The Doukhobor Trading Company in Canora

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles, written by former Canora resident Jonathan Kalmakoff of Regina, relating to the building and business activities of the Doukhobor Trading Company - the commercial arm of the Doukhobor Community which between 1907 and 1918, undertook a substantial amount of building and business activity on Second Avenue North in Canora. The articles not only examine the original Doukhobor builders and owners of these properties, but also track the subsequent owners and businesses to the present day.)

 

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The community in transition

 

Even as the Doukhobor Trading Company was consolidating its operation in Canora between 1907 and 1912, the Doukhobor community as a whole was undergoing a profound transformation in terms of its land base and membership. This, in turn, would lead to dramatic changes in the company’s trading and business activity. 

When they took up the lands reserved for them, most Doukhobors entered for homesteads individually, but farmed them communally while living in villages. 

However, by 1905, an influx of land-hungry settlers into the prairies and a growing public backlash against the concessions granted to Doukhobors forced the Dominion Government to adopt a new policy aimed at encouraging individual farming among them. 

It insisted that individual homestead cultivation and residency requirements be strictly satisfied; an oath of allegiance be sworn as a prerequisite to continued entry; and individual patents be applied for within prescribed deadlines. 

 

A land ownership crisis ensued, which split the Doukhobor community. A minority of Doukhobors accepted private ownership, moved out of the villages onto their individual homesteads, and began independently working their land in compliance with government requirements. 

The majority, however, refused to do so on religious grounds and had their homestead entries cancelled in June of 1907. A new reserve was established from these for the Community Doukhobors to carry on their communal life. 

The remainder of the forfeited homesteads were opened up to settlers of other nationalities, resulting in a ‘land rush’ by those eager to take up the improved lands abandoned by the Doukhobors.

By this time, it had become clear to Peter V. Verigin that he could not fully realize his vision of community on government land. To this end, between 1908 and 1912, the Doukhobor community purchased lands in British Columbia and began resettling some of its members there to clear the forest, build homes and plant fruit orchards.  By 1912, over half of its members were living there. Through the private purchase of land, the community avoided the problematic requirements of government-issued homesteads. 

In spite of these circumstances, the Doukhobor Trading Company was exceptionally active in Canora between 1907 and 1912. Several factors account for this activity. 

First, despite the loss of homesteads, the community villages near Canora remained viable, functioning settlements during this period, having suffered only a moderate decline in population and cultivated land. As long as they existed, a distribution depot was required to serve them. 

Second, there was no indication at this time that the community intended to relocate its members from the Canora district to British Columbia.

Third, if the village reserves ultimately proved to be temporary, then developing the Canora property would maximize the returns from it to finance a move of local members to British Columbia. Accordingly, the community remained committed to continuing to develop its assets in the Canora district during this period.

At the same time, a new internal economy was emerging within the community. The acquisition of land and resettlement of Doukhobors in British Columbia, together with the retention of land and members in Saskatchewan created a situation whereby the community would not only be self-sufficient in agricultural products, but would also develop a variety of means by which to earn additional revenue. 

Grain and other agricultural products produced by the community on the prairies could be exchanged for fruit and timber from the British Columbia settlements. This interprovincial movement of goods would be facilitated through the Doukhobor Trading Company. 

Using its network of trading stores and warehouses in Saskatchewan, it would distribute these products to local members and sell the rest wholesale. To achieve this objective, a substantial expansion of the company’s facilities in Canora was required to handle the increased volume and faster movement of goods. 

Later development, 1910-1913

 

Accordingly, between 1910 and 1913, the Doukhobor Trading Company built a large commercial block as well as a large warehouse annex on the corner of Second Avenue East and Third Street. These impressive new structures were among the most modern and sophisticated in Canora at the time and reflected the increased retail and wholesale focus of the community.

The Doukhobor Block

A large commercial block(Lot 17) was constructed to the east of the trading store on the corner of Second Avenue East and Third Street in 1910-1912. 

It was a three-story wood frame structure, 90 feet long by 48 feet wide, with a full concrete basement which became known as the ‘Doukhobor Block.’ 

A modern commercial-style building, it was designed with space for a department store on the ground level, several large offices on the second level, and rooms for let on the third level.  The most distinctive feature of the building was its exterior, with Doukhobor-manufactured concrete blocks on the lower story, placed in an alternating pattern of rough stone and floral texture, and Doukhobor-manufactured brick on the upper two stories. 

It had a flat tin roof lined with a decorative cantilevered cornice supported by paired brackets at the roof’s edge. It was equipped with steam heat and electric light, modern conveniences still rare on the prairies. 

It had a wide storefront entrance on the main level with large display windows and a verandah with decoratively-carved wooden pillars. Built at a cost of $15,000 ($367,000 in today’s dollars), it was extolled by the townspeople of Canora for its “handsome,” “commodious” and “most imposing” appearance and was deemed to be “one of the finest stores in the Canadian West.” 

