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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.
It was beaver that brought the HBC men—beaver hats were in great demand in Europe—but it was salmon that kept them here; that and the good growing season. The HBC was a multinational company and the fort became a depot supplying butter to Russians in Alaska, cranberries to gold miners in California, and peas and potatoes to forts in the interior of B.C.—from which furs were carried back. Then they were pressed tightly together so mice wouldn’t get in during the voyage, and were shipped to London. The Stó:lō generally couldn’t be bothered to trap beaver, but they were happy to trade salmon. In late summer the river ran so thick with fish that you could almost cross on their backs. Barrels of salted salmon made their way to Peru and Australia but most went to Honolulu, where an idyllic bay was being transformed from a few grass huts into a busy port in which whalers and fur traders took on provisions and crew.
No matter how much fish the Stó:lō brought, the HBC men asked for more, and the newcomers came to be called Xwelítem (pronounced “Whu-lee-tum”), the ones who are always hungry. The Xwelítem named their fort in honour of Thomas Langley, a Hudson’s Bay director who never set foot in North America. For more than a hundred years, until they returned to their traditional name, the Kwantlen were known as the Langley Indians.
SXWÒYEQS / STAVE LAKE
This valley, which cuts north from the Fraser River into the Coast Mountains, has two names, neither of them the ancient one that nobody knows any more. The Kwantlen call it Skyuks: the place where everyone died. It was smallpox that took them: the disease passed from settlers to Natives in distant parts of the continent, then travelled along trade routes and arrived in the valley thirty years before the first white man; and it killed two out of every three people. Skyuks was hit hard. The valley was abandoned, its name was forgotten and its neighbours knew it only by the tragedy that had claimed its people.
Stave is what the Hudson’s Bay men called the forest across the river from their fort. They went there to take the white pine, then floated the logs back, cut them into strips, and turned trees into staves and staves into barrels. They filled the barrels with salmon bought from the Kwantlen, then salted and sealed and shipped them to the Sandwich Islands. The fort shipped so much salmon that soon the stand of white pine, rare so close to the sea, stood no more. Stave was the name the settlers used for the valley they logged, the river they put sawmills along, the waterfall that plunged down to join the Fraser and the dam built in 1911, one of the first in B.C. Water turned into electricity—it was a novelty, according to ads in the Fraser Valley Record: a great convenience requiring only the turn of a switch. “Children can do it. Safer than matches, no foul odours, costs less than kerosene, candles or oil.”
Today the old generating station is a tourist attraction, and downstream three newer powerhouses continue to make electricity. Early in the spring, before the snow melts, there is still a time when the reservoir drops and the drowned forest comes up for air. Each year for more than a dozen years now, the Kwantlen have come here when the reservoir is low and walked over mud scored with 4x4 tracks to pick up tools laid down thousands of years ago. Carbon dating puts these sites among the oldest in Canada. The artisans who shaped these stone and bone tools were well fed on deer and elk, a dozen kinds of berries, fish most months. The archaeologist Duncan McLaren says this was once a well-travelled river valley, a route to the north that gave access to hunting grounds and to patches of high mountain berries that ripen under the summer sun.
PEKW'XE:YLES / ST. MARY'S MISSION
Five generations of kids passed their childhoods in the mission school atop a bluff in the middle of the valley. Instead of waking to mothers’ voices, they woke in dormitories and listened to orders from Oblate fathers who silenced them when they spoke the language of their parents. The Oblates practised a hard-working, love-the-poor Christianity with a sense of theatre—a flair for drama in ritual— shared by the Coast Salish. For about fifty years, many nations travelled to retreats at St. Mary’s, where the high point of the year was the Easter re-enactment of the last days of Jesus. In 1894, the same year the town formed the Mission City Fruit Growers & Canning Association, a thousand dugout canoes converged below the bluff, filling the river from shore to shore.
Only the stone foundations of the mission remain today. The bluff has been turned into a park with tidy lawns and a complicated past. At the information centre an aerial photograph shows the old school, the barns, the fields, the tennis court and the new school built in the 1960s when the old one was closed—used mostly as dormitories for Native kids from rural reserves who were attending the high school in town. In Mission, the city that grew up around the corner, lacy suburbs stretch into the foothills. The downtown core is rough around the edges, especially on a Friday night in the blocks around the bank machines.
Everyone who walks between the carved cedar poles that mark the entrance to the Friendship Centre on Main Street has been touched by residential school. Imagine the government showing up and taking your five-year-old son away. A mother in despair, a dad in the bar. Pain is something you pass on to your kids. The centre teaches parenting skills and holds weekly wellness workshops.
The bluff originally known as Pekw’xe:yles has a grand view of the river. To the south stands Mt. Baker (named for one of Captain George Vancouver’s officers) and to the east lies the mountain the settlers call Cheam (“strawberries” in Halq’eméylem)—two peaks that stand like signposts orienting those who live in or visit this stretch of the valley. For a few days every summer, thousands come to the bluff to sit in the sun and listen to folk music. In the heat of the day, they retreat to the shade among the old stone foundations. As the temperature rises, smog piles up and Baker and Cheam disappear into the yellow haze.
