By Mike Archer. In a piece in the Vancouver Sun Monday by Emma Smith And Katelyn Verstraten- First Nation seeks redress for lost lake – the issue of compensation or redress for the removal of Sumas Lake is discussed in a manner which betrays a surprising lack of understanding, not only of history or of First Nations’ history … but of our own legal definitions of property rights.
Where to begin …
Let’s start here;
From the Sun article –
‘Neil Smith, 88, who has lived on the land since the 1930s. “No one had owned it before that I know of. We bought from the Dyking Commission (the B.C. government).”
Well, for starters, since it was water before it was sold to settlers, it wouldn’t have really been registered as belonging to anyone, even if there had been a land registry office in Abbotsford since time immemorial.
Secondly; History didn’t begin with the BC government’s Dyking Commission. People have lived on, fished, hunted, and farmed the land for at least 10,000 years.
Thirdly; The territory of the Sumas was defined by the Sumas River watershed which includes Sumas Lake. So; saying no one owned the bottom of the lake is either disingenuous or just silly.
So; while White settlers might not object to his naming himself as the first owner of his land Mr. Smith isn’t accurate when he says nobody owned it before him. Some 10,000 years worth of residents and users of the land would likely disagree.
It’s a funny thing about White settlers … we seem to just operate on the assumption that, since there was no land registry office when we got here, nobody owned anything.
Well there you go again with the historical inaccuracy. Native peoples farmed the Fraser Valley and places like the land onto which we plopped Victoria with Camas – a potato-like tubor. They farmed Sumas Lake (if today’s definition of fish farms is anything to go by) for the fish they would need to feed themselves over the winter.
“They never farmed,” he says. “They didn’t do anything much. They have quite a bit of land now and they don’t farm it. They always have ambitions to do something but they never materialize.”
They hunted the ducks and other water fowl which lived in and around Sumas Lake, and, unlike the first settlers, were smart enough to build their homes up on the hillsides so theywouldn’t be flooded when the lake filled and expanded as it did seasonally.
First Nations people came from as far away as the BC interior and spent the summer hunting, fishing and farming and collecting the food they would need for the winter.
So; the notion that we came to the Fraser Valley and “discovered” a place which no one owned and “reclaimed” it by draining a lake (they actually called it a reclamation project though they never explained who it was that farmed the area before the First Nations plopped a lake down on it) in order to make better use of it by farming it is simply untrue.
The idea that North America was a vast unspoiled, untouched wilderness with a bunch of dumb Indians living on it is one of the more offensive and stupendously arrogant and ignorant thoughts that our school system has planted in the heads of generations of Canadians.
Before White businessmen decided to “manage” Canadian forests by cutting them all down, First Nations people had been managing land in North America through techniques like slash and burn land management for thousands of years. They burned selected patches of forest, sometimes to encourage predictable animals and plants in the resulting environment, other times to create areas to plant camas or other crops.
These weren’t dumb Indians. And as history is beginning to reveal, we are dumber by far with the use we have made of the land in the incredibly short time frame during which we have mismanaged it.
They lived here and successfully managed the land and the water for 10,000 years and, in two generations we have changed the land so much that crops won’t grow without chemical additives and all of the fish, fowl and other food sources which used to exist have been cleared out of existence so that we can sell blueberries to our neighbours.
And perhaps the most vexing part of this story of lies and stupidity is that our tax dollars are used by politicians to tell us we have a long agricultural tradition in the Fraser Valley.
We have only been farming here since the 1930s when we took their lake away from those who were living here and we have done more damage to the land and the environment in that short time than the First Nations, who understood how to manage their lives in harmony with their environment, could have done in 10,000 years.Get off of the freeway sometime or drive out onto the Sumas Prairie and discover what we now call agriculture. What you are most likely to discover, at the bottom of Sumas Lake, is enormous chicken factories which house thousands of chicks for their short lives in massive industrial processing buildings surrounded by grass.
How this qualifies as making use of some of the most fertile land in BC is never explained in the brochures.
I only learned this winter, by visiting theBarrowtown Pumping Station, that, if the Barrowtown pumps were shut down for more than three days Sumas Lake would be back.
Not many people realize that the reason residents of the Sumas Prairie pay drainage taxes no one else in the Valley pays is that we are effectively pumping Sumas Lake out into the Fraser River 24 hours a day during the winter months.
If the power goes out across the Fraser Valley the first place to get power if it comes back on is the Abbotsford Regional Hospital. The second is the Barrowtown Pumping Station because residents of Sumas Prairie (and likely much of Big Box Alley along Sumas Way) will be under water in short order.
Anybody care to make the argument that this is all in the past and we should leave well enough alone? Sumas Lake is very much a part of our present and, now that First Nations people have learned a thing or two about how our property and constitutional laws work, we may want to address this issue as a legitimate concern of a dispossessed people rather than play politics with or hope it will go away.While I understand the argument that the farmers who purchased land from the BC Dyking Commission in the 1930s did so with no intention of hurting anybody, I would also agree that since they bought the land legally and in good faith they have no guilt to atone for nor do they owe anybody any money.
Our government, by which I mean all of us, is another question entirely.
Let’s flip this coin over.
If, for whatever reason – legal or political resolution of a dispute over title; wetland reclamation; a new highway or water/sewer pipeline; a rail line – to name a few possibilities, the government decides tomorrow that it needs to have the property currently being farmed for blueberries or chickens at the bottom of Sumas Lake, everybody would likely agree that the existing farmers,those currently using and living on the land, are entitled to compensation or redress for the loss of their land and their ability to make a living and feed themselves from the bounty it produces.
Why would the same rules not apply to the First Nations who had their lake ‘reclaimed’ from them and sold to the parents and grandparents of the current owners.
Let’s not forget, this land was taken only 80 years ago from people who had occupied it, fed themselves and made a living off of it for 10,000 years. That we claim it now as some sort of historical right of occupation because of our ‘long tradition’ (80 years) of farming, when in fact we mostly warehouse baby chickens in slaughterhouses on it is insulting not only to the people from whom we took it but to our sense of truth, the rule of law and our much vaunted sense of fair play.
It is surely the truth and the rule of law rather than any sense of fair play that will be required to make things right.
For an interesting history of the draining of Sumas Lake by 4th year Simon Fraser University Archeology student JD Archer simply click here.
For more interesting Archeological essays about the Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland from SFU students please click here.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this column in no way represent nor are they intended to imply consent from Simon Fraser University nor any of the students whose work is featured on the SFU pages linked to this post.