Welcome to where you live

No matter what led you to Chilliwack on the eastern edge of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley — work, family, school, the cheaper than Vancouver real estate — I have a question. How much do you really know about where you’ve chosen to live?

Sure, you’ve experienced the manure stink. You’ve probably even been stuck behind a tractor on Evans Road in rush hour. You were horrified to read about the cattle prodding abuses at the local feedlot. You’ve been to the water slides at Cultus Lake. Maybe you’ve hiked up Elk Mountain. What more could a newcomer need to know?

 

“If we’re ever going to get to a place of reconciliation, it is important to understand the history of the place you call home.”

 

Like most places in BC, there is a deeper history to this land. And since Chilliwack has one of the largest growth rates in the Lower Mainland, (the population jumped by 12.6 percent to 88,000 since the last census), this is something many newcomers may not understand.

Helen [Hall] Bonner

How long until you find out that the proper Halq’eméylem word for Tzeachten, one of seven Stó:lō communities within the city’s boundary, is ch’iyaqtel, meaning place of the fish weir? What will lead you to discover that Helen Bonner, age 89 and born and raised in Tzeachten, remembers her grandfather saying that the first white officials who came promised that the territory — from mountain to mountain — would always be theirs. Or that when these officials came back (different ones of course) they told her grandfather that they had no idea what mountains the others had been referring to. Instead, her grandfather and those of his generation, watched their land being given away to an influx of settlers.

 

Helen Bonner’s grandfather, Billy Hall, then Chief of Tzeachten

The thing is, you have to look for these stories. The Stó:lō are hardly mentioned in the City of Chilliwack’s community profile. But the Chilliwack Museum is a good place to start. You may not like what you find out. But if we’re ever going to get to a place of reconciliation, it is important to understand the history of the place you call home.

So here’s a start: Like most of her generation, Helen was sent to residential school at the unfathomable age of four years old.

“I was slapped around,” she says. “It was a terrible place.” If she could have, she would have ridden her bike home from Coqualeezta, a forbidding structure that used to stand off Vedder Road, on land that has since been reclaimed by the Stó:lō Nation. Her parents’ house was that close. But she wasn’t allowed. Instead, she lived there, along with many young students from far-away communities, for 10 months of the year.

Coqualeetza Residential School

Helen still can’t believe the audacity of the early settlers.

“They were so prejudiced they didn’t even want Indians living around here.” She and her friend Margaret would ride their bikes to the shops downtown and make the storekeepers take the “No Indians” signs down.

“You open a store in Indian Country and you don’t want Indians in here?” she would say. “That’s why my mother never wanted to go to town.”

After hearing this, you may say that this was a long time ago and has nothing to do with your move to this beautiful valley. But I don’t agree. It is exactly because these stories are so hidden that Canadians continue to ignore the truth of their colonial past.

So much can be traced to the Indian Act, the racist legislation enacted in 1876, which initiated the residential school system and the reserve system, and has been the source of 140 years of oppression.

Helen (Hall) Bonner and her sisters

But for all the paternalism, Indigenous people have resisted too. Helen and Margaret once went to the brand new Chilliwack movie theatre, bought their tickets and walked straight past the roped-off section in the back where “Indians” were allowed. Instead they sat down at the front. The manager came down the aisle and told them they couldn’t be there.

“Why? We bought our tickets like everyone else,” she said. She planned to punch him if he tried to remove her, but he went away.

Helen told me some good stuff too. She raised her eight children and made sure they all finished high school. She bowled in the local league for 25 years. She has 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. And although many of her friends are gone now, she meets those who remain for coffee at the local McDonalds every morning at 6 a.m.

 

The fish weirs are gone from Tzeachten because some early farmers in Sardis were tired of the seasonal river flooding through what they already considered “their” land.

 

It’s complicated. I know this. But all Canadians must learn the history of what has happened on Indigenous land, so that we can find a way to live together fairly. Justly.

By the way, the fish weirs are gone from Tzeachten because some early farmers in Sardis were tired of the seasonal river flooding through what they already considered “their” land. In 1882, someone dropped a massive tree to block the northward flow and the Chilliwack River diverted west to the creek known as the Vedder.

Because of that, the Tzeachten no longer had easy access to fish, nor their primary mode of transportation, the canoe. They were cut off from their way of life. Now they own the mall where I shop for my favourite cheese. Some people may say that it is all for the best. But I say this is unceded land and that fact needs to be acknowledged and somehow righted today.

 

 

Correction: When originally published this article stated that Helen (Hall) Bonner raised her children “on the reserve.” However when she married, she lost her status and did not live on the reserve. This has been corrected in the above text.