By Glen Thielmann (he/him), teacher, Lheidli T’enneh territory
In November of 2021, the south coast of British Columbia was hit by yet another rainstorm. This one was special, though, and would leave behind a path of destruction in many locations and place it among Canada’s most costly natural disasters. In the lower Fraser Valley, this storm hit after an already wet fall, with the ground saturated from heavy rain in October, and a quickly melting snowpack in the adjacent mountains. This storm, and others that followed, introduced the term “atmospheric river” to many in the province. Like its terrestrial equivalent, an atmospheric river carries a massive amount of water: it is a warm air mass, hundreds of kilometers wide and thousands of kilometers long, perhaps more familiar in BC as the Pineapple Express. They can carry—and release—as much water as the biggest rivers on Earth. In November, the massive precipitation unleashed by the atmospheric river flooded low-lying areas of Sumas Prairie, affecting farms, residences, animals, and people, and was a reminder that this area was once Sumas Lake.
As a geographer and social studies teacher, I was drawn to the media coverage on the processes and conditions that resulted in flooding at Sumas Prairie, and the attention that was focused on the history of the area. Certainly, it is no surprise that the large floodplain of the Fraser will experience flooding from time to time—my father grew up in Chilliwack and clearly remembers the flood of 1948 that inundated the family farm. But this time around, the coverage highlighted new dimensions to the story of Sumas Prairie, including the lake and wetlands that used to occupy what is now primarily farmland and the Indigenous Peoples who have lived there through many phases of human change.
In geography, we sometimes use the term “cultural landscape.” This refers to areas that have been shaped and affected over time through human actions. These changes are usually expressed in layers, some of which are available for observation and interpretation through direct evidence, while other layers remain hidden or obscure and require more information, and others still are undetectable and may never be understood with certainty.
Learning about cultural landscapes is a great way to involve students in cross-curricular, place-responsive inquiry and perspective-taking, and the Sumas Prairie provides a compelling case study. In this particular cultural landscape, there are many kinds of evidence that can be considered, including direct observation (if you happen to live close by), oral and written history, photos and maps, media articles, government records, and a variety of online primary and secondary sources.
There are also many dimensions to the “story” of Sumas Prairie, including its geologic history both deep in time and since the retreat of glaciers 13,000 years ago: land use over time by Indigenous Peoples and settlers; the successive stages of colonization, development, and land title issues in BC; and the history of land reclamation by government. Students could also consider the characteristics and resilience of natural vs. culturally modified ecosystems, the action of rivers and the role that topography plays in the history of flooding in the Fraser Valley, or the past and present engineering challenges of flood control. The recent environmental events provide an opportunity to learn about atmospheric rivers and other dramatic weather events, to consider political and humanitarian response to natural disasters, and to examine how media covers stories with complex themes. The story of Sumas Lake/Prairie is a chance to probe the ethical dimensions related to a land that has never been ceded by its original title-holders, and the interrelationship of climate change with many aspects of the recent flooding, and other factors that have influenced the cultural landscape. There is also an angle that deals with the relationship with Washington State: the flooding at Sumas Prairie was largely due to the overflowing Nooksack River just over the American border from Sumas Prairie. The Nooksack, like many rivers in BC, was swollen with rainwater from the atmospheric rivers and burst its banks on November 14.
For me, at the heart of this story is Sumas Lake, the body of water that used to fill the low-lying flats between Sumas Mountain to the south and Chilliwack Mountain to the north. The lake was part of the homeland and traditional territories of the Sumas First Nation or Semá:th people, who are in turn one of the 11 nations of the Sto:lo. Sumas Lake was a rich wetland environment that provided the Semá:th people with animal and plant-based resources and a means of transportation. Their villages were located on high ground to avoid seasonal flooding, and they maintained an elaborate sturgeon weir where the Sumas River left the lake.
Non-Indigenous settlers did not generally appreciate the wetlands; their accounts are filled with complaints about mosquitoes! The BC government, or more precisely, the Minister of Agriculture Ed Barrow, was convinced of a plan to drain the lake to reveal productive farmland. The cost would be recovered through land sales, and the mosquito problem would go away. Opposition from the Sumas First Nation was ignored. Things did not go exactly as planned: there were huge cost overruns, and the farmland was not as lucrative as they thought it would be. But the lake was drained by 1922, and soon the first land sold at $60–$120 per acre to grow hops and hemp. The Sumas First Nation were compensated at $7 per acre for their loss of land.
Fast forward to recent decades and through many layers in the cultural landscape, and the pumps at Barrowtown continue to lift water from the Sumas Drainage Canal into the Fraser River. After large storms, all four pumps are engaged to move the water equivalent to that of an Olympic swimming pool every minute, working to keep Sumas Lake from re-forming in the shallow former lake bed. The pumps almost failed in November 2021, and the floodwaters did indeed fill many parts of the old lake bed. This resonated with the memories and stories about the loss of Sumas Lake held by the Semá:th people, who recall that it once provided ample food for their people, like a grocery store.
In 2013, the Sumas First Nation filed for a Specific Land Claim to seek compensation for the loss of Sumas Lake. It is not likely that the lake will ever be allowed to return to its days as a rich wetland, but there are many ways in which the future layers of the cultural landscape at Sumas Prairie can and should feature new contributions and equities for the Semá:th people. The atmospheric rivers, the impact of flood events, the layers of the cultural landscape, the cultural perpetuity of Indigenous Peoples, and the need for reconciliation and climate justice are all themes that might emerge from student inquiry on Sumas Prairie and Lake. Feel free to jump on to the BC Social Studies Teachers’ Association Facebook group to join discussions on how to conduct these kinds of inquiries with your students.
About the author
Glen Thielmann is a long-time social studies teacher on Lheidli T’enneh territory, a Member-at-Large on the BC Social Studies Teachers’ Association Executive, a Lecturer in the UNBC School of Education, and the Professional Development Chair for the Prince George District Teachers’ Association.