Sumas Lake until a century ago covered about 10% of the Fraser Valley’s fertile farmland. Then it was ‘disappeared.’ Whatever happened? And what to do about it?
NOTE: There are several footnotes that add related material to the article, that for some may be of interest.
NOTE 2:It was exactly a year ago that the greatest flood in BC took place: overwhelmingly devastating for thousands. This is a reflection in light of that–one that elicits a dark criminal act against the settlers’ Aboriginal neighbours. Many settlers who have known of this crime, with whom I’ve talked, agree: restitution is something our province can and should start doing . . .
Story highlighted below by Tyler Olsen and Grace Kennedy| November 17, 2021
photo above: Sumas Lake was at the centre of Fraser Valley life for thousands of years, before it was drained a century ago. The Reach Gallery Archives/Image: p. 188
A Maori Lord’s Prayer
WN: Our province of British Columbia Canada since November 14 has been undergoing a massive emergency, due to unprecedented rainfall that led to gigantic mudslides, road washouts, flooding, and death. Worst hit in the Fraser Valley below where we live is the Sumas Prairie of the City of Abbotsford.
It is an overwhelming tragedy for lives lost and livelihoods ruined. One can scarcely imagine the scope. Our hearts go out to those affected by such wrenching devastation.
As with other major disasters, the rising to the challenging needs of neighbour and stranger by innumerable officials and volunteers is wonderfully heartwarming and immensely uplifting. There are and will be endless accounts of heroism, compassion, empathy, etc. We’re all reading about, watching, prizing this superb outpouring of community-coming-together everywhere hard hit.
What follows was occasioned by the Deluge, but not about the above.
The Tragedy and the Travesty
“They took the lake away and we never got one inch of it,” former Grand Chief Lester Ned told the Vancouver Sun in 2013. “I don’t know how the people survived way back then.” Chief Ned died in October.
This overwhelming tragedy today points to an overwhelming travesty committed a century ago against thousands who had peopled the Sumas Lake area: a Lake that was drained under the noses of–in stark terms, stolen from–the Sumas First Nation.
The current horrific events cast an eerie spotlight on a century-old gargantuan injustice committed by White Settlers. There is no gentle way to state it. Calling it an injustice, a blandly inadequate term, or property theft according to the Criminal Code of Canada, are the only legitimate labels for such an incalculably grotesque high crime.
It was a tsunami in reverse.
I don’t know how the people survived way back then.
Should not the sheer pathos of that simple comment send chills down our spines? 1
A few points before proceeding, that we Christians in BC and Canada should surely acknowledge?:
- Morally: All crime cries out for confession, repentance, commitment to “never again,” and amends-making on the part of the perpetrator(s) and/or beneficiar(y)ies. Biblically, this is called justice-making. I’ve spent a career working on it, writing about it, puzzling over it.
- Is there ever a “right time” to raise this issue? Some said to me though in mid-November, “This is the wrong time.” I ask simply: If not now, when? If not now, why? We humans have enormously short attention spans, especially when it serves our purposes. However, I did put this reflection on hold for three weeks.
- Some claim there is a kind of “Statute of Limitation” at play here. I ask: Morally, is there ever a Statute of Limitation for such an horrific wrong?
- Does not commitment to Truth, Justice and Compassion (as in the Maori prayer above) starts with connecting dots? If this, then that . . .
As has been said, the truth will set us free, but first it will make us miserable. Such misery, though, is the needed prologue to discovering our penitential posture and beatific vocation.—Ken Sehested in Accountability for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, November 24, 2021.
I was wondering why you thought the article ‘will upset the fine Christian folk.’ It’s a straightforward piece of information that many of us have been aware of for some years. On the other hand, most of us are upset by how the Indigenous community was totally ignored when making the momentous decision about their land. Whether reparation will now be made as the Sumas Band is asking for remains to be seen. Maybe we all need to be paying a surcharge of some kind.
That such thoughts which follow have not upset many of us fine Christian folk and all humanitarian-minded folk, seemingly have not done so for 100 years, surely points to something darkly evil in us all?
To be clear: I write as one who had known of the draining of the Lake. But I never stopped to reflect on it in the way I do with what follows. I fully acknowledge that this article is therefore in part a mea culpa of my own silence and failure to recognize participation as beneficiary.
