For the few short years between 1947 and 1952, the presence of a group of peaceful yet mysterious settlers scandalized the communities of central Vancouver Island. Coming to Hilliers, near Qualicum Beach, in 1947, this group of approximately 70 individuals was a community of Doukhobors, or “Spirit Wrestlers,” a pacifist religious group that had left Russia due to ideological differences with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1899, the Canadian government had admitted one third of the Doukhobor population into Canada, and 7,400 of them poured in.
Once in Canada, the offshoot group the Svobodniki, or “Sons of Freedom” formed. This group, originating in Saskatchewan around 1902, gained notoriety for its naked protests and arson, acts rooted in the notion that the naked skin was god’s perfect image of man, and that material goods should be disdained. The Svobodniki eventually migrated to the Kootenays, and soon another offshoot formed. Under the leadership of Michael “the Archangel” Orekoff, later Verigin, they renamed themselves the “Elders of the Spiritual Community of Christ” and settled on the homestead at Hilliers.
As in other locales, the group shocked local residents with their unorthodox views. The group rejected public schools, preferring to educate their children in their community, and they believed in living communally. As a group that tended to keep to themselves, these practices and those of the Sons of Freedom from which they had sprung led to wild rumours about what took place within the community, and there is still much speculation as to what extent these tales are true.
It was believed that they thought private property to be the root of all evil, and so they shared not only a homestead but also their husbands and wives. Initially, upon arriving at the colony, Verigin was said to have decreed a ban on sexual activities for several months until the group was able to establish themselves economically. After that it was open game, and 9 months later the colony’s first child was born. Named Gabriel Archangelovich I, this child was then said to be released from his mother’s embrace to be raised by the whole community.
The notion of these practices shocked the neighbouring populace, and a local newspaper, The Daily Times, expressed particular concern that this community’s unconventional way of life would offend the sensibilities of Qualicum Beach’s social elite:
“[The] settlement may cause some concern to wealthy landowners at nearby Qualicum Beach. It is less than five miles from the famed resort where millionaires have summer homes and retired generals, titled gentry and high officers of the army, navy and air force have settled.”
Local church groups were perhaps even more incensed, and rumours circulating in Parksville about the possibility of a further 3,000 Doukhobors migrating to the island set the Parksville Board of Trade up in arms. They urged mid-island communities from Duncan to Campbell River to assist them in attempting to resist the “potential danger” that the Doukhobors posed to their pristine neighbourhoods.
The incendiary newspaper articles continued, circulating reports of naked demonstrations on the colony. Local RCMP, however, asserted that they had “received no information to substantiate these reports,” pointing out that they had an officer at Hilliers and they were certain “he would have reported a nude parade.” In response to this negative media coverage, the community’s spokesperson, Joe Podovinikoff, objected that many of these accounts were a “sheer misrepresentation of facts.”
By 1952 the colony began to disperse. Being what locals described as generally a “closed-mouthed” people, the reasons for their dispersal are not entirely known, although it is presumed that the death of their leader, Michael “the Archangel” played a part. Today the settlement is privately owned by a family who purchased the property in 1963. Many of the buildings have been torn down, although some of the structures still remain as a lasting testament to the colony’s brief but incendiary moment in the Oceanside area’s history.