Book review: Chad Reimer dives into the mystery of the missing Sumas Lake

Chad Reimer gives the reader a glimpse of little known B.C. history with his book about Sumas Lake

Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Lake

Chad Reimer | Caitlin Press Inc.

$24.95, 272pp.

“No sooner had White immigrants settled into their new homes around Sumas Lake than they began thinking of ways to get rid of it.”Chad Reimer

Drive out the freeway to Abbotsford and look from the escarpment just outside the town toward Chilliwack and you’ll see a flat prairie divided into tidy farms. It used to be a lake and surrounding wetlands.

The size of Sumas (or Sema:th) Lake varied with the seasons (at its largest 33 miles long and four miles wide) and it was home to sturgeon and salmon, trout, whitefish and many other fish species. Its wetlands provided a home for enormous flocks of ducks, geese and other birds, while around the margins of the lake and on the grasslands and mountain slopes that surrounded it, deer, elk, badgers and many other mammals ranged.

The Sema:th First Nation lived around the lake from time immemorial. With the arrival of European settlers in the valley in the middle of the 19th century, the long established rhythms of Indigenous peoples’ lives around Lake Sumas were disrupted, as the “hungry newcomers” (as the original inhabitants of the valley called the settlers and explorers) staked out land claims that ignored the Indigenous title of people who had lived there for millennia.

Early on in the period of contact and settlement, the newcomers dreamed of draining the lake and exploiting the rich farmland they believed lay beneath. After many false starts, a massive project (1922-1924) involving stream diversions, dams, dykes, canals and pumps drained the lake, revealing 33,000 acres of new farmland. The Sema:th, already much reduced by European diseases and relegated to tiny reserves, were not consulted about the project and their objections, when voiced, were ignored.

Chad Reimer is the author of Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Lake [PNG Merlin Archive] PNG

Local historian Chad Reimer’s new book, Before We Lost the Lake tells the story of the lake and long and often sordid process that finally led to the engineered transformation of lake and wetland into prairie.

In this well researched and clearly written book, Reimer gives the reader a glimpse of little known B.C. history. It is a tale of colonial incursion and violence, appropriation and exploitation, racism and environmental heedlessness. At a time when there is much talk of reconciliation, it is important to have more information about the crimes of colonialism. We cannot fix what we do not see. Reimer has done us all a favour with this well crafted history.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected]




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