Abbotsford’s History of Hushed Racism: Challenging whitewashed municipal history

This sign on South Fraser Way in Abbotsford BC is outside of the Gur Sikh Temple. It reads, "From 1908-1911, determined Sikh Settlers laboured to build this Gurdwara in the face of much racial discrimination. The temple served as a place of solace for new immigrants in difficult times. A National Historic Site, today it stands as a testament to the Sikh community’s perseverance to gain citizenship and full integration into Canadian society."
Aly Laube - CIVL - AbbotsfordBC | 24-04-2021
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By Aly Laube

This sign on South Fraser Way in Abbotsford BC is outside of the Gur Sikh Temple. It reads, "From 1908-1911, determined Sikh Settlers laboured to build this Gurdwara in the face of much racial discrimination. The temple served as a place of solace for new immigrants in difficult times. A National Historic Site, today it stands as a testament to the Sikh community’s perseverance to gain citizenship and full integration into Canadian society."

Without the labour of Asian immigrants, who ran the city’s lumber mill and built railroads all over Canada, Abbotsford wouldn’t be what it is today. Many of the South Asian families in the valley are second and third generation Canadians with established roots in the local community. 

In a public statement released in September 2020, Heritage Abbotsford wrote “that the owners of the Abbotsford Lumber Company enriched themselves while exploiting the underpaid labours of many racialized South and East Asian migrant workers in the early years of the 20th Century.” 

“The construction of the CPR connected the nation, but it was also built under dangerous conditions by thousands of labourers, including 15,000 temporary Chinese workers. Canadian Pacific is still a successful company today, and now has 22,500 kilometres of track across North America,” the statement reads. 

Christina Reid, executive director of Heritage Abbotsford, recalls records of Chinese children in Clayburn being bullied by white children, having rocks thrown at them and their hair pulled. At the time, these labourers were given menial jobs that were often dangerous or severely underpaid. She also recalls council meeting minutes and letters to the editor from council demanding that all labourers of colour be dismissed from the workforce “to the benefit of the white man.” 

“That’s when you’re coming into the 1930s and the Depression is starting to hit here too, but once it got here, that’s the first thing that you see, that there’s pressure put on places like the lumber mill to dismiss the coloured workers and give those jobs to white people,” she says.

Ian Rocksborough-Smith, a co-chair of Race and Anti-Racism Network and professor at UFV, says the lumber mill in Abbotsford exhibited a form of what he calls racial paternalism towards racialized groups it employed. He says there were segregated hiring practices like only hiring Japanese and Chinese workers for wages and labour standards far lower than what was given to white people. When the Great Depression hit, these workers were the first people to get fired or have their wages cut. Anti-Asian racism and xenophobia was extremely high in North America in the ‘20s, and Abbotsford was no exception.

He sees the Heritage Society’s celebration of the city’s massive lumber donation to the mill — and relative silence on white supremacy — as a selective, whitewashed version of history. He wants them, as well as other residents of Abbotsford to learn, acknowledge and share a reality that includes people of colour. 

“There’s this kind of mythical narrative that … the company has brought multiculturalism to the valley, and I really don’t think that’s the truth,” says Rocksborough-Smith. 

“None of that is acknowledging the discrepancies and racial hierarchies that were imposed at the time, and I think it’s not honest history.”

The KKK’s emergence in 1920s Abbotsford was news to many of his colleagues, says Rocksborough-Smith. While he finds it surprising that it has taken until this year for these stories to be more widely told, digitizing the files has provided easy access online, making it easier to learn about the city’s past.

Charles Hill-Tout established and owned the Mill Lake saw mill, but the Trethewey brothers — Joe, Richard, Arthur, Sam and Bill — bought it from him in 1903. In 1912, the brothers established the Abbotsford Timber and Trading Company. 

The company was a huge commercial success by the 1920s. They became one of the largest employers in the province, making their money producing boards and shingles until the Great Depression. They had nearly exhausted their local resources. Forests were sparse, and business was bad, so the Tretheweys shut it down in 1934. 

The Abbotsford Lions Club bought the site and converted it to Mill Lake Park, but remnants of the lives of the Japanese immigrants who worked there remain, most obviously manifested through the lilies that float on the lake brought to Abbotsford by homesick wives of Japanese mill workers.

There’s a lot to say about the Trethewey family, an economically influential group of white pioneers. Christina Reid, the executive director of the Heritage Abbotsford Society, works out of a historical house at Abbotsford’s central Mill Lake named after them. But two of the first people in Abbotsford to join the KKK were J.O. and Samuel Trethewey. 

That is rarely addressed — not in history books, not in popular discourse, and not on the walls of the house build in their name. Pictures of the Tretheweys remain on the walls of Heritage Abbotsford Society, though it “acknowledged the role J.O. Trethewey’s brother, Samuel, and his son Howard had in the foundation of the KKK in Abbotsford” in a public statement released this September.   

“We’re not celebrating Sam, for example, by having his picture up, but by having his picture up it gives us the opportunity to have the conversation about what was said and what was done back in the day.” 

