Welcoming summer back at the Doukhobor National Historic Site

Two young members of the Saskatoon Doukhobor Prayer Home singing group prepare to perform a traditional Russian hymn during the summer opening of the Doukhobor Dugout House National Historic Site. After going the entire summer last year without any tours, the site officially reopened on July 3. Jason Kerr/PA Daily Herald

After a year of rapid change, one of Saskatchewan’s hidden treasures took the first step towards returning to normal.

The Doukhobor Dugout House National Historic Site officially reopened its doors with a socially-distanced ceremony on July 3. Site founder Brenda Cheveldayoff said they’ve eagerly waited for this day since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re really excited because we had to close to large gatherings, when we used to do probably 300 or 400 people in the yard at one time,” Cheveldayoff said in an interview afterwards. “To be able to open slowly but surely, we’re pretty excited.”

Volunteers haven’t been idle during the down time. When the site opened for the summer on July 3, guests were treated to a fantastic view at the newly constructed patio area overlooking the North Saskatchewan River Valley.

They’ve also continued renovations on the site’s prayer home, a project Donna Choppe started prior to her passing in 2020, and funded by Doukhobor bread sales in the summer and fall. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only self-guided tours will be available this year, but that’s a big upgrade over 2020, when no tours were offered.

Cheveldayoff hopes the upgrades will help bring visitors back to the site, and remind everyone of an important part of Saskatchewan history.

Members of the Saskatoon Doukhobor Prayer House singing group perform a traditional Russian hymn at the conclusion of the opening ceremony. Jason Kerr/PA Daily Herald

“I hope they (visitors) come home to their history, get back to their roots, and learn about this hidden secret of Saskatchewan,” she said.

The July 3 ceremony includes bagpipers, traditional Russian hymns, and a short gift presentation.

Much of the ceremony focused on the importance of cooperation and understanding with other cultures. The Doukhobors came to Saskatchewan in 1899 after fleeing hardship and persecution in Russia for their strict pacifism.

On July 3, the descendants of those early Doukhobor settlers said they would have never survived in Canada without the aid and assistance of local Indigenous people. They said the historic site was an important reminder of what’s possible when people of different cultures and faith traditions respect one another.

“Wasn’t that the way it was supposed to be?” said J.J. Verigin, the great-great-grandson of Peter the Lordly Verigan, the leader instrumental in convincing the Doukhobors to destroy their weapons and move to Canada. “That was what Canada was supposed to be … and we have yet to reach that full potential.”

Historic site founder Brenda Cheveldayoff speaks to guests during the opening ceremony. Jason Kerr/PA Daily Herald

Verigin now serves as the executive director of the Union of the Spiritual Communities of Christ in British Columbia, but prior to that he spent a decade as a peace and disarmament advocate with NGOs in Ottawa and at the United Nations.

He said the lessons those early Doukhobors brought to Canada are badly needed as Canada grapples with the legacy of how Indigenous children were treated in its residential school system.

“it’s nice to aspire towards a peaceful life, but that doesn’t fall like mana from heaven,” Verigin said. “You have to create the conditions for it. We want the reward, but we’re not willing to do the work, and that’s backwards.

“Our forbearers knew,” he added. “Those people who lived by the riverbank knew. That’s why we’re here today, and I’m confident we can regain that knowledge, that sense of spirit, as long as we don’t consider ourselves as chosen, as long as we don’t consider ourselves as special, as long as we don’t consider ourselves as better than the other, then we’ll be okay.”

Volunteers have continued rennovations on the site’s prayer home, the interior of which is shown here. Jason Kerr/PA Daily Herald

Saskatchewan’s Lt.-Gov. Russ Mirasty was one of several guests who spoke at the opening ceremony. Mirasty attended a residential school in Prince Albert as a youth, and said the comments about how Doukhobors eagerly partnered with Indigenous people really resonated with him.

“It is really about working together, regardless of your background and where you’re from, and certainly learning about the Doukhobors and their difficult history resonates with me as well,” he said during a short interview after the ceremony. “When people come together to create a better world, I mean, what could be better? That’s just the way it should be, as we heard in some of the messages today.”

Volunteer Joyce Joanette grills up a grilled cheese sandwich on traditional Doukhobor bread. Jason Kerr/PA Daily Herald

Mirasty added that it’s difficult to understand people of different cultures unless you learn about their history. Doing so creates and common understanding, and he’s confident sites like the Doukhobor Dugout House can help provide that opportunity.

“Whether you’re originally from this land or not, or whether you’re a newcomer or a settler, it really is about understanding each other and being able to move forward from that common understanding,” he said.

J.J. Verigin, a descendent of Peter the Lordly Verigan, speaks during the reopening ceremony on July 3. Jason Kerr/PA Daily Herald

“We can’t appreciate each other truly unless we learn about each other, and so to reach that level of understanding that’s needed for further cooperation, you have to understand,” he added. “You have to learn, and this is one way of doing it.”

The Doukhobor Dugout House National Historic Site is located southeast of Blaine Lake, and roughly 120 km southwest of Prince Albert. Directions, tour times, and other information is available on their website at www.doukhobordugouthouse.com.

@kerr_jas • jason.kerr@paherald.sk.ca