Thursday, February 29, 2024
February 29, 2024

Lytton fire hits close to home

Editor’s note: The author’s band, Salt Spring Underground, will perform in Centennial Park on Saturday, July 10 beginning at 2 p.m. in a fundraiser for the Lytton First Nation.


Last week, on the eve of Canada Day, a small town in the B.C. Interior burned pretty much to the ground. Many people on this island have probably never heard of Lytton or only drove by it on Highway 1. If people know of Lytton all they associate it with is the spectacular white river rafting or its reputation as the hottest place in Canada, which proved all too true last week after racking up three days of record-breaking temperatures.  

Lytton is a remarkable Canadian town, one of the oldest communities in British Columbia and today a community proud of its Indigenous, European and Chinese heritage. It is a friendly place where people of all backgrounds live and work together and share in their mutual heritage. The entire town had bilingual street signs in English and Nlaka’pamuxeen. They have an incredible weekly market with local produce and Indigenous arts and crafts. The hotel pub and bar was legendary and its café breakfasts and buffalo burgers unparalleled. 

Lytton, or Tl’kumsheen, “mouth where the waters meet,” is located at the confluence of the muddy Fraser and the green Thompson where populations flourished over the millennia thanks to the annual visit of sockeye salmon and a unique location with hot sun and strong winds to dry vast amounts of the fish for winter use. Like Jerusalem for Jews and Christians, Lytton, for the Interior Salish Nlaka’pamux [IN-TLA-KAP-MUH), is the centre of the world because here the Son of Coyote ascended to the sky where he was given the patterns of all the implements people would eventually use to make their living. He was lowered down to earth in a space basket which landed at Lytton on a large flat rock that bore the imprints of his craft. In 1806, the inhabitants met Simon Fraser on his journey to the coast along the river that bears his name. He stopped at Lytton, was feasted, listened to long speeches and shook hands with 1,000 people. 

In 1858, Nlaka’pamux territory extended from Harrison Lake to the west, into Washington State to the south, to Lillooet in the north and Aschroft and Hedley to the east. That year saw the first gold rush with European and American miners fighting  their way through the Fraser Canyon burning several Indigenous villages. At Lytton they were met by the great leader Sux’pintlum, who stopped the conflict. A unique treaty was arranged between the newcomers and the Nlaka’pamux. Sux’pintlum divided the land where they stood in half and so it has been ever since with the reserve to the north and the town to the south. Chinese miners followed in 1859 and some married Nlaka’pamux women. Their heritage was preserved and celebrated in the Lytton Chinese Cultural Museum, a local collaborative initiative which like everything else in town, Indigenous and non-indigenous, is now utterly destroyed. 

Since colonization, Lytton has existed as a model of an integrated B.C. community that celebrates its diversity. Lytton is home to the pioneering Rebagliati family who immigrated from Italy in 1888 and whose famous snowboarding son, when he was denied participation in the Olympics for alleged marijuana use, prompted the campaign to ”Smoke a fattie for Rebagliati.” The historic 1913 family home and folder freight shed was destroyed, but the acacia trees they brought with them from Italy and planted along the streets of town miraculously survived the inferno.

People might think that Salt Spring has little connection to this far-flung place but there is one that goes back thousands of years. Up until the 1870s, when the newly arrived Canadian government intervened, Vancouver Island people migrated every year to the Fraser River to fish the sockeye, stopping along the way in Shiya’hwt (Ganges Harbour) and Penelakut Island to harvest clams and herring to smoke and take to the mainland to trade with Nlaka’pamux for jade adzes, which were essential woodworking tools with an edge almost as good as steel. Jade is only found in southern B.C. between Hope and Lillooet, with the major source and manufacturing area at Lytton.  

For me and my wife Barbara, what happened last week is personal. In the 1980s I worked with the Lytton First Nation interviewing elders and documenting the history of the Stein River Valley, a place just north of Lytton, which was threatened with roads and clearcut logging. Now it is a pristine Class-A provincial park being considered for UNESCO world heritage status. This work and my archaeological work in the Stein Valley in the early 2000s was the basis for my 2016 PhD. Barbara is related to the acting-Chief John Haugen, who worked tirelessly for his people and the town even as his own home filled with treasured heirlooms went up in flames. We have many relatives in the Indigenous community, many of whom have also lost their homes. 

Ninety years ago much of the original town, a gem of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, disappeared in a similar holocaust, but the people rebuilt, and now a new Lytton will arise on the ashes.

To make this happen, this unique, historic town needs our help. In helping them we help ourselves. Think of Lytton figuratively, as the Nlaka’pamux do, as the centre of the world, as a warning for the future or a cure for what ails us. 

Please donate generously to the Canadian Red Cross or the GoFundMe of your choice.

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