British Columbia

Sumas First Nation built on higher ground, unaffected by flooding in former lake bed, says chief

Sumas Lake was once the primary food source for the community, according to Chief Dalton Silver.

Homes on the First Nation are above Sumas Prairie which flooded this week

European settlers drained Sumas Lake, above, between 1920 and 1924 to create more farmland in the Fraser Valley between Abbotsford and Chilliwack, B.C. The area is now known as Sumas Prairie and suffered catastrophic flooding earlier this week. (City of Vancouver Archives)

The chief of the Sumas First Nation near Abbotsford, B.C., says the community is built above a badly flooded section of the Fraser Valley, which would keep them safe from rising waters if a drained lake reappeared, according to an elder. 

The Sumas Lake, which used to extend from South Chilliwack to Sumas, Wash., was pumped dry a century ago to make room for agriculture. Now, it has been filled by catastrophic flooding that has displaced thousands. 

Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver said despite the devastation caused by flooding over the past week, the Sumas First Nation is "coping quite well" as their houses are built on ground that's higher than the ancient shallow lake. 

"We had elders that told us before that should this lake ... come back our homes would be OK. We knew the levels of the lake before."

A map of Sumas Prairie showing the location of the Barrowtown Pump Station which pumps water from the low-lying area. The blue arrows indicate the flow of floodwaters into the area from the Nooksack River in Washington. (CBC / The National)

The lake also used to be their primary food source, according to Silver, and their ancestors told government officials in the early 20th century that draining the river would cause starvation for the Sumas people.

"It is something that our people never would have even thought of doing, altering nature in such a way."

Ultimately, the lake was drained between 1920 and 1924. 

WATCH / Massive pumps needed to keep area dry

 

The four pumps at the Barrowtown Pump Station are responsible for keeping water from the Fraser River at bay, but they are currently not keeping up with water that is also flooding in from the Nooksack River south of the Canada-U.S. border.

"Our hearts go out to all our neighbours around us," said Silver.

Government map from 1913 showing the location of Sumas Lake which was later drained to become Sumas Prairie. ( City of Vancouver Archives, Map 77)

River people

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 Sumas are a part of the larger Sto:lo Nation. 

"Sto:lo basically means river, we are the river people," said Silver. 

Silver said historically, about 85 per cent of the Sumas diet came from the lake, including salmon and freshwater mussels. They also used canoes to reach islands on the lake for deer hunting. 

"There were a lot of stories about the loss of the lake and actually the devastation for us then," said Silver.

Historically, 85 per cent of the Sumas diet came from fish and shellfish from the Sumas Lake. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Lost Lake

Amanda Christmas produced and directed a short documentary released in February 2021 called Lost Lake.

"We found the history of Sumas Lake and we were blown away that we'd never heard about this in our school system," said Christmas. 

Christmas said her research found that if the Barrowtown pumps stopped working, the original lake area would fill up within 48 hours. This would displace around 3,400 residents, according to the documentary. 

The documentary which had about 700 views on YouTube on Tuesday morning, had almost 29,000 as of Friday. Much of the research for the film was based on the book Before we Lost the Lake by Chad Reimer. 

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify that the community is built on higher ground and that an elder had said this would keep them safe from rising waters, not because the elder had advised this would keep them safe from rising waters.
    Nov 20, 2021 12:01 PM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Gomez is a CBC writer in Vancouver. You can contact her at michelle.gomez@cbc.ca.

With files from The Early Edition

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