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BC Road Trip: Exploring the Kootenays' Rich History - The Doukhobour Legacy

Updated: Aug 29

Today, I invite you to join me on my BC summer van life road trip that takes us deep into the heart of the original Doukhobour settlements in British Columbia. I have been travelling around British Columbia for the past 8 weeks, spending most of my time in the Kootenay region of central BC. I travel in my converted Sprinter van named Wanda looking to explore the beautiful landscapes, charming small towns, and the history of my home province. Make sure to check out previous posts to see where I've already explored.

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Join me today as we explore the legacy of the resilient Doukhobour community, the struggles they faced, and how they shaped the region we know and love today. From learning about their protests and resolution to discovering the cultural treasures they've preserved, this journey promises to be one for the books.

BC Road Trip: Getting There

The area around Castlegar was where most of the Doukhobours chose to settle in British Columbia. Castlegar is in the West Kootenay area in the Selkirk Mountains where the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers meet. Most travellers will head north on Highway 3A from Highway 3 (The Crowsnest Highway). Those travelling south will use Highway 6. I stayed at the Pass Creek Campground right next to Pass Creek about 10 km from Castlegar.

Pass Creek Campground

My stay at Pass Creek Campground was a good one. This is a municipal/regional campground with very good amenities, location, and price ($20 per night). I appreciated the location as I wanted to explore the Doukhobour history. I would stay here again.

Location 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The campground is easily located, about 10 km from Castlegar, just a couple of minutes off Hwy 3A. There are signs pointing the way to the campground.

Amenities 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

This campground offers plenty of amenities. The wash house includes free hot showers and flush toilets. There is a large playground, baseball field and soccer field. Bocce balls are available for those who want to play a game. There is also a volleyball court. Internet is available and is fairly strong.

Nearby Activities/Services 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

Pass Creek Campground is surrounded by lots of hiking and biking trails including the international Selkirk Cycling Loop, Waldie Island, Brilliant Dam and the Merry Creek Bike Trails. Fishing is very popular on the Columbia River. The Kettle Valley Rail Trailhead is at the end of the parking lot. Nearby Castlegar is a large town and has all the businesses and services that any traveller could need. The Doukhobour Discovery Center and the Brilliant Suspension Bridge are just a couple of minutes drive from the campground.

Campsites 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ There are 35 sites of various sizes to accommodate tents as well as small and large RVs. The sites are arranged in a loop with a central grassy area and forested sites around the edge. Some group camping was set up on the sports field. Power, water, and sewage hook-ups are not available.

Noise levels 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

Due to the large group camping on the sports field, it was noisy in the early evening but I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence. The group did mute their music and settled down by about 23:00.

Aesthetics 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

This was a pretty campground with both forested areas and open fields. The washhouse was clean. The group camping area was on a beautiful green field.

History and Settlement of the Doukhobours

The Doukhobours were originally from Russia where they faced persecution for their commitment to communal living, equality, and pacifism. Led by Peter "Lordly" Verigin, a group of Doukhobours came to Canada and were granted land in the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Although the Canadian government initially provided land in the prairies, some Doukhobours found the climate and terrain unsuitable for their agrarian lifestyle. In 1908, a large group of Doukhobours decided to move to British Columbia in search of better conditions.

Arriving in the Kootenay region, the Doukhobours established large communal villages, including the settlement at Pass Creek and nearby Brilliant. Their devotion to communal living allowed them to pool resources and work together for the good of the community. They built thriving agricultural operations, with fields of grain and fruit orchards.

However, the Doukhobours' communal lifestyle clashed with the Canadian government's promotion of individual land ownership and private property. As the region experienced significant development, the government felt that the Doukhobours needed to fit into the wider community and encouraged the Doukhobours to give up their communal life. Those encouragements eventually became demands.

The tensions escalated, leading to protests and resistance from the Doukhobours against the government's efforts to dismantle their communal villages. One of the most infamous forms of protest was the "nude protests," where a Doukhobour faction known as The Sons of Freedom staged nude walks. Later protests included arson -- setting communal buildings and homes alight to demonstrate the Doukhobour rejection of material possessions and conformity.

image credit: British Columbia: An Untold History

The Canadian government's reaction to the protests was often harsh. Doukhobours who participated in nude protests were arrested and imprisoned, facing charges of indecency and public disturbance. In some cases, children were removed from their families and sent to residential schools, similar to those used for indigenous children.

After years of struggles and negotiations, the Doukhobours eventually agreed to dissolve their communal villages and accept individual land holdings. This marked a significant shift in their way of life, but they managed to preserve their core values, culture, and spirituality despite the changes.