Both of them eventually married, multiple times, and had children. They were active in their community, which makes Reid believe it’s simply a farce “to say nobody liked them and he’s not a part of the Trethewey family because he’s racist.” 

She says Heritage Abbotsford doesn’t have all the names of the people who attended the first KKK meeting in the city. However, they do know that J.O. Trethewey and his son Howard attended the Klan’s meetings, and Howard is believed to be one of the men who ran a garage where the meetings were held. 

Reid says she still has to have a discussion with her coworkers and the community at large about whether or not they want the Tretheweys up on their walls. 

“My Indigenous member of staff here, is she actually comfortable running a tour with Sam’s picture in there knowing that he was a member of the KKK? Because I know I’m not, but then arguably … the reason why he’s up there is because that gives us the opportunity to have that discussion.”  

Rocksborough-Smith is a voting member of the Abbotsford Historical Society who has been “loudly complaining” about the name of the Trethewey House for over a year. 

“As far as I’m concerned, they should have changed the name yesterday. It’s ridiculous. I think they’re concerned about the legacy of the family name and the legacy of the company.” 

He’s a historian of U.S. history, but started doing research on white supremacy in Abbotsford after joining the Heritage Society Board at UFV. He describes the board as a “white pioneer society sort of organization” dedicated to “preserving or commemorating the city’s colonial settler past,” and has been putting pressure on his fellow members to become a more “multicultural, multiracial historical society” since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit B.C. last March. Despite yielding no change, he doubled his efforts when Black Lives Matter created a global movement against anti-Black racism last summer. 

He started learning about the emergence and role of the KKK in Abbotsford during the1920s to shed light on the issue. When he discovered the Tretheweys’ connection to the white supremacist group, he immediately suggested that the name of the heritage site still standing in their name be changed. This suggestion has not been implemented. 

Rocksborough-Smith also wants the Heritage Abbotsford Society to publicly document this involvement in the KKK as a means of taking accountability and educating the public on the true history of what happened in the valley, as opposed to what he refers to as a “controlled narrative.” 

For example, the claim that JO Trethewey, the first signatory to the KKK in Abbotsford, was a “wayward son” whose views didn’t represent the rest of his family is unsubstantiated, according to Smith. 

Reid also wants to see Trethewey House renamed and suggests residents who agree write to the City of Abbotsford and the PRC so that the request can go through city council. If passed, it would then go onto the public consultation phase. After that, whether or not the site gets renamed is up to council. 

She has already had meetings with the city about this, where she made the suggestion to change the name of Trethewey House. Reid also sent them an email, had a virtual meeting with the Parks, Recreation, and Culture department, and met with a board meeting and public relations representative to discuss the issue. She’s waiting for them to follow up with her, but anticipates they’ll work this feedback into their next cultural strategy for the city. 

“This was supposed to be a house heritage site when it was donated, but Trethewey House is always going to be Trethewey House. It’s not about renaming Trethewey House. It’s about renaming the grounds, because we want there to be a physical presence, a way that we can remember the people who lived here and worked here and all of that, because you’ve also got nothing anywhere around Mill Lake that commemorates the workers. Those are BIPOC workers — well, predominantly. Then you’ve got Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian workers that came here and they were hand picked to come and work here at the mill.” 

Because Trethewey house is a building, it falls under the buildings department at the City of Abbotsford. But because Heritage Abbotsford is an organization that brings in tourists, it falls under the Economic Development department, and because it’s a museum it falls under Recreation and Culture. Then, since it’s in a park, it also falls under Parks. 

All of this means making a change to the site’s name needs to be approved by each department before reaching the PRC, public, and council, which takes a very long time. 

Marc Forcier from the UFV-based club Black Connections says the City of Abbotsford’s inaction on changing the name of Trethewey House is “an act of defiance and an assertion of power.” He says the city needs to respond to race-related issues faster and more publicly, giving the Tanglebank “all lives matter” comment as an example of an incident Abbotsford was silent on for too long. 

“Their silence is loud. It’s like, do you not care? It’s simple: You say you care, then we know where you stand. You have said you don't care by not saying anything. Also, supporting a husband or a counselor whose views are just not in line with what you want your community's views to be — shame on you for having such a poor response. I just don't think it was necessary. All that was needed to say was, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ or, ‘This is wrong. This will not happen to the citizens of Abbotsford. This won't happen in Abbotsford.’”

Mennonites bought some of the land logged by the Abbotsford Lumber Company when they arrived in the 1930s, but several more immigrants — primarily from India and Japan — arrived to work at the mill. The appeal of the Fraser Valley is its agricultural sector, especially for newcomers looking for steady work, but immigrants were often given poor land that yielded low-quality crops. 

Sikh immigrants are also an enormous but undershared part of Abbotsford’s history. Boulevard Group’s site says that “The Abbotsford Timber and Trading Company donated building materials for Abbotsford’s first Sikh Temple in Canada. The lumber was carried by Sikh men, by hand, from the lake to the building site on South Fraser Way.” 