LEQ'Á:MÉL / NICOMEN ISLAND
The men who have fished around Nicomen Island all their lives can recall how, as kids, they could reach into the river and pull out handfuls of eulachon (pronounced “hooligan”) as the fish fought the current to get back to their spawning grounds in nearby gravel bars. These skinny flashes of silver were so saturated with oil they could be lit like candles when dried. They began running in the Fraser River in April and peaked in May. Nicomen Island is sandwiched between the Fraser River and the first wild stretch of backwater sloughs east of Vancouver. This area, where the slow waters lie snug against the mountainside, is a favourite haunt of waterfowl and destination for spawning salmon that brings bald eagles by the hundreds. With the slough on one side and the Fraser on the other, Nicomen Island is visited regularly by men from the city with fishing poles and hip waders; “sporties” the Leq’á :mé l fishermen call them. Peace between the two groups is a sometimes uneasy affair. Today, the Fraser River eulachon runs are nothing like they used to be, so low as to be labelled “depressed” by the government workers who regulate fishing. The salmon are depressed too, and the Native fishermen, sitting in their powerboats, keep close watch on their nets to prevent the circling seals from grabbing the fish before they can.
The area around Nicomen Island is where Halq’eméylem was born; the language spread to become the tongue spoken up in the mountains, down in the delta and across the strait in Nanaimo, Chemainus and Cowichan. Cedar plank houses would have stood on the slough side of the island: the waters here are calmer than those of the river, making the slough ideal for travel, and it was less exposed to the dangers of raiders from coastal tribes, who came in big war canoes in search of slaves and goods such as the winter’s supply of dried fish. The meadow between the slough and the river often flooded in the spring and grew lush and green in the summer. The riches of Semá:th Lake lay a short paddle away on the south shore of the river. It was a tribal hub—a natural place for families from up and down the river to get together.
The spring floods became a problem once settlers arrived, built farms and planted fields. The flood in 1894 put the entire island under water, and the same thing happened again in 1948. Since then more dikes have been built, and the riverbank has been stabilized with rip-rap to keep more land from washing away. The slough is likewise constrained. People who grew up here in the 1960s remember when the waters of the slough ran fresh and everyone swam in them during the summer. Trumpeter swans still winter here, salmon still spawn, but no one swims in the slough any more.
SEMÁ:TH / SUMAS PRAIRIE
In the summer of 1858, when the men in the survey crew that was dividing Canada from the United States got to the lake called Semá :th, they learned just how bad the mosquitoes could be. They camped in the tall grass meadow along the shore. Deer were everywhere, and the men went out for an hour at dusk and bagged forty ducks. Until June it seemed like a second Eden, but then the mosquitoes hatched and the place became a living hell. “We ate them, drank them, breathed them,” wrote one surveyor. At night they got no rest. The only escape lay in the middle of the lake, because mosquitoes prefer land, so the surveyor sought the hospitality of the people he called “wily savages,” those Stó:lō families who, during mosquito season, lived on scaffoldings built over the shallow waters left behind when the glaciers receded. They moored their cedar canoes to the scaffolds and climbed up ladders of twisted bark to platforms where they fished, visited, ate and slept in mosquito-free comfort. “A North American Venice,” as the historian Keith Carlson says.
The survey crew drew their line just south of the lake. Sixty years later, an Abbotsford politician named Honest Abe declared the lake a public nuisance. Another politician named Honest John agreed. “It breeds mosquitoes,” they said. They were both farmers who must have imagined the wealth of the lake bottom. Rivers were diverted and dikes built. Twice they failed, but finally, after the biggest pump in the commonwealth pumped for a year, the lake was drained, leaving behind hundreds of hectares of soil. Plows broke ground in June, and the first hops were harvested in September.
The kids who lived along the vanished shore weren’t the only ones who missed the lake that summer. Salmon couldn’t spawn. For years, huge flocks of ducks landed amid rows of potatoes. According to local lore, farmers plowing the marshy edges of their new fields more than a decade later still hit upon buried sturgeons, giant fish that were still breathing ever so slowly, grey ghosts in the residual murk.
TS'QÓ:LS / HOPE
Thousands of gold seekers hurried upriver. Sternwheelers billowed smoke as they struggled against the current. Canoes went by—lots of canoes, some manned by Stó:lō guides. Every day more men arrived bent on digging up every gravel bar they could, with no thought to where the salmon would spawn. They even dug the land out from under Stó:lō homes. Stories were told of Stó:lō women raped, of children shot at for target practice. B.C. Governor James Douglas came to keep the peace, pointed north toward a mountain peak, swept his arm to the west and declared that land reserved for the people of the river.
Today, a gas station stands where miners once bought supplies from the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Hope. Nearby a car dealership operates on the spot where a cluster of longhouses once stood. The salmon-spawning grounds that lie upstream made this large village a popular place to camp. Traffic on the river was heaviest in the summer months, when Coast Salish families from as far away as Vancouver Island navigated cedar canoes to the steep-walled canyon, where the water was rich with fish and the hot winds could air-dry even the thickest sockeye within a week.
Traffic through Hope is still heavy during the summer, only it’s not on the river any more but on the highways that converge here. The riverfront property that was promised to the Chawthil is lined with expensive houses behind cedar hedges. When a doctor dug his swimming pool he found remnants of the ancient village in his backyard. The only reserve in town is a campground on a sliver of riverbank down the street from the gas station. Here tourists sleep to the sound of rushing water. If they look closely at the far shore on a summer afternoon, they can still see Stó:lō families netting salmon at the same spots their families have fished for a very long time.