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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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?