The Fraser Valley is the agricultural mecca of British Columbia. But when Ned looks out on the valley, he sees something different – just 90 years ago, 10,000 acres of this valley were under the water of Sumas Lake.
“They took the lake away, and we never got one inch of it. I don’t know how the people [Sumas] survived way back then,” says Ned.
Ned, a former chief of the Sumas band, can only imagine the lake where his ancestors once fished, hunted waterfowl and canoed. The lake was drained by the provincial government to create farmland in the 1920s.
When the water was diverted out of the valley, the farmers moved in. A generation later, many of those farmers are still there. For them, this great, flat valley meant opportunity and progress.
Ned doesn’t see it that way. The lake, for the Sumas band, was the heart of the community, and something’s missing now that it’s gone.
That’s why, for the first time, the Sumas band council is looking to have their losses compensated. But the claims process takes a long time, and not everyone, Ned included, is convinced it will work.
Listen to Lester Ned driving across the Sumas Prairie (1:40)
A fisherman without a lake
Before the lake was drained, it was home to sturgeon and migrating birds. It was a wide and shallow expanse of water, nestled between tall mountains.
In the summer, the Sumas band built houses on reed stilts in the middle of the lake to escape the clouds of mosquitos. In the winter, they moved to the shores of the lake.
“There were millions of ducks, geese. The fish would jump right into your canoe– there was so many of them, jumping all the time,” says Sumas elder Ray Silver.
But Silver wasn’t there to witness the jumping fish. He was born a few years after the lake was drained. Instead of fishing on the lake, he’d head down to the river with his grandfather, who told him about the lost lake.
“These people weren’t just telling them as stories; they were telling them as truth, the old people,” he says.
And now, hands wrapped around a milky cup of Tim Hortons coffee, Silver remembers these truths. His cloudy eyes look out past the parking lot, past the highway to the valley.
“The lake was – I don’t know what you’d call it– our fridge, I guess. It meant everything to our people. They took away our culture, and lo and behold they took away our lake.”
Silver says people’s respect for nature began to erode when the water was diverted out of the valley to the Fraser River using giant dredging machines.
It was a feat the Sumas band didn’t believe the province could pull off.
“One day they woke up, and the lake was going down,” Silver says. “That’s when the sorrow and the heartbreak started. They [Sumas people] didn’t believe they could do it, but they did it. They drained it.”
- 1 A map from 1919 of the Fraser Valley before the lake was drained. (Photo: National Archives of Canada)
- 2 The B.C. Electric Railway ran alongside Sumas Lake, 1916. (Photo: The Reach, P5665)
- 3 The railway was built in 1910 and cut through the Sumas band reserve. (Photo: Katelyn Verstraten)
- 4 Lester Ned, former chief of the Sumas band, points out the pump house station that is still used to keep the valley from flooding. (Photo: Katelyn Verstraten)
- 5 Sumas Lake was a freshet lake that flooded the valley during the rainy season,1922.” (Photo: The Reach, P5657)
- 6 The water of Sumas Lake was diverted into a river. This is all that remains of it. (Photo: Katelyn Verstraten).
- 7 Sumas Lake was nestled between Sumas Mountain and Vedder Mountain. This picture was taken a year before draining began, 1922. (The Reach, P5660)
- 8 Sumas Prairie was once known for its tobacco and hops production, but is now home to cattle farms and blueberry bushes. (Photo: Katelyn Verstraten)
- 9 The Diplodocus ditching machine digs up the soil on the Sumas Prairie in 1923. (The Reach, P7069)
- 10 Today the Sumas Prairie is some of the most fertile farmland in British Columbia. (Photo: Katelyn Verstraten)
- 11 A newly constructed dyke built in 1921, was part of a series of canals, dams and pump houses. (The Reach, P184)
- 12 Neil Smith still owns 110 acres of farmland, although he no longer has animals and crops. (Photo: Katelyn Verstraten)
- 13 The provincial government put up a sign in 1967 on the Trans Canada that celebrates the draining of Sumas Lake. (The Reach, P4675)
- 14 The ‘Sumas Lake Reclamation’ sign still stands today, but only tells one side of the story. (Photo: Emma Smith)
With the water gone, the band was isolated. Instead of canoeing to fishing grounds on the Fraser River, they had to climb over Sumas Mountain to get there.
The band lost their supply of food. Many starved to death. The sturgeon that swam in the lake stayed behind when the water flowed out, suffocating in the mud.
During the process, the band’s reserve was cut into pieces. When the water was gone, they moved to a corner that was left, just below Sumas Mountain.
And that’s where the band is today, on the banks of a lake that is no longer there.