In testing this article out with others, a good friend who is very knowledgeable about the situation, emailed:
Land around the world has been reclaimed from the sea (most of Holland), to grow food, to feed people. Sumas Lake is only one local example. Locally, all of Chilliwack, Agassiz, Matsqui, the rest of Sumas Prairie, Delta, Richmond, parts of Surrey and Langley are behind dykes against the Fraser River. Sumas Lake is no different. Why use the tragedy of this event to highlight issues that are systemic in all of our society–since colonial days? Yes, we need to speak truth and reconciliation to these peoples . . .
The following is a deliberate act of highlighting this tragedy to point to the horror of what was done to Aboriginals. For up until 100 years ago, and for untold millennia prior, they had been dependent on the former Sumas Lake as their primary Grocery Store. As important, the Lake also had held/holds profound spiritual significance, that we Settlers, without trying, cannot begin to understand–too often do not care even to know or appreciate.
It is commentary on what may only be surely rightfully called?: The Great Sumas Lake Heist–one that robbed thousands of their livelihood, and destroyed thereby their millennia-long way of life. It was a tsunami in reverse. And over the past century, it rarely was taught as the gross injustice it was, in any BC school curriculum. Surely though, one must say, A rose/crime by any other name . . . (The “that.”)?
A thriving Aboriginal community. A lake drained. Suddenly, “Dominion (read British Empire)” land up for grabs. One hundred years of building up a whole new cultural presence by White folks and subsequent non-Caucasian immigrants. Ever since that Grand Larceny, has it not been a guilty little secret in plain sight? White Settlers; expansive farmlands; nice whitewashed schools, community halls and churches . . .
In a certain way, do we Christians not perhaps fit Jesus’ words in Matthew 23?:
27Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of impurity. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to be righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness–Jesus
Geopolitical Context: The British Empire
I turn briefly to that Empire a century ago in the Fraser Valley in light of the current dominant brutal one, to whom the baton was thrust at the end of World War II: The American Empire. (My entire website is dedicated to the Gospel as Counter-Narrative to Empire.)
In my lengthy book review of Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, by Christian public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain, I write:
§ § §
In the 1999 movie version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the central character, Fanny Price at age 10 goes to live at her relatives’ fairy-tale estate, Mansfield Park. Her life is idyllic and genteel in every way, in stark contrast to the grinding poverty she had been raised in. But eventually into her adulthood the awful truth emerges, adumbrated throughout the film: the superior “civilized” opulence of her new existence is underwritten by the putrid horror of New World slavery, that her uncle, Sir Thomas, not only trades in, but likely participates in violent rape with impunity of chattel black women.
One Nazi war criminal at Nuremberg declared:
You have defeated us Nazis. But the spirit of Nazism rises like a Phoenix amongst you.
However, Elshtain will have little of that; she bristles in fact against the “naïve” charge that “the pot is calling the kettle black.” In her response to Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths, Elshtain wrote:
On the more substantive issue of America and its sins, the authors know perfectly well that I have for years criticized the weaknesses of American society. But my critiques of American society and culture have always turned on a critical comparison of American practices and American principles (Hauerwas, Stanley, and Griffiths, Paul J. “War, Peace & Jean Bethke Elshtain”, First Things, 136, (October 2003), pp. 41 – 47, http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0310/articles/hauerwas.html; emphasis added.).
This is possibly the greatest naïveté in Elshtain: her lauding America’s founding principles while downplaying, almost ignoring, its global criminal practices.
One wishes to give Elshtain and the United States full marks for “American principles!” Internationally, however, too often domestically throughout its history, which Elshtain acknowledges, increasingly on the home front in post 9/11 America, and in its global War on Terrorism, its practices are as brutal and contrary to those principles as Sir Thomas’ were to English civilized ideals at the turn of the 19th century. Elshtain’s failure to see America for the continuing horror story it represents worldwide, eviscerates her upholding America’s founding principles and achievements. In short, America is what it hates.
§ § §
As with America now, so with the British mindset and Canada a century ago on the Sumas Prairie. Indeed: it is the putrid horror of
whitewashed tombs . . . but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of impurity.
Blatant Racism and Domination
One hundred years ago, this not only was not understood: there was simply not even a hint by the powers that be back then of desire to gain any awareness of the Lake’s towering way-of-life and spiritual significance for the Aboriginals. On the contrary, the fine British colonizers in charge then knew there was no significance whatsoever to be mindful of, with regard to 10,000 (pre-European contact) Indigenous living around the Sumas Lake for 10,000 years and more . . . So ever is the way of colonizing Empire.
