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In the 1850 s, the old Kwantlen village of Skaiametl was chosen as the location for the capital of British Columbia because its position on a steep hillside overlooking a deep harbour offered military advantages in case of an attack by the United States. New Westminster, which served as the capital for eight years (1858–66), sits on the north bank of the Fraser River, 20 kilometres east of Vancouver in what was once dense forest. This is where the Fraser River splits into the North Arm, the southern border of Vancouver, and the South Arm, the boundary between Richmond and Delta. According to Stó:lo oral traditions, it was at a New Westminster May Day celebration in the 1860 s that a promise was made by colonial officials: when lands outside their reserves were sold, British Columbia would receive a third, the Crown would receive a third, and the Stó:lo would receive a quarter of the proceeds. Today there are no reserves in New West; the few that were set aside were taken over by the government in the early 1900s.
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When the Hudson’s Bay Company built the fort in 1827 , 50 kilometres from the mouth of the river, the border between Canada and the United States was not yet settled. This first colonial settlement in what is now known as the Lower Mainland was established on the south shore of the Fraser River to ensure that the British could claim both sides of the river. A Kwantlen chief located his village nearby to facilitate trade. With the gold rush in the late 1850 s, Fort Langley’s importance as a shipping and administrative centre was soon usurped. Today, the fort has been rebuilt and many of the buildings in the surrounding village have been restored, making it a popular tourist destination and filming location for TV and movies. The main Kwantlen village is still here, located on an island across a narrow channel from the fort.
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The Stave River flows from its source in Garibaldi Provincial Park, down through the Coast Mountains and into the Fraser River near Fort Langley. It once provided the Kwantlen people with a route into the mountains to the north. The river valley drops rapidly from steep forests into the rolling hillsides east of Mission. Today, the river is blocked by two dams and the lower river runs free only in its last two kilometres before its confluence with the Fraser.
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St. Mary’s Mission
Mission sits on the north bank of the Fraser on a hillside that looks across the valley into the United States. The tidal bore of the river ends here, a hundred kilometres upriver from the sea. The city takes its name from the mission established by an Oblate priest a few years after the gold rush of the late 1850 s. He chose the location for its lack of settlement, colonial or Aboriginal, in his determination to counter both the sway of the miner’s alcohol and the influence of Stó:lo traditions. Today the mission and the residential school that operated there for more than a hundred years exist only as foundations visible in the well-kept lawns of the Fraser River Heritage Park.
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Nicomen Island lies just east of Mission between the communities of Dewdney, named for the early road builder, land speculator and eventually Member of Parliament Edgar Dewdney, and Deroche, named for the Qu é b é cois mule skinner who swam his oxen here from across the river in Chilliwack in the 1860 s and began pasturing them on the island’s lush grasslands. The first rural post office in B.C. opened on Nicomen Island in the early days of the colony, when the river was a highway and anyone could hitch a ride on a steam-driven paddlewheeler by tying a white flag to a tree. Today, dairy cows graze between fields of corn.
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During the last ice age, glaciers retreating from the Fraser Valley left behind a shallow lake in the lowland west of what is now the city of Chilliwack. The place and the people who lived around this rich ecosystem were called Sem á :th, which refers to the big level opening of the lake and its surrounding grasslands, an opening that extended across what is now the border between Canada and the United States. Nineteenth-century settlers named this area Sumas; the lake itself covered four thousand hectares and drained into the Fraser River; every spring when the Fraser was in flood, the flow reversed and the lake tripled in size. In the 1920 s the lake was drained, and the lake bottom was turned into farmland and renamed Sumas Prairie.
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Hope sits at the top of the Fraser Valley, surrounded by the peaks of the Cascade and Coast Mountains. At this spot, after surging south through a steep-walled canyon, the Fraser River makes a wide bend to the west and enters the broad flood plain that extends 160 kilometres to the sea. In June 1808 , the fur trader Simon Fraser canoed through here and stopped at a Stó:lo village, where he and his men were fed plenty of salmon, roots and raspberries. Fifty years later, when gold was discovered on the river above Hope, the village site became a busy transit point for miners and supplies. Today it is a quiet town of seven thousand people, beside the three highways that lead to the interior
The Fraser River rises in the Rocky Mountains in eastern British Columbia, then runs 1,400 kilometres in a giant S shape: north, then south, and finally west from the town of Hope to the delta known as the Lower Mainland. The flood plain along this stretch of the river is known as the Fraser Valley.
A few years ago we moved to a farm on the side of this valley, about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver. The farm’s hand-hewn timbers, stone fence and mountain view with no human beings in sight, all made us curious about the past— first about the farm itself, and then about the forest that surrounds it and the people who had walked these mountain paths before us.
