Author: Kathleen McConnachie
Editor: Ruth Sandwell
Series Editor: Roland Case
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-18
Late in the evening of October 28, 1924, Peter Verigin boarded a Canadian Pacific Railway train at Brilliant, British Columbia, the headquarters of the Doukhobor community. About one in the morning a horrific explosion blew away the roof and sides of the coach. Verigin and eight others perished in the explosion, which investigators on the scene quickly concluded was no accident.
Known by the single name “Lordly,” Peter Verigin lived like royalty among a group of Russian immigrants to Canada, the Doukhobors, whose motto was “Toil and Peaceful Life.” The Doukhobors preached equality and rejected the authority of both Church and State. As a result, they were persecuted in Russia. In 1902, their leader, Peter Verigin, and many of his community came to Canada to take up a new life.
Yet they did not find peace in Canada. Doukhobor protests against what they saw as governmental interference with their religious and political freedoms involved arson, public nudity, and refusal to pay taxes or send their children to school. Because of this unusual behaviour, many regarded the Doukhobors as undesirable citizens and they were under surveillance by the RCMP.
Did Canada live up to its promise as a land of religious tolerance and political freedom? Or were the rights of Doukhobors to live according to their deeply-held religious and social beliefs violated?
In this MysteryQuest you are invited to take on the role of a human rights advocate and prepare a legal opinion on the following question: Would government treatment of the Doukhobors in the early twentieth century have been legal if it had occurred today, under the guarantees provided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? You will focus your attention on Doukhobor conflicts with the authorities involving the freedom of conscience and religion.
First, you will learn about the Doukhobors and their history. You will use a timeline of this group’s struggles with authorities over three centuries to gather information about the nature of their conflicts and the basis for government attempts to assert authority over the Doukhobors. Next, you will read about the grounds upon which governments are permitted to limit a group’s fundamental rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You will examine primary documents from the early twentieth century, looking for evidence to determine whether or not the Doukhobors were legitimately exercising their freedom of conscience and religion and whether or not governments were justified in their responses. Finally, based on the evidence you find, you will prepare a legal brief or opinion on the legality, under the terms established by the Charter, of the historical respect by Canadian authorities for the Doukhobors’ freedom of conscience and religion.
STEP 1: Learn about the Doukhobors
Your first task is to learn more about the Doukhobors. Read the following documents — two of these documents are accounts by historians explaining the conflicts that Doukhobors have encountered, and the third is a song composed by a Doukhobor, expressing her group’s commitment to hard work and peaceful living:
STEP 2: Analysing the historical conflicts
The history of the Doukhobors is a history of three centuries of conflict with authorities, beginning in Russia and then, in the past century, extending to Canada. To help you understand the nature of these tensions, read through the Timeline of this group’s history from 1720 to 1986.
As you skim the description of each history event, focus your attention on two kinds of actions:
Record brief details on these two kinds of attempts in the appropriate sections of the chart Doukhobors vs the Government. For each of these actions, identify the right or value that seems to lie behind the Doukhobors’ or the governments’ actions. Do you notice any patterns? What seem to be the main issues behind the Doukhobors’ actions and behind those of various governments?
STEP 3: Explore the grounds for limiting basic rights
The freedom of conscience and religion is the right to believe and reveal the legitimate dictates of deeply-held ethical and religious principles. Because it safeguards a person’s ability to act on fundamental convictions about right and wrong, it is one of the most basic rights in a democracy. Many of the Doukhobors’ conflicts with the authorities seem to focus on this right. However, no rights are absolute — there are limits on the extent to which any right can be asserted.
Although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was not established until 1982 — years after the events described in the timeline — we will use the requirements established by this constitutional document as the basis for assessing the actions of government to impose control, including requiring Doukhobor children to attend school. Under the Charter, governments in Canada are allowed to override certain rights provided they are “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Well, what exactly does this mean? Read Reasonable Limits on Charter Rights for a more detailed discussion of these requirements. But, in brief, the rights under the Charter can be overridden, provided the limits placed on these rights meet certain conditions:
These three factors are central to deciding whether a government action was a reasonable limit or an unwarranted infringement of a basic right under the Charter.
STEP 4: Gathering evidence from primary sources
In the “Primary documents” section of Evidence in the Case you will find six documents that present various people’s opinions from the early twentieth century on the actions of governments and the Doukhobors. Working alone, or with a partner, examine these sources for evidence that might inform your own conclusion about the reasonableness of the limits placed on the Doukhobors. More specifically, in each document you examine look for evidence of two kinds:
Use the chart Doukhobors Rights: For and Against to record your key findings on these two themes. You will notice that the chart invites you to identify evidence in each document that supports and challenges each group’s actions. You may need to “read between the lines” when gathering this evidence, as many of the documents are written by people who have a particular agenda motivating their writings.
STEP 5: Prepare your legal brief
The readings and timeline have shed some light on the historical experience of the Doukhobors in Canada. You have read primary documents presenting different views on the Doukhobors’ exercise of freedom of conscience and religion and on the government’s restrictions. Now you have a chance to present your conclusions. Prepare a legal brief of approximately 300 words on the following issue: Was the government’s treatment of the Doukhobors in the early twentieth century consistent with the Charter guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion? Or, were government actions not demonstrably justified?
In building your case, refer to specific evidence from the documents to justify two conclusions: (1) whether or not the Doukhobors were involved in the legitimate exercise of their freedoms, and (2) whether or not government actions were justified limitations.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Importance and Relevance of Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify important statements from the historical documents and show their relevance to the exercise and restriction of the Doukhobors’ rights.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Presentation of Conclusions may be used to assess your success in presenting your conclusions in an effective manner, supported with evidence from the primary documents.
Examine additional evidence
Updating the issue: The Doukhobors today
Develop a map comparison
Start with one of the historical maps available on the Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line Mysteries site.
Design a new map that shows the size and location of Doukhobor communities in Canada today.
Locate information about the Doukhobors in Canada today
Go to the “Films and Websites” section of Beyond This Site.
Are any of the historical patterns/ issues you have uncovered still shaping the experience of Doukhobors in Canada today?
Explore other challenges
Apply your detective skills to other mysteries associated with the Doukhobors:
Activity Sheet: Doukhobors vs the Government
Briefing Sheet: Reasonable Limits on Charter Rights
Activity Sheet: Doukhobor Rights: For and Against