Matsqui Village: Buildings Archaeology – My Career is in Ruins

No, seriously, my career is actually in ruins. I’m an archaeologist with a specialty in buildings preservation. My career started with an internship at the Royal Armory in Stockholm.  I went on to excavate and study Baltic material from the Stone Age to the end of the Viking Age. All I ever wanted to be was an archaeologist. I also wanted to move to Canada. As it turns out though, to immigrate to Canada, you have to have a marketable skill. Archaeology is notably not a marketable skill. For that reason, I carved out a niche for myself working with heritage designated buildings and buildings preservation. Of course, as you research buildings, you learn to recognize certain architects and contractors. You get to know the workers and the families who lived in the buildings. Sometimes you get to know them really well.

Buildings Archaeology: My Career is in Ruins

Colonial(ism) History

In my case, the people I have come to know the best are the Swedes who built Matsqui Village. The Village is now part of the City of Abbotsford in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. The area was first home to the Sto:lo First Nations. Even before first contact, the Sto:lo had been struck by a smallpox epidemic. The virus, which had been introduced by Europeans farther south, seems to have traveled north along the trade routes. By the time the first European settlers arrived to the Valley in the first half of the 19th century, the Sto:lo had been decimated. Their previously complex, vibrant culture had been all but shattered. Then, in the 1850s, the gold rush hit British Columbia. Some 30,000 gold prospectors arrived to the area. Although it must have felt like an invasion to the remaining Sto:lo, the prospectors never stayed.

The Other Viking Invasion

On the heels of the prospectors came the Royal Engineers. The Engineers were allowed to take land at the end of their service, even before homesteading was “a legal thing”. A handful of men decided that the Matsqui Prairie would be their new home. They saw fertile land, rivers and lakes teeming with fish and water fowl.

To be honest, I believe they also saw “natives” who were unable to really put up much of a fuss. Easy to take over land, in other words. But they failed to notice one major drawback: the whole area floods annually. This is where the Swedes come in. These were Scandinavian men who were handpicked by the head of the Matsqui Lands Company to clear the land and use the timber to construct proper dykes in order to stem the floods. The Lands Company put ads in Swedish language papers in the US.

Settling in the New World

With the 1872 Lands Act in place, the Lands Company could offer homesteading land to Scandinavians with the right skills. With the 1898 “hamlet clause” amendment to the act, the first Scandinavian settlers were drawn to the area. They came by way of the US, but soon they invited their Scandinavian families to join them. They left behind a country where they were not entitled to vote, which had suffered famine and economic downturn. Changes to the conscription system took the men away from their families for months on end.

At the same time, Canada experienced an economic upswing. There was no such thing as conscription. This land was a chance to be a part of creating a new identity not just for the immigrant, but for a whole country. And by the late 1800s, Canada had infrastructure, for example, where you could travel from coast to coast on the train.

The Way to a New Life

This is not to say that the journey was easy. In a time in history that predates cross-Atlantic phone calls, internet and Skype, your journey started with saying goodbye. Assume that you would never speak to Mom again. Assume you’d never see Dad again or hear the sound of his voice. A letter could take months. A sitting for a photographic portrait was cost prohibitive. Women cut their locks and had them worked by ladies who turned the hair into watch fobs for a keepsake. The most important possessions were packed into carpetbags or trunks, loaded onto wagons and taken off to trains. The train took you to Gothenburg, a day’s journey away. From there you could catch a boat the England, and from England a cross-Atlantic ship. From there, you would have to clear immigration somewhere on North America’s east coast, hop a train and cross all of Canada.

A Poignant Trip

Back in the day, trains didn’t necessarily have dining carts, or washrooms for that matter. If you needed to pee or eat, you’d have to get off the train, do what you had to do, and get on before the train left the station. Just before the last stop on the CPR line was Mission Junction, where you would had got off the train. From there, you would have been able to catch a ferry across the river. If it was night time, you would have had to walk across on the railroad trestles. In the dark. With suitcases or a trunk in your hands.

One young man who made the trip from an area just outside of Stockholm went by the name of Nils Poignant. He was 11 years old when he made the trip, by himself, without an adult to accompany him.

The Borgs who were Assimilated

I surveyed the home that Nils built for himself in Matsqui some years ago. Unfortunately, that home has since been demolished. Another home that has been demolished since I surveyed and recorded it for posterity was the home of Joe Borg. Joe’s dad and uncle had migrated to the US in the late 1800s. They found that they were not happy there. Not only were they homesick, but Swedes, “square heads”, were not well liked in some predominantly Anglo-Saxon areas. The homesick men returned to Sweden. Unwilling to give up on the dream of a better life, they decided to take the Matsqui Lands Company up on their offer of land on Matsqui Prairie. By the time they left their Swedish home in 1912, 10 other family members had decided to join the brothers. They all made the trek across Sweden and made their way to the UK.

A Voyage Across an Ocean and a Continent

Having arrived in Southampton, however, the family found that they had been double booked on the cross-Atlantic liner. The family was forced to stay some extra days, and eventually boarded the Empress of Ireland. Part way across the Atlantic, the liner had to stop to pull survivors from the Borgs’ original liner out of the water. The liner they were originally slated to travel on was the Titanic.

Eventually the family made it all the way across Canada, but when they finally arrived in the Fraser Valley, the person who was supposed to meet them at the train station was a no show. That’s when Mrs. Borg had had enough. She was done! She picked up her smallest kids and started to cry. A farmer traveling by with his horse and cart spotted the distraught woman, and offered the weary travelers a ride to their final destination.

Buildings Tell Stories

When I arrived in Canada, degree in hand, the Borgs’ homestead still stood in Ridgedale. I had left Sweden for some of the same reasons the Borgs left some 70 years earlier. Relative to Sweden, Canada was still a new country, and I mattered here. I chose to come here, not a refugee, economic or otherwise. I have been able to continue to do what I love, and in the process, I get to learn about these amazing people. Archaeologists like me get to be the stewards of deep knowledge, not just about artifacts, buildings and construction, but about the things that live in the hearts of those who came before us. Of course I miss excavating some days, but most days, not so much. I get to do what I love, and honour those who came before me.

Image Credit: Lina Reid – Photographer

(Left: Matsqui Village 100 years ago; Right: Matsqui Village Today)

Main Image Credit: Threthewey House Museum

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