What to read when you want to know more about Sumas Lake

We've compiled a list of what to read if you want to learn more about Sumas Lake, including academic histories, children's books, and more.

Photo courtesy Vancouver Archives

A month ago today, several dozen people from across Abbotsford gathered at The Reach Gallery Museum to celebrate the publication of a book years in the making.

Abbotsford: A Diverse Tapestry explicitly aimed to talk about the history of a community shaped by many different people from many different backgrounds. But the book begins by hearing from the first inhabitants of the region about the land they inhabited, which was not precisely like our current valley.

Inevitably, right there on page 1, is the lake: Sumas Lake, or Semá:th X̱ó:tsa.

Over the last month, people around the Fraser Valley, Chilliwack, British Columbia, and all of Canada have learned about the history of the lake. Its existence, in a very real geographical way, is intrinsically tied up with the storm and flood disaster that is still ongoing. The draining of the lake and the shifting of several watercourses, including the Vedder River/Canal, dramatically reshaped the region’s geography.

In the years to come, the history of Sumas Prairie will likely be at the centre of discussions both local and national. It speaks to Canada’s history and how decisions made a century or more ago continue to affect people from all backgrounds today. But, as A Diverse Tapestry shows, locals have been talking about the history of the lake and its demise much more in the past year.

Much of that talk hasn’t been talk: instead, it has involved finally listening to the peoples’ whose lives were changed when the lake was drained. And there has also been writing: over the last decade, a series of books have begun to focus on the lake, its presence in the community, and its demise. Those books have informed our own writing on the subject, and have taken on new relevance with the recent flood.

So we’ve compiled a reading list for anyone wanting to learn more.

A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas

The Historical Atlas is a groundbreaking telling of the Coast Salish territories geographic, cultural, and natural history from an Indigenous perspective. It begins with the forming of S’ólh Téméxw and includes pre- and post-contact Indigenous history. The book includes a section on the Sumas Lake transformations and the Chilliwack River diversion. It is available through the Stó:lō Gift Shop, the Fraser Valley Regional Library, and independent bookstores.

High Water: Living with the Fraser Floods, K. Jane Watt

Published by the Dairy Industry Historical Society of BC, High Water provides an extremely detailed look at a history of flooding in the Fraser Valley. Not all floods are tied directly to Sumas Lake, but it has details on a 1935 flood that occurred after an ice storm froze pumps that drained Sumas Prairie. When an atmospheric river hit, the area found itself severely flooded. The book also looks at the attempts to control and tame the water, including the creation of Sumas Lake. It is available at the Fraser Valley Regional Library.

Semá:th X̱ó:tsa: Sts’ólemeqwelh Sx̱ó:tsa/Great-Gramma’s Lake

Semá:th X̱ó:tsa is a children’s book that talks about the lake from an Indigenous perspective. It includes several Halq’eméylem words. (You can watch a video on how to pronounce them here.) The book is available at local libraries, or you can read an online version. You can also watch a video reading of the book by Chris Silver, accompanied by illustrations below.

Sepass Poems: Ancient Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth, Chief William K’HHalserten Sepass

The Sepass Poems are ancient histories of the Salish people, and contain the fabric of the region’s cultural identity. It is the only work of “classic” Halq’eméylem literature in translation, and includes stories of the beginning of the world, the “lake mystery,” and the flood. Although these stories do not explicitly discuss Sumas Lake, they are invaluable for understanding Coast Salish history. It is available through Longhouse Publishing and independent bookstores.

Openings: A Meditation on History, Method, and Sumas Lake, Laura Jean Cameron

Openings is an exploration of the relationship between place and history, showing how historians can locate the past in bonds people forge between stories and the places around them. It discusses oral history, archival records, and the connection between history and technology. It is available through McGill-Queen’s University Press and Amazon.

Before We Lost the Lake, Chad Reimer

Before We Lost the Lake is an in-depth look at the history of Sumas Lake, starting with its natural history and importance to local First Nations, and following along to its ultimate draining. It is considered one of the most thorough histories of Sumas Lake written to date. Published by Caitlin Press, it is available through the publisher’s website, independent bookstores, and the Fraser Valley Regional Library.

Abbotsford, A Diverse Tapestry

Published this year, Abbotsford, A Diverse Tapestry, aims to provide better understanding about the diverse communities that make up Abbotsford. It starts with the Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands of years, using oral histories that speak to the lake’s role in culture, and the legacy of its draining. The book also profiles a range of residents from different backgrounds who have made the valley their home. The book is available throughout Abbotsford and online.

The Power of Place, the Problem of Time, Keith Carlson

The Power of Place looks at the history of Indigenous-colonizer relations from the perspective of the Stó:lō people, and examines how pre-colonial history influenced the post-contact world. It looks at the Lower Mainland between the late 18th to early 20th centuries. The book is available from the University of Toronto Press or in its dissertation form from the University of British Columbia.

More of our in-depth coverage of the 2021 Fraser Valley floods:

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