And while the likes of a scion of one of Canada’s premier White Settler families, Michael Ignatieff, can on a fool’s errand publish in 2006 a book entitled Empire Lite: Nation Building In Bosnia Kosovo and Afghanistan, recent events in Afghanistian alone give the profound lie to any such notion. For there has never been an “Empire Lite,” anymore than there has ever been a Mafia Lite.3
The Papal Bulls of Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius 4 were not only back then back of Canadian Law (and still much in place today), they provided carpet (im)moral cover for acts of Grand Larceny committed against Indigenous Peoples across Canada, across the world . . .
My friend points as cited above to so many other places where similar reclamation projects were undertaken. Perhaps (doubtless even) similar travesties were perpetrated against some, at least, local Indigenous groups then/there, too? Utilitarianism is hardly a benign, equally humanity-serving philosophy.
Following my friend’s line, “Yes, we need to speak truth and reconciliation to these peoples . . .” there is a pregnant “but.” He continues with:
to suggest this [rejection of the notion that pressure should be applied by Fraser Valley churches on governments to make reparations] is “… anti-biblical, anti-Christ-like,” is offensive.
Whether reparation will now be made as the Sumas Band is asking for remains to be seen. Maybe we all need to be paying a surcharge of some kind.—Walter Paetkau
The Indigenous in Canada–and everywhere else for that matter–can point to countless words (“speaking truth and reconciliation“) of treaty after treaty, promise after promise, apology after apology, that were as meaningless and fleeting as the air expelled, the paper written on, to express them.
A little parable: Once, years ago, my wife’s parents and we were playing a paper-game of Battleship. As we guessed increasingly where each person’s ships were located on the one-dimensional graph, and that place was then marked with an X, we came to the point where there was only one final unmarked square. And, lo and behold: all of us had a ship hidden there! Hence, no one wanted to guess that spot, else we’d forfeit the win.
Vested interest, especially financial, is perhaps the most powerful set of blinders we humans can put on . . .
That is what Sumas used to be. It is no longer.
“Smess” is a fur trade name, learned from the Natives who lived on what used to be the lake they called Smess.
The water was drained from this eleven-thousand-acre lake ninety years ago, by the Provincial government, when they created the place we now call Sumas Prairie.
But before the government interfered with Smess, the Natives made their homes along the lake’s shores, and in other places in the valley. When the mosquitoes came in June and July, the people moved into their summer homes built on stilts in the middle of their lake. They traveled everywhere in their canoes; they fished for sturgeon in the lake and hunted waterfowl.
“There were millions of ducks, geese,” an elder named Ray Silver said. “The fish would jump right into your canoe there was so many of them, jumping all the time.”
Ray Silver did not know the lake, but he heard these stories from his grandfather who had lived while the lake still belonged to the Natives. His grandfather told him of the sturgeon left behind when the lake was drained, and how they suffocated and died in the mud.
The Natives abandoned their emptied lake and lived elsewhere in their territory. Colonists moved in and ploughed the rich earth created by the lake, sometimes turning up fresh-water clams as they did so. Today “Smess” is filled with valuable dairy farms and agricultural land that produces thousands of pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables for market every year.
But its history has been drained away with the lake waters, and its original people have gone. Even its name was changed and forgotten.
This story is classic instance of colonization at the hands of White Settlers, one repeated around the world. To slightly paraphrase Julius Caesar’s famous line about the conquest of Gaul, Veni. Vidi. Vici. (I came. I saw. I conquered.):
They came. They saw. They stole.
Today, more than 3,000 people called Sumas Prairie home. According to Sumas First Nation built on higher ground to avoid flooding in former lake bed, says chief, by Michelle Gomez, November 19, 2021:
[Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver] said the Sumas First Nation had several villages along the lake, with up to 10,000 people living in that part of the valley before European contact.
The Dominion lands in and around Sumas Lake were useless and unsuited for homesteading. The reclamation of these Dominion and private lands would be a great boon to the Fraser Valley and the whole province, not only on account of the large area of now useless Dominion lands that would be rendered fertile and productive, but the enhanced value and usefulness of the still larger area of private lands.
These questions reflect a worldview so widely accepted today that most people don’t even realize they hold it: that of utilitarianism. Yet its principles are constantly invoked in debates over right or wrong, for instance in regard to abortion or physician-assisted suicide.— by Maureen Swinger, January 29, 2021: The Teacher Who Never Spoke.
The sheer, galling racism and blatant greed of such a sentiment by White Settlers could not be starker. “Useless” to whom?
