British Columbia is at the end of the line. Way out on the left coast of the continent, it was one of the last colonial fringes in North America, and remains home to vast tracts of wilderness expanse. As such, it’s been a magnet for those drawn to the periphery — dreamers, eccentrics and utopians. Many carved out a little spot of their own, but there are a few remarkable examples of large-scale, separated communities built around shared ideals and utopian aspiration.
One of the first was Metlakatla, near Prince Rupert. In 1862, Anglican proselytizer William Duncan established a Tsimshian village far removed from worldly influences and temptations, where the residents were rule-bound to abstain from booze and gambling, build neat houses, be industrious and give up their “Indian devilry.” At its peak, Metlakatla was a proper Victorian English town on the Pacific with over 1,000 residents, the largest cathedral on the coast north of San Francisco and a bustling, diversified commercial sector, including the first salmon cannery in the region.
Duncan himself was a rogue character who severed ties with church leaders over doctrinal disagreement and rejected government authority — Metlakatla had its own jail, police force and tax regime, and barred the Indian Agent from setting up shop in town. Eventually, in 1887 this insubordination forced him to relocate with 800 of his followers to “New” Metlakatla in Alaska.
Down the coast, in 1901 a group of Finnish socialists fled the brutal coal mines of Nanaimo to build an experimental community on Malcolm Island, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. They named it Sointula — “place of harmony” in Finnish — and set out to build a healthy, culturally vibrant, consensus-based society where property was communal and the men and women participated equally.
Two years in, a debilitating fire rocked the fledgling town, and its inspiring but impractical leader, Matti Kurikka, was woefully mismanaging the finances of Sointula’s administrative body, the Kalevan Kansa Colonization Company. Add to that the divisions over Kurikka’s promotion of “free love” and, well, you can guess how this story ends.
The colonization company was liquidated in 1905, and half of the group left the island with Kurikka, who tried to establish another Finnish commune in the Fraser Valley called “Sammon Takojat.” Those who remained, however, held onto their Finnish identity and radical politics, prompting Vancouver’s Province newspaper to write in 1932, “for 30 years the Finns have maintained a communist state on Malcolm Island. Today they probably know less about what’s happening in Canada than the Soviet Union.”
Farther inland, the Doukhobors — Russian for “Spirit Wrestlers” — showed up in the West Kootenays of Southeastern BC in 1908. Dissenters from the Orthodox church who lived by the mantra of “Toil and Peaceful Life,” they forswore government interference and led ascetic, vegetarian, pacifist lives in communal villages. The most infamous Doukhobour faction, the Sons of Freedom, found the pacifist bits of doctrine a bit too wussy, but were pretty keen on the anti-government bits, so they set out to burn and bomb public schools, railway tracks, electric transmission lines, a jail and the Nelson courthouse. As an expression of detachment from material possessions, they also torched their own homes — while they stood on the lawn and watched in the nude.
The thing is, even with all that, the Sons of Freedom might not have been the most far out. No, that honour goes to Brother XII and his “City of Refuge,” which consisted of a farm near Nanaimo and additional plots on a couple of nearby Gulf Islands. Originally from England, Brother XII’s boring real name was Edward Arthur Wilson. In the course of his travels around the world as a navigator and sea captain, he picked up various bits of Eastern religion, astrology and Egyptian mythology along the way. All of which led him to the conclusion that he was the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Osiris, and one of the twelve Masters — hence his assumed name — in the Great White Lodge. Whatever that is.
Through charm and illusionist charlatanry, Wilson convinced an assortment of rich folk to give him their money and come live at his seaside refuge to bask in his spiritual wisdom. There, he oversaw construction of a compound that would be the only safe haven when the world ended on January 1, 1934.
The colony attracted as many of 2000 adherents, but eventually they tired of Wilson’s adultery, money-hoarding and general nefariousness — the fact that his mistress, Madame Z, allegedly lashed them with a bullwhip while they laboured didn’t help matters. When his pissed-off followers finally revolted and took him to court, he responded by burning down the colony, grabbing his gold and scurrying off to Switzerland, where he may or may not have died in November of 1934. Clearly Brother XII’s version of utopia was more of a personal one than a collective one.
In later decades, back-to-the-landers and hippies established communes to varying degrees of success throughout BC, but it seems the era of grand, eccentric utopian communities is over — aside from perhaps the polygamist Mormon colony in Bountiful.
Arguably, BC is better off without a rogue Anglican commandeering his own police force, naked zealots burning their houses and the reincarnation of Osiris hoarding gold on a Gulf Island. But it doesn’t seem quite as interesting.
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Nicholas Klassen is a Vancouver-based writer, digital strategist and former senior editor at Adbusters magazine.
Photo credit: The Vancouver Sun