Doukhobour Discovery Centre

As I explored the Doukhobour Discovery Centre in Pass Creek, I gained a deeper understanding of their incredible journey. The centre houses exhibits that tell the story of their arrival in Canada, their struggles, and their contributions to the development of the region.

The Discovery Centre is not a living museum with costumed interpreters but it is a treasure trove of exhibits that eloquently narrate the story of the Doukhobours' journey to British Columbia and their settlement in the Kootenay region.

The Doukhobor Discovery Centre includes ten historical buildings on ten acres of land. As I explored the displays, I learned about their origins in Russia, the persecution they faced, and their decision to seek refuge and freedom in Canada.

I particularly enjoyed the exhibit about the Doukhobour women. This exhibit used photos, letters and transcribed interviews to tell the story of how the women of the community performed their household chores and socialized together while doing various needlework activities including lacemaking, weaving, crocheting, embroidery, and quilting.

I enjoyed walking through the reconstructed communal home which was the first building at the site. It is organized in the way that the Doukhobors lived until 1939 and is filled with items donated by members of the original villages.

The kitchen was a lively place to work and spend time with members of the community who would gather here for meals or just to pass the time of day.

Small bedrooms upstairs were arranged along both sides of a corridor. The rooms would have been fairly basic but personalized with handicrafts and keepsakes. Some of these rooms were shared by multiple family members. In the earliest days of the community, the beds didn't have mattresses and were simple benches.

I was delighted by the beautiful flowers which decorated the site. One particular garden bed was near the Banya. The Banya building is where the Doukhobours would do their laundry and bathe in a sauna-steam room. The flower beds would likely have been mainly vegetables but the Doukhobours also appreciated floral displays.

An exhibit I wasn't able to see was the Selkirk Weavers. This is a group of weavers who put on demonstrations and teach visitors about their art. On the day I arrived, the exhibit didn't open until after I had finished my visit. I would suggest arriving in the early afternoon so you don't miss it, too. There used to be a bistro on site but unfortunately, it is now closed. This building was originally intended to feed the workers who built the Village but later it was turned into a canteen-style restaurant. Locals are currently raising money hoping to renovate and reopen the restaurant. There is an ice-cream shop near the gift shop.

Admission: The Doukhobour Discovery Centre is open to visitors during the warmer months, from May to September. Its operating hours are generally from 10:00 to 17:00 Monday to Friday; 10:00 to 16:00 on Saturdays, and is closed on Sundays. Adult admission is $10 CAD.

Exploring the Doukhobour Discovery Centre was a deeply enriching experience, leaving me with a profound appreciation for the Doukhobours' legacy in British Columbia. I hadn't known much about this community prior to visiting but as I left the centre, I felt a stronger connection to the cultural tapestry that weaves through the Kootenays... but I had one more Doukhobour achievement to see just a short distance away.

Brilliant Suspension Bridge

I made a stopover to walk across the Brilliant Suspension Bridge. Brilliant referring to the former town, not the cleverness of the builders. The last 500m of the road is gravel and rough as you drive towards the bridge. There is a large viewing platform that gives visitors a great view of both the old and new bridges. The stunning views and beautiful bridge made it a memorable experience.

The Brilliant Suspension Bridge is more than just a tourist attraction; it holds a deep historical significance. This suspension bridge was originally constructed by the Doukhobours in 1913 as a part of their efforts to connect their communities across the Kootenay River.

The Brilliant Suspension Bridge was used until 1966 when a new arched bridge was constructed beside it. Public outcry saved the historic bridge from demolition in the 1970s and in 1991 a Working Group was formed to explore the possibility of restoring the bridge. Eventually, in 2010, the bridge opened up to pedestrian traffic.

The "new" arch bridge was built beside the suspension bridge and there is a dam up the river on the opposite side. At the end of the bridge, the trail joins the TransCanada Trail. I did not go further than the end of the bridge.

It would be hard not to marvel at the Doukhobours' ingenuity and determination in building this structure with limited resources. The Brilliant Suspension Bridge truly reflects the Doukhobour resilience and spirit of cooperation. The Bridge is the main attraction in the Brilliant Bridge Regional Park and is part of the Trans Canada Trail.

Final Thoughts

As my 2023 Summer Van Life Road Trip unfolds, I'm continually amazed at the diverse wonders British Columbia has to offer. Exploring the Doukhobour heritage in the Kootenays has been an eye-opening experience, and I highly recommend road-tripping along this route. Don't forget to subscribe and become a member of my blog to stay updated on my adventures. Follow me on Facebook, join the Facebook discussion group, and keep up with my journey on Twitter and Instagram.


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