“My River of Disappointment” is what the fur trader Simon Fraser called the river in 1808; later it was given his name by his friend, the explorer David Thompson. Fraser didn’t do much naming. He was travelling with Natives and they told him what the places were called. The people of the valley called the river Stó:lō, and their lives were so shaped by it that they called themselves by the same name. The salmon runs were like nothing else in the world. On shore there were elk and deer, roots, berries and greens in the early spring. In a single day, the current could propel a canoe the same distance it would take a week to walk. This land and climate are so generous the people who lived here could spend most of the winter in ritual and celebration.
According to archaeology, the story of settlement in the Fraser Valley begins ten thousand years ago when the glaciers pulled out and the people moved in. In the memory of those whose families have lived here through the ensuing 350 generations, the story that begins with Simon Fraser is one of loss: first there was smallpox, then the land was taken and their children seized. For the millions of us who moved here after Fraser, the story is one of gain: trees the circumference of ten men, rich black soil, ocean views. Throughout the valley, these opposing narratives are written in the rocks and flowing in the river.
SXWO:YIMELH / NEW WESTMINSTER
Stó:lō villages stood on opposing banks at the last easy place to cross the water. After that, the river split; each arm made its own way to the sea, and the boggy land in between was prime for birds and great for cranberries. The village on the south was called Qayqayt (pronounced “Kee Kite”). The one on the north was named for a great warrior turned to stone whose spirit lived on inside the rock that stood beside the water. Trees sixty metres high pressed in on the stone, and the forest rose steeply.
These trees were the first to fall in the clear-cut that became Vancouver. Stump City, it was called. Gold had been found during the previous spring, thousands of prospectors had flocked to the mouth of the river and already a miner could buy boots, booze and a shovel in the wooden shanties and tents between the massive cedar roots. The colonel charged with clearing the townsite wrote to the governor and reported incessant rain, half-thawed snow in the woods, thickets so close and thorny they made trousers into rags, thorns as big and strong as sharks’ teeth. The colonel mourned the loss of what he called “most glorious trees,” and he had a park set aside in a glen adjoining a ravine.
The Europeans in the new capital were enthralled with Queen Victoria, then in the middle of her seventy-year reign. They named the glen Queen’s Park, and on her majesty’s birthday in May 1864, the governor threw a party with food and canoe races and five hundred dollars in prize money. Stó:lō families from all along the river spent the night in the forest a few kilometres away, and in the morning seven hundred Salish canoes pulled up to the wharf. Speeches were made, presents given. Each chief got a hat with a golden stripe. Students at St. Mary’s Mission got ties. That was the same year that the local newspaper complained about “decent people” being subjected to the “intolerable nuisance” of having “Indians as next door neighbours.”
Between then and now, smallpox came again, thinning out the young and the weak. The government quarantined a nearby island and sent Natives there from up and down the coast. Two other reserves were set aside: one at Qayqayt, another near Queen’s Park. Canada claimed both parcels of land early in the twentieth century after the last couple living there died. Their orphaned daughter in residential school in Kamloops came back to New West, and lived in Chinatown and married there. She hid her past until one day her grown-up daughter asked the right question. Then the truth came out and her children and grandchildren eventually became again the Qayqayt First Nation, the only band in the country without land.
QW'Ó:NTL'AN / FORT LANGLEY
On a sunny November day in 2008, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, his cabinet and the television camera crews walked into the Big House at Fort Langley, where B.C. had been proclaimed a colony exactly 150 years earlier. These days Fort Langley is a tourist attraction, rebuilt in remembrance of how European settlement began, staffed by men in top hats and women in long dresses who know the price of a blanket in beaver pelts. Only one original building, a storehouse, remains. Its thick timbers are whitewashed inside and out, and tanned hides hang from the ceiling. This is the oldest building in B.C., they used to say, until it was pointed out that all over the valley archaeologists have unearthed pit houses built thousands of years ago.
The fort sits here, in Kwantlen territory, because this was the farthest upriver that ocean-going ships could sail. In 1828, the Hudson’s Bay Company put twenty-five men ashore in dense forest armed with trade goods: blankets, metal tools, rope. Within a year, they had married Stó:lō women and enmeshed themselves in the network of wealthy families who managed the territory. A Kwantlen chief took ownership of the fort just as Stó:lō families always took ownership of resources like a good berry patch or a rock that was well situated for fishing. He charged a toll when other tribes came to trade. His daughter married Chief Trader James Yale.