Renaming and Intertwining History

January 13, 2022

At the end of 2021, the Abbotsford School District approved changing the name of two of our schools - Upper Sumas Elementary to Semá:th Elementary and Matsqui Elementary to Mathxwí Elementary. This decision was made in consultation with the local First Nation communities as an acknowledgement of the traditional and unceded territory of the Stó:lō people, the Semá:th First Nation and Mathxwí First Nation and their longstanding relationship to the land. Stó:lō Elders describe their connection to the land in the statement "we have always been here." 

Both schools have a long history as part of the Abbotsford School District and indeed even before Abbotsford had a school district. This is the point. Our understanding of our local history excludes important parts of the origin of this place we live, our relationship with local Nations and the history of our schools and district. And these histories are much more intertwined then previously acknowledged in our public educational institutions.

Halq’eméylem is the traditional language of our local Stó:lō  people and is also referred to as Upriver dialect. The river to the north of the border known as Upper Sumas and the area south, the Lower Sumas. The name Semá:th had to do with the thick grass or reeds on the shallow waters at the shores of Semá:th Lake and the flat land around the lake. Mathxwí refers to the area that can easily be portaged with one’s canoe.

The Semá:th Lake was an important gathering place. Nations would travel on canoes to the shores of Semá:th for important gatherings. The place where 3 communities were connected by water:  Mathxwí, Semá:th and their families to the south, in Nooksack meaning the place you could “always (find) bracken fern roots.” The people gathered in the summertime as the Semá:th Lake had every species of fish, birds and many berries and plants along the shores.

These Nations have been here on this very land for at least 10,000 years with sophisticated community systems, dwellings, culture, and way of life. They foraged, hunted, and created all they needed by living from the land.

In 1858, American gold seekers poured across the border, with the Hudson’s Bay Company trading with the Nations. By 1885, many setters had followed, and the arrival of the Northern Pacific and Canadian Pacific railways also made this area a gathering place. 

In 1888 the York School was built and operated until 1910. While it is my understanding that building burned down, the land where the current Upper Sumas stands was given to the Sumas municipality by the York family with the agreement that the school would always maintain a space for the farmer’s wives. To this day, even the Upper Sumas Women’s Institute still has their clubhouse and continues to support the community.

In 1915, the original Upper Sumas Elementary had a total of four rooms. In the 1920s, the Semá:th Lake was drained with no consultation with the local First Nation and forever changed the landscape and the way of life for the Indigenous people in this territory. The reasons for draining the lake were sited as a way to solve the transportation problem caused by seasonal flooding, to use ‘wasted’ land to create farmland and to solve the mosquito problem. This further demonstrates a singular history from a Euro-centric perspective. For the Semá:th people, the lake and rivers were the transportation system, the surrounding areas the pantry for their people, and the mosquitos the food chain that created the diverse and rich ecosystem with birds and fish aplenty.

As more settlers moved in and began farming, two extra classrooms were built to the school in 1927, followed by an addition in 1931, four more classrooms in 1939 and a new gym in 1960. Today’s school has the same dimensions as it did in 1939.

What is missing from this history is the fact that children and youth from the First Nation were excluded from attending public schools and children were forced to attend Indian Residential schools.  It is unclear when children from Semá:th and Mathxwí were invited to attend, but some of the Elders who were able to attend, have shared with me their happy memories of attending the public school, about their friends from the farming community and remembering things like planting the large trees in front of the Upper Sumas.

On the Semá:th website, the Nation expresses their commitment. “We need to build relationships, share our histories so that we can better understand each other while maintaining our identity as Semá:th.”

Reclaiming the Halq’eméylem place names traditionally connected to this territory in the name of the school is not rewriting history, it is inserting the history that was excluded by the writers of history. This action is a concrete way the School Board and the Abbotsford School District is living the commitment to “contribute toward revealing and correcting miseducation as well as renewing respectful relationships with Indigenous communities through our teaching and community engagement.”

District Principal, Indigenous Education Department