A classic story of the lake follows . . . My good friend, Brad Jersak says of this:
And they subtly frame it as a grandmother telling a child the story as they are driving to pick up blueberries.
Now that’s brilliant and subtle. They recognize what is.
Then, please view the following video with the haunting question:
If the lake came back, “Would we drain it again?”
That perhaps is the most existential question of this moment in our beautiful BC. I add this question:
Or if it is again drained, as is happening as I write, is it not time to seriously embrace making reparations–however inconvenient? For doing justice is never “convenient” for the perpetrators and beneficiaries of the original wrong done.
But its history has been drained away with the lake waters, and its original people have gone. Even its name was changed and forgotten.
Just because you did not steal our land/our Lake back then, does not mean that downstream, you are not beneficiaries today.
Justice and Reparations
An inconvenient question bubbles up:
When have we Settlers, immense beneficiaries indeed, ever organized politically to pay today’s Aboriginal descendants reparations for that Big Steal?
If addressed though, might it not come true, as the ancient Hebrew prophet (using in this moment ironic imagery) rings out?:
Justice must flow like torrents of water, righteous actions like a stream that never dries up. (Amos 5:24, NET Bible)
In light of the massive emergency since mid-November in our beautiful province of British Columbia, what could be more à propos than that clarion call in Scripture?
Justice must flow like torrents of water, righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.–Amos
Inversely stated: What could be more anti-biblical, more anti-Christlike than refusal to even consider doing so? (And yes: my/our taxes would indeed go up! For must I also not admit, in light of Shakespeare’s famous line (paraphrased) in the play, Julius Caesar: Et tu, Wayne? . . .)
In response, sage, challenging and helpful words from a Mennonite friend and Abbotsford historian David Giesbrecht, are below. In granting me permission to quote him, he agreed with a proviso: “as long as it is clear that I write as a seeker.”
The issues surround the draining of ancient Lake Sumass (variously spelled) is historically, anthropologically, and you seem to allege in your comment below (will upset fine Christian folks in the Fraser Valley) spiritually, vastly complex. If indeed I qualify as one of those folks you refer to, please know, that the article does not upset me. But it does add to my sorrow over what transpired. In fact, most of the details in the piece are common knowledge at this time.
You may be aware of Chad Reimer’s book, Before We Lost The Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley, a deeply insightful study of the big drain.
A group of us in Abbotsford, including an Aboriginal Anthropologist, published a book (2021) Abbotsford: A Diverse Tapestry, in which several chapters weigh in on the complexity of the issue. In the view of my Aboriginal colleague on our editorial committee, the draining of the lake was a travesty. “You stole our grocery store.”
I am well aware that the multiple issues which attend the draining of this lake will not be sorted out in my lifetime. What we must not allow is a disingenuous re-telling of the story. Tearing down statues of those before us whom we now no longer like (John A. MacDonald, Matthew Begbie, Joseph Stalin, General Robert E Lee) in NO WAY changes what these people are accountable for in their days on earth.
Yes, indeed, when Agriculture Minister E. Dodsley Barrows was given the mandate around 1917-18, by the BC Government to drain the lake (as you may be well aware, the 4th or 5th attempt to do so) most of the Caucasian political leaders in this province at the time, were thoroughly British, thoroughly colonial, and thoroughly racist. At the Royal Commission hearings (around 1915 I think) local Stó:lō people were ignored. Absolutely, a travesty was visited upon Aboriginal peoples. (Emphasis added)
Fast forward to 2021. And approaching 8 billion people on Planet Earth–make that 8 billion mouths needing to be fed. In that light, the abundant food supply produced on the 10,000 acres of former lake bottom over the last century is at least an issue that must be part of assessing the historical magnitude surrounding the draining of the lake.
There are no easy answers. I offer none. Like global warming–who really is responsible when most drive at least one car, appreciate paved roads, own how many electronic devices, have our fridges well stocked, insist on having our homes heated in winter and avoid cold water showers–who is really responsible for the mess Planet Earth is in?
David sets the tone: I too am a seeker in response to this great tragedy.
And: There is none righteous . . .–Saint Paul
Aye, Walt Kelly‘s Pogo tells us clearly on Earth Day 1971:
In the profoundly anti-scapegoating words of Jesus5:
The one who has done no wrong should be the first to throw a stone at her.