The annex

In 1912-1913, the Doukhobor Trading Company built a large warehouse (Lot 17) as an annex to the Doukhobor Block. Located behind (to the north of) the main building, it was a three-storey wood frame structure, 32 feet in width by 48 feet in length, with a full concrete basement. 

While its style was simpler than the commercial block, it clearly reflected it. It was clad in Doukhobor-manufactured brick and had a flat tin roof lined with a cantilevered cornice.  Equipped with steam heat, electrical light and cold storage, it had a veneer passage connecting the second level to that of the commercial block. As it was clearly designed as an annex, it did not originally have a storefront; however, one was later added in 1918. 

It cost $17,500 ($428,000 in today’s dollars) to construct and was lauded by townspeople as “one of the most important commercial achievements of the year” in Canora. 

The boom of 1912

By the summer of 1912, the Doukhobor Trading Company was at the height of success in Canora. 

A substantial population of community Doukhobors resided in the district, their villages were prosperous and busy, and they were cultivating more land and shipping more grain than ever before. 

Prices for agricultural products and other outputs of the community were at an all-time high. Canora had emerged as a major rail junction for the transport of goods to market. 

And as part of the building boom underway in the town, the company was completing new structures for the interprovincial distribution of Doukhobor-manufactured products.  All around them was the promise of prosperity.   

Distributive operations

Local distribution of goods and supplies to community members in 1912 was carried out much the same as it had during the previous five years. Supplies continued to be ordered from factory outlets, transported by rail to Canora, stored in the warehouse and distributed as needed.  While the number of local community Doukhobors had declined by over 30 per cent from 1907, the store and warehouse in Canora still served a sizeable population of 626 community men, women and children living in five villages. 

Interprovincial distribution commenced in 1910, when the Doukhobor Trading Company began receiving butter locally produced by the community and shipping it by rail to British Columbia where it was distributed through its stores to members. This reached a peak in 1912, when the Canora warehouse shipped 6,270 pounds of butter to the Doukhobor settlement at Brilliant, B C.

From 1912 on, the Canora store co-ordinated the shipping of surplus wheat grown by the local community to British Columbia for its members there.  In return, the community shipped its first carload of apples from British Columbia to the prairies in 1912, which were distributed to local members through its Canora and other warehouses. 

Retail operations

In mid-August of 1912, construction of the commercial block was completed and the Doukhobor Trading Company opened a large new department store on the main level. The second level was divided into several large rooms used as offices for the store manager and clerks, while the original trading store and warehouse buildings were utilized as storage space.  

Unlike the original store, which carried a limited line of general merchandise, the new department store carried a wide selection of consumer goods. In addition to basic staples and necessities, it also carried a large number of ‘luxury’ items, reflective of Canora’s growing prosperity. 

It offered a more diverse range of Doukhobor-produced goods, including fresh fruit (apples, pears, plums, cherries and various berries) from the community orchards in Grand Forks and brilliant, “KC Brand” jam (strawberry and raspberry) from its new preserving works in Nelson, and cedar shakes from its new shingle mill in Trail, British Columbia. 

The layout of the new department store was considerably different from the original.

In contrast to the unassuming entrance of the old store, the new one had a prominent storefront with wide flanking windows that displayed the latest arrivals so that passers-by were enticed to come in and take a closer look at the merchandise. Gone were the long, narrow aisles with counters separating goods from customers. Instead, goods were arranged in different departments and openly displayed in a much larger retail space, to encourage browsing and additional sales by shoppers.

The Doukhobor Trading Company began extensively promoting the department store through prominent newspaper advertising; something it had not previously done. 

It initiated the now-common practice of clearance sales at exceptionally low prices to acquaint customers with the goods and new business and to liquidate merchandise. The opening of its department store in Canora in August 1912 thus ushered in a new era of retail activity for the company, with all the makings of a modern shopping experience.

Apartments

From the outset, it was planned to divide the third level of the Doukhobor Block into apartment flats, to be rented out by the Doukhobor Trading Company to tenants on a monthly or yearly basis as an additional source of revenue. This was intended to capitalize on the prosperity of the times, when large numbers of single males immigrated to the Canadian West to find work.  The one-bedroom flats were made available for rent on a furnished basis. Additional services such as housekeeping and laundry were provided by the store manager’s family upon request.  The rooms also provided lodging, as needed, to community Doukhobors employed as laborers in the town.      

Wholesale Operations

Construction was underway in 1912 for the Doukhobor Trading Company’s new large warehouse annex in Canora. The town’s railway facilities and projected lines made it well-situated as a fruit distribution hub. 

The annex would be stocked with fruit (apples, pears and plums) shipped from the community orchards in Brilliant and other British Columbia fruit-growers. It would then be distributed on a wholesale basis through the company stores and independent retailers, without the intervention of middlemen or commission agents. Through this system, large volumes of surplus fruit grown in British Columbia would find a competitive market on the prairies.