Explore Local History through Collage: Semá:th Xόtsa (Sumas Lake) and Sumas Prairie

Self-guided activity


Try your hand at an art making activity inspired by historical photographs from The Reach Gallery Museum archives of Semá:th Xόtsa (Sumas Lake, pronounced seMATH hOTsa) and our permanent museum exhibition Voices of the Valley.

Through this project participants will:

  • Explore connections to identity, place, culture, and belonging through creative expression.
  • Create works of art, collaboratively or individually using imagination, inquiry, experimentation, and purposeful play.
  • Examine relationships between local history, the arts, and the wider world.
  • Experience, document, and present creative works in a variety of ways.
Figure 2. Semá:th Xόtsa in 1920 prior to the drainage (Catalog #P188, The Reach Gallery Museum archive)
Figure 3. Contemporary image of Sumas Prairie

The Importance of Place and Language

The Reach Gallery Museum acknowledges that the City of Abbotsford is located on S’olh Temexw. [pronounced: suh-oll TUMM ook]

S’olh Temexw is the unceded, traditional, ancestral shared territory of the Semá:th First Nation and Mathekwi First Nation. These two First Nations are part of the Stό:lō Nation, the People of the River. The Stό:lō people have occupied this territory for more than 10,000 years. It is for this reason that we acknowledge the traditional territory in which we reside.


What is Halq’eméylem, and why do we use Halq’eméylem names?

Halq’em.ylem (anglicized to Halkomelem) is one of several related languages spoken by Coast Salish peoples.

We use Halq’eméylem names as a way of paying tribute to the living history of the Stό:lō Nation and their relationship to the land that precedes the settlement of Europeans. For more information, check out https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/the-relationship-between-indigenous-peoples-and-place-names





Figure 4. Semá:th Xόtsa taken, in 1922, looking northwest from the BC Electric Railway substation prior to the drainage. Vedder Mountain can be seen at the extreme left of the panorama, which was taken by photographer Leonard Frank. The panorama is composed of catalogue image nos. P5657, P5658, P5659, P5660, The Reach Gallery Museum archive.

Brief history of Semá:th Xόtsa

About Semá:th Xόtsa:

Semá:th Xόtsa (Sumas Lake) was a shallow freshwater lake surrounded by marshy water channels stretching between the communities now known as Abbotsford and Chilliwack. It was home to a vast ecosystem. It supported a wide range of resident and migratory fish, birds, and mammals. The Stό:lō people stewarded the lake, and these creatures provided abundant food and resources to sustain their livelihood for thousands of years.

Figure 5. Key Map of the Sumas Reclamation Area (detail). 1924. AMs 131. The Reach Gallery Museum Abbotsford.

During 1858 the Fraser River gold rush drew in more than 30,000 gold-seekers to the region. As the gold rush receded, many Settlers moved to farming and other commercial activities. In 1883, the American Ackerman family settled in the prairie west of Semá:th Xόtsa to farm. The family recorded their impressions of the tall and luscious green grass, fruit trees in full bloom and the rich land, and while they were not the first Settlers to the area, the Ackerman family’s reports of their impressions of Sumas are some of the oldest first-person recollections of this area that we have. Note that anglicized name “Sumas” was being used by Settlers to refer to the west prairie.



The land surrounding the lake flooded in the spring because of the spring rain and snowmelt. The flooding made the lakeshore land unusable for agriculture until July when the waters receded. In 1890, the Chilliwack River changed course and started flowing into Semá:th Xόtsa, increasing the water level and enlarging the size of the lake. To make matters worse, during flood season, the standing warm water of the lake caused mosquito populations to grow. Life became very difficult for the Settlers: schools were closed, and children were kept indoors for up to six weeks. Farmers, from time to time, reported that unprotected young livestock were lost, dying from loss of blood.

Settlers petitioned the provincial government for relief from annual flooding. Seeing the distress of the newcomers to Canada, project engineer Fred Sinclair formed a plan – one of many plans explored and the one chosen by the Province – to drain the lake in the early 1920s in order to create fertile farmland. The first drainage attempts began in August 1920 and used a gasoline-powered dragline excavator. By July 1923, both the Sumas Dam and Pumping Station were completed and pumping began, taking nearly a year (until June 1924) to drain the lake. Four steel gates allowed the massive pumps inside to draw water from either side. They held back the force of the Fraser River during periods of high water and allowed the Sumas River to flow back to provide water for irrigation. The drainage project turned Semá:th Xόtsa into Sumas Prairie. The draining of the lake was tied to a process of land dispossession whereby Semá:th First Nation lost thousands of acres of their reserve land. The band still seeks compensation for this loss.


Present day:

Semá:th Xόtsa, now Sumas Prairie, lies between present-day Abbotsford and Chilliwack. The soil of the lakebed is considered some of the finest farmland in Canada. This is important to Abbotsford’s agricultural production, making Sumas Prairie very valuable to the local economy. But according to some, including local environmentalist John Vissers, “By today’s standards, Sumas Lake [Semá:th Xόtsa] would not have been drained. The people who decided to drain the lake were working with the current knowledge and technology of the day and were probably unaware of the interconnectedness of the resources involved.”

Explore Local History through Collage: Semá:th Xόtsa (Sumas Lake) and Sumas Prairie

Estimated collage time: 20 minutes

Combine historical and contemporary documentary photographs to understand how decisions from the past impact present-day landscapes, people, and living things.



What you’ll need

  • A white piece of thick paper (our examples show a white piece of cardstock sized at 5.5” x 8.5”)
  • Colouring materials (crayons, pencil crayons, markers, etc.)
  • Scissors
  • Glue stick or tape
  • Historical photos from The Reach Gallery Museum’s historical archive showing Semá:th Xόtsa and life in the area before the lake was drained. Take time to look carefully at these archival photos and read descriptions of the images.
  • Contemporary photographs you’ve taken of present-day Sumas Prairie, or use our printable package of contemporary photos.
  • Modify/Expand: For an immersive add-on to the project, consider taking a drive with your family to some of the places pictured in the historical photos to take print-at-home pictures that you can use in this exercise.


Downloadable Resources

Download a printable PDF of historical photos (16MB)

Download a printable PDF of thumbnails and descriptions of the historical photos above (4MB)

Download a printable PDF of contemporary photos of Sumas Prairie (39MB)

Download a PDF of this lesson plan (3MB)

Instructions for making your collage

What’s a collage?

A collage is a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric onto a backing.

  1. Select historical and contemporary photographs that you want to include in the collage. Read the descriptions of the historical photographs so that you know what’s going on in those pictures.
  2. Using scissors, cut out parts of your favourite historical and contemporary photographs and arrange them on your white piece of paper.
  3. Once you’ve found an arrangement of photographs, glue/tape them onto your white piece of paper.
  4. Colour around your collaged photos so that there’s no white space showing.
  5. Take a picture of your collage and share it with your social media following. Don’t forget to tag us on Instagram (@thereachgallery) and Twitter (@TheReach) and use the hashtag #localhistorycollage.


Discussion: As you collage, reflect on the historical stories that you’ve learned about in this activity. Who did the drainage of Semá:th Xόtsa help and who did it hurt? If you lived in S’olh Temexw in the early 1900s would you have drained the lake?