. . .–John 8:7 (FNV)
Now it’s my turn to slink away with the scapegoating mob of John 8.6
To understand the flood crisis currently gripping the Sumas Prairie area in eastern Abbotsford, you have to understand the history of the area, and the roles played by the Nooksack River and what was once Sumas Lake. You need to know why Barrowtown Pump Station exists. And you need to know why, if it fails (and maybe even if it doesn’t), the lake will return.
More than eight millennia ago, ice covered the Fraser Valley. But change was in the air and on the ground. The glaciers were melting, and as they receded, they left behind a valley and an early lake between what we now call the Sumas and Vedder mountains. Small watercourses ran along the newly exposed ground of clay and gravel, and silt, feeding a growing lake. The most important of these early watercourses was the Nooksack River, which flowed north from the foothills of Mt. Baker, delivering thick, fertile layers of volcanic sediment.
The lake grew, particularly after the collapse of an ice dam on the Chilliwack River. A short river allowed it to drain into the Fraser River. Spring and fall freshets would send water back into the lake, causing it to expand with the seasons.
Higher, then lower: the Sumas Lake’s seasonal ebb and flow would play out for thousands of years. The lake expanded when it rained hard—spreading through a wetland ecosystem accustomed to rising water. In doing so, it reduced flooding elsewhere in the region. White sturgeon travelled to the silty lake bed to spawn when the lake was at its lowest. Salmon followed that same path in the fall. The Semá:th people built villages around the lake, following its tides as long ago as 400 BCE.
For most of their history, the Semá:th controlled access to the lake, sharing it with other Stó꞉lō communities and the Nooksack nation. When European settlers arrived, they too encountered Sumas Lake. By that time, the Nooksack River no longer flowed north, instead travelling west to the ocean. The lake supported an ecosystem of blueberry bushes, wapato (called an Indian potato by settlers), and blue camas. In 1894, a formidable Fraser River flood covered the valley, and a swollen Sumas Lake extended its shores once again, soaking up water that would have otherwise decimated the new communities.
But the newcomers didn’t like the lake. They hated the mosquitoes. They didn’t use the water. And they were envious of the extremely fertile soil at its bottom.“The Dominion lands in and around Sumas Lake were useless and unsuited for homesteading,” the Chilliwack Progress reported in November 1912. “The reclamation of these Dominion and private lands would be a great boon to the Fraser Valley and the whole province, not only on account of the large area of now useless Dominion lands that would be rendered fertile and productive, but the enhanced value and usefulness of the still larger area of private lands.”
Absolutely, a travesty was visited upon Aboriginal peoples.—Abbotsford historian David GiesbrechtThe end of Sumas Lake
Over the past century, it rarely was taught as the gross injustice it was, in any BC school curricula. A tsunami in reverse. A rose by any other name . . . –WN
So, almost exactly 100 years ago, engineers drained the lake. Or, rather, they pumped water out of the lake, as one must do when a lake bed is lower than all the land surrounding it.)
The engineers created a series of drainage ditches, dredged what we now know as the Vedder Canal to reroute the Chilliwack River, and constructed a large pump station to lift water up and into the Sumas River. That river joined with the Vedder shortly after the pump station, and from there the waters flowed north into the Fraser.
The system was a boon for farmers, but devastated local First Nations.
“They took the lake away and we never got one inch of it,” former Grand Chief Lester Ned told the Vancouver Sun in 2013. (Ned died in October.) “I don’t know how the people survived way back then.”
Despite early problems, the elimination of the lake eventually achieved many of the goals of those who had advocated for the project, providing vast spaces for settlement and farming. When floods happened—like in 1990, when the Nooksack spilled its banks, flowed north to Canada and closed Highway 1—the lake didn’t re-form. That event did briefly remind people of the twin threat posed by an American river and an extinct lake. But not long after the water receded, people’s attention turned elsewhere. Mother Nature had supposedly been tamed.
The damages could exceed $500 million. Sumas Prairie is one of the most productive farming regions in the country, home to thousands of cattle and millions of chickens. Much of BC’s milk, dairy and poultry come from the prairie. The country’s main highway runs through the valley. So do pipelines and key power lines. And more than 3,000 people—plus an unknown number of migrant farmworkers—call it home.
This story draws on a range of sources, including interviews, items linked in the text, and Chad Reimer’s terrific book, Before We Lost The Lake. For photos, we referred to this piece at AllLitUp.ca, and this piece at BikeAbbotsford.com. The main image comes from The Reach Gallery Archives. They have other photos of Sumas Lake here. The Vancouver Archives also has several Sumas Lake photos.
Please click on: The Great Sumas Lake Heist