A brief history of the Stó:lō people and the settlers in Chilliwack, B.C. and what it means for us.

Friendships change us. Good friendships change us for the better. My friendship with Andrew Victor, an aboriginal pastor from the Stó:lō Nation, has been one of the most formative friendships I have had since moving to Chilliwack, B.C. to pastor a neighbourhood church plant.

Andrew and his mother, Patti, both lead the Chilliwack Native Pentecostal Church. Two years ago we invited them to share the story and culture of the Stó:lō people with our church community. Since our time with Andrew and Patti, my friendship with Andrew has continued to grow and it continues to change me and our church.

The story of the Stó:lō people is often marked by pain caused by past injustices. Too often the church in Cascadia has not addressed the historical wrongs suffered by Aboriginals. Yet, it seems to me that in order to be God’s reconciled and reconciling people, the church must recognize and participate in righting historical wrongs in its local context.

First and foremost, this requires a posture of listening. As a small church plant learning to love our neighbourhood, this meant listening to Andrew and Patti Victor. The Stó:lō people live in and around Chilliwack, or on one of the twelve reserves in the area, and make up a significant part of our city’s population. Quite literally, the Stó:lō people are our neighbours.

Shared History

In any given place, no matter what people groups are present, there is always a shared history. “Shared history” is the phrase Patti and Andrew use to describe the story of their people and the story of the settler government and populations in the Fraser Valley.

In Halq’eméylem, the traditional language spoken by the First Nations of southwestern British Columbia, the Stó:lō people say they have lived in this land since sxwōxwiyám (“time immemorial”). Stó:lō is the word for “river” and so the Stó:lō people are known as the “River People” because of how deeply their lives are connected to the large river that is now called the “Fraser River.”

Historically, the river was their source of food, trade, transportation, and the location of their settlements. The Stó:lō people traditionally viewed themselves as stewards of the land given to them by the Creator. There was no sense of ownership or title, nor any kind of kingly figure who ruled over the land as his own possession.

Disappearing Land

While first contact with European explorers occurred in 1808, it wasn’t until 1858 during the Fraser River gold rush that it became necessary to create reserves to protect Stó:lō territory from being encroached upon by incoming miners. Depending on the land Stó:lō leaders identified, reserve sizes ranged from 400 to 9,600 acres. However, in 1867 the government unilaterally reduced these reserves by 92 percent, leaving the Stó:lō people less than 10 acres per family while giving up to 160-acre homesteads to European settlers. This marked the end of Stó:lō self-governance and self-stewardship of their land. Today, reserve sizes remain virtually unchanged from the reductions in 1867 and the treaty process is still unresolved.

Attempts at Assimilation

During the colonization of its North American territories, the long-term goal of the British government was to assimilate Aboriginal people. Essentially, it was an attempt to remove every aspect of Aboriginal society and replace it with European civilization. The approach was twofold. The first approach was to assimilate or replace Aboriginal leaders. This resulted in the Indian Act that effectively gave control over every aspect of Aboriginal life to the federal government, and is still in place today.

The second approach aimed to assimilate Aboriginal children and their descendants by removing them from their families, land, language, and culture and placing them in mandatory residential schools. Stó:lō children from the Chilliwack area were taken 30 kilometers away to St. Mary’s Catholic residential school in Mission starting in 1863 until the school closed in 1984. In addition to receiving a poor education, many Stó:lō children had traumatic experiences that were all too familiar in other residential schools: substandard food, physical abuse, sexual abuse, separation from family, and the loss of culture, language, family structure, and sometimes even the loss of their lives.

The legacy of residential schools currently manifests itself amongst the Stó:lō people in Chilliwack in their struggle to recover their identity and form healthy families and marriages, and in struggles with poverty, substance abuse, suicide, high incarceration rates, and a high number of Aboriginal children in the welfare and foster systems.

What Can We Do?

So what can a little church plant do in the face of such historical and systemic injustice? This was precisely the question our church asked Andrew and Patti. Patti invited us to spend time exploring what we feel about all that we had learned. If we hoped to participate in the shared responsibility of reconciliation between Aboriginal people and settlers we needed to be reconciled within our own selves.

Both Patti and Andrew were clear that their objective in exploring our shared history was not for us to feel guilty. Instead, they hoped that knowing this story would help us love and value the Aboriginal people in our neighbourhoods, show compassion, and build relationships with them. Andrew reminded us that in Christ, there are no non-neighbours. We are commanded to love everyone.

As a church community, we gave ourselves some time to do just what Patti suggested. After a time of reflection, prayer, and discussion we established seven modest practices based on what we have learned from Patti and Andrew that will help us journey towards reconciliation:

  • Approach relationships with Stó:lō neighbours from a posture of learning and listening and lay aside our own expectations, agendas, and biases as best we can.
  • Learn and employ cross-cultural skills when connecting with Stó:lō neighbours (being mentored by Stó:lō individuals, listening to Stó:lō storytellers for information, emotions, and identity, journeying together theologically, historically, and societally, and participating in Stó:lō hospitality and meals).
  • Continue to find opportunities to learn more about Stó:lō culture and traditions and the work of reconciliation from our Stó:lō friends like Andrew and Patti, and other Stó:lō leaders and organizations.
  • Keep “making excuses” (a Stó:lō saying) to spend time with our Stó:lō friends and neighbours in our day-to-day lives and at Stó:lō cultural events.
  • Share with others the stories of healthy change, hope, and reconciliation that we hear or experience ourselves.
  • Be advocates for the Stó:lō people by educating our friends and neighbours about what we learn.
  • As a community, support those who are serving the Stó:lō people and doing the work of reconciliation, both financially and with our time.

Ultimately, Patti and Andrew taught us that the way forward is through the kind of reconciliation that is offered only through Jesus Christ. Drawing heavily from 2 Corinthians 5:16-32, they see reconciliation happening through the ministry of ambassadorship, the kind of ambassadorship that respects the cultures of host nations. God created these cultures: the First Nations were created in the image of God just as settlers were created in the image of God. If host cultures are disrespected then God himself is disrespected and there can be no reconciliation. Through the practice of listening we can develop an understanding of host cultures, share the responsibility of reconciliation, and end the oppressive threads of our shared history.


  • Graham McMahon

    Graham McMahon has spent his entire life in South West British Columbia and currently resides in Chilliwack, B.C. where he leads a neighborhood-based church plant with his wife and three children. Graham has served as a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene for fourteen years and in his current role for five years. Recently he graduated with an MRE in Missional Leadership from Rochester College. You can follow Graham on Twitter at @GrahaMacMan.

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