LETTER: A mother’s tale

Doukhobor women who came to Canada in 1899 didn’t fit the stereotypical image of domestic housewives

Images of Doukhobor women pulling ploughs on the Prairies in the early 20th century became iconic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Canada, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. On this special day we recognize and pay homage to those steadfast matriarchs that give unconditionally, their love and wisdom.

As the world finds itself in the midst of a much needed intermission, we are faced with the realities of a “new global normal.” Amidst this intermission we have inadvertently been witness to a proverb come to life; necessity is the mother of all invention. We instinctively react by seeking reassurance of one primal commodity: food! Many families have taken to old ways by plowing that little unused plot of land or building a few manageable raised beds as reassurance that, no matter the outcome, my family will eat fresh, healthy produce.

These retrospective times allows one to reflect on the Doukhobor women who fearlessly immigrated from the old world in Russia to the new world, here in the rapidly colonizing land of Canada. They too faced uncertain times and a period of forced quarantine upon their arrival in Canada in 1899.

They did not fit into the stereotypical form of a domesticated housewife of the time. It was commonly reported that these unusually stout, Venus of Willendorf-like settlers were labour ready. Lally Bernard (a pen name for Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon), a Toronto Globe correspondent during that time, witnessed first-hand their fortitude for building a new life on previously unsettled Canadian land. With the absence of men in these new settlements, women were left to pioneer their own civilization. These tenacious women were homemakers in the most literal sense.

The already curious image of the Doukhobor woman faced further public scrutiny with an iconic image of Doukhobor women harnessed to a plough. With limited labour resources, these women did what any mother would most certainly do for her family in a time of scarcity and uncertainty. Oral history frames an image of young Doukhobor women harnessed and ploughing the first furrows in a new field as a gesture of respect to Mother Earth.

With obvious advances throughout history, the basic existential drive to survive exists in all of us. Our ancestors did what was necessary to ensure that family and community comes first. The Doukhobor Discovery Centre’s living village museum would like to pay tribute to all the mothers in our lives. We commemorate this “toil and peaceful life” by tilling our own plot of land in this New World of ours.

Eugene Voykin

Doukhobor Discovery Centre

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