Elder Ray Silver sits in a busy Tim Hortons, telling the story of Sumas Lake (2:09)
A farmer on the Sumas Prairie
The lakebed became some of the most fertile farmland in the province. This newly “reclaimed” land was sold to farmers for between 60 and 120 dollars an acre in the early 1930s.
“We bought direct from the government when they drained the lake,” says Neil Smith, who has lived on the land since the ‘30s. “No one had owned it before that I know of. We bought from the Dyking Commission.”
Smith is 88 years old. His family was among the first wave of farmers on the Sumas Prairie. For almost a century, the Smith family has grown tulips, wine grapes and berries.
“There wasn’t much here. It was bare land,” he says. “We used to plow up big fresh water clams.”
Smith co-authored the book One Foot on the Border, which depicts early farming in the Fraser Valley. He remembers hearing stories of the Indigenous people who used to live on this land.
“They used to have a lot more land at one time,” he says. “There was a village out on the lake. They used it when the mosquitos were bad. They had it on stilts.”
Walking through the 110 acres of his farm, Smith says he wouldn’t trade the land for anything. He pulls a handful of berries off a bush and crushes them in his fingers; he points to a tree where a family of eagles has always nested.
The lifestyle of the Sumas people is something that Smith, who has farmed this land his entire life, finds surprising.
“They never farmed,” he says. “They didn’t do anything much. They have quite a bit of land now, and they don’t farm it. They always have ambitions to do something, but they never materialize.”
Listen to Neil Smith talk about the Sumas band and early farming on the Sumas Prairie (1:41)
Recovering what was lost
Traditional Sumas territory spanned the size of 11, 000 football fields. When the lake was drained, the Sumas lost 160 acres of reserve land in addition to the lake that they lived on.
Researchers at the Union of BC Indian Chiefs are currently working on a specific land claim entitled, “Failure of Crown to Protect Sumas Lake and Lands.”
“We’re looking at a settlement,” says Chief Dalton Silver, in an interview at the Sumas band council office. “One of the things we talked about in the settlement was the ability to buy some land to add to our reserve, to replace the acres that we lost there.”
Jody Woods, research director for the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, says Sumas Lake is a unique claim because it wasn’t a static area of land. When the lake flooded, its size increased; depending on the season, the band either lived on or around the lake.
“Canada really isn’t committed to the fair, just and timely resolution of claims,” she says. “All the waiting is very frustrating.”
Chief Silver agrees.
“Canada has a policy that, if the land is occupied by a third party, they won’t entertain the idea of displacing people from their land,” he says. “I find that a little strange.”
But the federal government says new legislation is speeding up the claim process. Since the fall of 2008 Canada has dealt with a backlog of 541 specific land claims. And since 2007, over 90 specific claims have been settled.
“This change responds to calls from first nations for a better, more streamlined process,” wrote Genevieve Guibert, a spokesperson from Aboriginal Affairs, in an email. “(This) will help accelerate progress at many negotiating tables, so that first nations can benefit from the certainty and economic opportunity that settlements bring.”
But for the Sumas band, the process has been long and arduous.
This isn’t the first time the band has tried to bring attention to the loss of the lake. In the late 1960s, former chief Lester Ned approached the federal government for compensation.
“He was pretty much laughed out of the office,” says Chief Silver. “He was more or less told it was nothing they wanted to discuss.”
Now, both Woods and Chief Silver say the band has a chance to be compensated – at least for some of the loss. The first step is determining where the Sumas band lived prior to the lake draining, and how the land was used.
At the time, the government considered land that was not being farmed as not in use.
“Their idea and our idea of using the land was a lot different,” says Chief Silver.
Two stories, one lake
Just off the Trans Canada Highway is a plaque commemorating the reclamation of fertile farmland that is now the Sumas Prairie. But the oral histories of the Sumas band depict an entirely different picture.
“It certainly fits into a much wider history of First Nation–settler relationships in B.C.,” says Dr. James Murton, a professor of history who has written extensively on the draining of Sumas Lake. “They’re just not after the same things. And the settlers, of course, had the power to make the things they wanted come true.”
Today, the Fraser Valley produces $1 billion worth of food each year. The Sumas Prairie farmland is prized for its rich and moist soil.
The Sumas band council is aware that the lake can never be returned to them. But by starting this specific land claims process, the band is determined to fight for some form of compensation.
Back on the Sumas Prairie, Lester Ned turns onto Wellsline Road. He gestures to the homes of farmers he knows.
“It’s not their fault directly,” he says. “They bought the land with good intention or whatever. They paid for it, eh? It’s just that the government at the time, how they took advantage of the Sumas Indians. We get along, you know, with those farmers. As good as possible I guess.”