Some community members feel this white washes the story and ignores systemic challenges the Sikh community faced. 

Dr. Satwinder Bains, director of South Asian Studies Institute at UFV, is dedicated to addressing that concern. Her work is based on supporting minority cultural communities, founded in her experiences as an immigrant and person of colour in Abbotsford. She started helping other immigrants — mostly other folks from India — retell their own local histories as a way to find empowerment, identity, and national pride years ago, and it remains her passion today.

South Asian migration to Abbotsford started in the early 1900s, making their ancestors fourth and fifth generation Canadians, she explains. There was another wave of migration in the ‘70s, when immigration and multiculturalism became more liberal in Canada — as did jobs in the booming B.C. agricultural and industrial sectors.

“People have decided that the history of South Asian migration is not important to either record or to teach … so my work is informed by this idea that if we don’t do this, nobody else is gonna do it. It’s a reaction based on a very negative ratio in the sense that, while white people know this history eists, they willfully omitted it from the record and presented a very European, secular history.”

She says Abbotsford’s history is steeped in racism. That history needs to be rewritten to include the communities that have been excluded. 

We're not holding our public institutions to account to say, “Enough. Fill the gaps,” she says.

“From the early years when the first immigrants came to Canada and were paid less than a white person … there were enclaves set up where only people of colour lived. Housing was denied to them. Mobility was denied to them. The right to vote was denied to them, so it’s organized, legislated racism. The legislation supported white supremacy and because of that, people got away with it.” 

“If the injustices cannot be unpacked and explained, people have to accept and reconcile the fact that this actually happened. There's no record. There's not even a recognition by people who were racist to say this happened. They're silent, and silence is a problem. They have to come out and say, 'Yes, this happened,' even if it was their ancestors or not themselves. One of the ways to address it is to unpack it and speak about it and put it in the history books and make sure that people learn from it.”

Racism is rampant in all areas of society whether it’s overt or covert, Bains says. As a result, there’s no one way to solve the problem. Rather, “it's a very complex and organized way of dealing with non dominant forces.” She points to the segregation between white and brown people in the city as an example of how white supremacy manifests there today. 

“We're happy to live in ghettos. There's a white ghetto in Abbotsford and the brown ghetto in Abbotsford, you know? But the white ghetto doesn't talk about its own ghetto. It just talks about how the browns all live on the west side of them. Suddenly, it's a brown person's burden that they all live on the west side without explaining why the whites live on the east side. Have we talked about that? Let's talk about both,” she says. 

“It's very easy to say, 'The houses are cheaper on that side. That's why they live there,' or, 'They don't want to integrate. They want to be with their own people there.' Them, us, you know, that whole division that we've created, it's not something that we can overcome overnight.” 

Specifically, on the topic of faith, she says the East and West remain divided about what they believe, particularly in religious communities like Abbotsford. That can cause tension too. 

“I think there is a great influence by the church still on our government and on our politics. The government is still held to account by very influential institutions. I don't think it's as separated as we like it to be,” she says. 

“As a result, politicians have to cater to church groups, to church individuals …. The church influences government policy. We're not that naive not to know that. As a result, I don't think that we can say that our society is immune to the influences of the church. I think it is very much influenced, especially Abbotsford. It can only go away if we get fully integrated in society. And I think there are still pockets of resistance to integration. That comes from through faith, through culture, shared histories.” 

That process might take generations, says Bains. She is dedicated to retelling history by and for people of colour to give them control over their own narratives, recording everything from small community histories and families histories to larger moments of historical significance.

“If mainstream society, which is the dominant society, decides that you're not important, then we internalize that. We think that we aren't important. So pride certainly and a sense of accomplishment that finally, we're doing our own work. And when people see their own names and their own stories reflected, they will believe in this nation more than if they were then if they had been erased. It builds civic pride in the country. It builds a sense of belonging,” she says. 

It takes between a year and a half to three years to properly mount an exhibit, but Heritage Abbotsford has already begun work on the next one, which will be about Indigenous heritage in Abbotsford. It was developed in partnership with the Stolo Research and Resource Management Center, Matsqui Nation, and the Fraser Basin Council. 

“I’m sure that racism will be part of what is up there because you can’t really start talking about Indigenous heritage without having to discuss things like the Indian Act and how that impacts history,” says Reid. 

“Why did we not have any Indigenous workers? Were they so racist that they wouldn’t hire workers at the lumber and mining development company? Well, no. But the Indigenous population in Abbotsford were stuck on the rez and weren’t allowed to leave the rez, so they wouldn’t have been able to come to work every day. The reason why they didn’t work at the mill is because of the Indian Act, and the Indian Act is based on colonialism and racism.” 

That needs to be acknowledged before any progress can be made. That hasn’t happened yet in Abbotsford, though people are starting to have the conversation. Researchers like Olivia Daniels at UFV looked into it, which we’ll talk about on the next episode.