from the loss of their leader and by the late-1950s most of the residents had either moved back to the Kootenays or left the Doukhobor community altogether.
The property had been vacant for over five years when my parents Corry and Nancy de Candole discovered it in 1963, almost by accident.
They had been looking for retirement property and were about to return to Alberta without finding anything that appealed to them.
E.D. Thwaites, a Qualicum Beach pioneer and founder of Thwaites Insurance & Realty, happened to be in the office on their last day and when he heard they had found nothing gave some advice they felt they couldn’t ignore:
‘Don’t leave the Island without having a look at the old Doukhobor place.’ At the time the property wasn’t even listed. On their way to the ferry they drove through Hilliers.
My parents were immediately attracted to the property.
“It was so peaceful and private,” remembered my mother in a story I wrote about the property. “It was at the end of the road and totally surrounded by forest. Corry couldn’t wait to get back into town to make an offer.”
They barely even noticed that the homesite was a collection of weather-beaten sheds and buildings, none of which were suitable for a house. Their offer of $9,500 for the 120 acres was accepted and that winter they hired Qualicum Construction to build a 1,400 sq. ft. house designed by my father.
Map of de Candole Farm (1964)
Dad spent the next 20 years tearing down sheds, restoring other buildings, building a log house, and putting back into production a field that had been used by the Doukhobors to grow corn, cabbages and potatoes.
Our first summer I remember spending the better part of a morning beating through the bush trying to find the cemetery. This was knowing that only 15 years earlier Mr & Mrs Thwaites had driven their car almost to the gate for Michael’s burial. The forest had grown back that much.
While vacant the property had been used for weekend parties. The main house burned down the first year my parents owned it. And more than a thousand feet of cast iron irrigation pipe had been stolen. The first fall we lit numerous burn piles to dispose of the fallen down sheds. This led to having a bonfire on Thanksgiving with family and friends, a tradition we still observe. Over the years the Doukhobor corn field by the creek has grown our annual hay crop as well as served as a vegetable garden.
Harry Tracy Movie Set (ca. 1980)
The Doukhobor cottage had no power or running water but it was where most of our house guests slept during visits. During the ‘70s it was often occupied for extended periods by twenty something friends of the family wanting to get away from it all and for shorter periods hitch-hikers my parents would pick up on their way out to the west coast.
In the fall of 1980 the cottage even served as a fictional mountain hideaway for the last remaining member of the Butch Cassidy gang. Producers for the Canadian movie Harry Tracy: Desperado starring Bruce Dern, Helen Shaver and Gordon Lightfoot stumbled upon my parent’s property and immediately arranged to use the cottage for filming.
My wife Wendy, our two children Emily and Derek, and I moved to the property in 1992 to support my mother who had been on her own for seven years. We carried on many of the farming projects begun by my parents and started some of our own, especially after Emily and Derek joined 4-H. In particular we built up a herd of goats and raised meat bird chickens on pasture. Maintaining the 70-year-old wood buildings and fences was a never-ending project and the problem was ultimately solved by the next owner with a bulldozer and numerous fires. Only the barn and the house my parents built are still standing. The cemetery is now the only legacy of the Hilliers Doukhobor colony. Today my wife and I live only a few steps away from the cemetery on a lot we subdivided from the property.
Teen Girls Sweeping (ca. 1950)
Hilliers Crossing Farm Gate (1950)
Graveyard Burials List
Hilliers Community in the News