Visiting Glastonbury, there was a memory of visiting the Canadian town that was its counterpart, Nelson, British Columbia. It was in 2008 that I was there.
“Where are you from?” I had asked the man in the record shop.
“New York”, he said.
“You don’t sound it.”
“I came here when I was eighteen. I’ve been here forty years.”
“You came here in 1968”.
“Yeah”, he said, “to avoid the draft”.
“Nelson or Vietnam? I think you made the right choice. But why did you come to Nelson?”
“Because pacifists had been coming to BC for years. The Doukhobors came here a century ago”.
His comments prompted a diversion from the highway to visit the Doukhobor Discovery Centre at town called Castlegar.
The Doukhobors were one of those radical Christian groups who had made the mistake of taking Jesus too seriously when he had urged people to non-violence. They were people who were persecuted in their native Russia for their pacifism so they had emigrated to Canada with the help of the great writer Tolstoy.
Settling on the prairies in Saskatchewan, they had lived a communal life and had brought some quarter of a million acres of land under cultivation, but the Government introduced laws which prohibited them from holding the land in common. They were told that they must register individual plots in individual names.
The process of registration included taking an oath of of loyalty to the British king;. The Doukhobors could not accept the thought of taking the oath and so they left their farms. They received no compensation for their years of work. When the Doukhobors left, neighbouring farmers queued for forty hours to register claims to the Doukhobor lands.
Hard-working and living simple lives, the Doukhobors were thrifty and good business people. They went on to make a great success of their community life in British Columbia They built good farms, they started craft industries, they opened a large jam factory, they even built a suspension bridge at the town of Brilliant in 1913.
However, their charismatic community leader was assassinated in 1924 and his death marked the beginning of the long-term decline of the Doukhobor community.
It seemed a melancholic conclusion to a noble experiment.
Perhaps the storekeeper in Nelson would have looked back at the aspirations of 1968 and suggested that melancholic conclusions are the way of the world. Perhaps hippes aren’t much different from the rest of us.