Canada's Wine Capital
This land has been the traditional territory of the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation for thousands of years. The first European settlement in the area was the boom and bust mining town of Fairview, located just five kilometers from the current townsite of Oliver. Fairview was immensely successful in the 1890s but, like so many mining towns in BC, had faded to a ghost town by the 1920s. Around that same time, in 1921, one of the South Okanagan's youngest towns, Oliver, was founded through the BC government's South Okanagan Land Project, which worked to open up farm land for returning veterans from the First World War. Premier John Oliver's government purchased 22,000 acres in the region and constructed an extensive irrigation system which transformed 8,000 acres of desert into farmable land. Farming soon took off in the new town, though it was not until the 1980s that vineyards began to be planted on lands which were once orchards. Today, Oliver boasts eleven vineyards and wineries and is the "wine capital of Canada".
This project was made possible through a partnership with Visit South Okanagan, with support from the Oliver & District Heritage Society and Oliver Tourism.
We respectfully acknowledge that Oliver is within the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territory of the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation.
sukʷnaʔqinx - The Okanagan People
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The sukʷnaʔqinx Okanagan People tie their history and identity to the land and the animals that also inhabit it. The Okanagan Indian Band website writes about their origins, "Before humans were created, animal people lived on the land and gave up themselves along with their ways, beliefs, practices, and experiences for the people-to-be."1 These beliefs are passed down today through captíkʷł, or oral narrative.
The captíkʷł carries not only the people's history, but also syilx Okanagan natural law. These laws are based around the beliefs of the stages the Okanagan people have passed through. They are as follows from their website;
"1. st̓əlsqílxʷ (torn from the earth) - life form of first people without natural instincts to survive.
2. xatmaʔ sqílxʷ (in front of us sqílxʷ ) - first thinking people who learned the natural law to survive.
3. sqílxʷ (dreaming ones, bound together, of the land) - original people who learned to live together on the land in peace.
4. ʔawtmaʔsqílxʷ (to struggle and/or come after sqílxʷ) - today’s sqílxʷ after the arrival of new comers."2
This Fur Trade brought settlers to the region, and it wasn't long before they began developing the region around their own settlement patterns. Settler communities often established themselves in sukʷnaʔqin seasonal settlement areas, disrupting the traditional use of these lands. The sukʷnaʔqinx Okanagan people were not given much consideration during the settlement period and were often pushed aside to make room for settler communities.
British Columbia had very few historic land treaties signed between the Canadian government and the Indigenous peoples. Out of the few historic and modern treaties that exist, none cover the Okanagan. These treaties, while deeply flawed and often ignored by the Canadian government, have formed the basis of land rights and titles for Indigenous communities across the country. There are no treaties between the Canadian government and the sukʷnaʔqinx, which has caused ongoing social and economic issues for the suḳʷnaʔqinx Okanagan People.
Historically, the sukʷnaʔqinx Okanagan First Nations travelled in the spring, summer, and fall visiting fishing, gathering, and hunting locations. During the winter, people returned to permanent winter villages where they resided in underground structures known as q̓ʷc̓iʔ. Today in certain areas of the Okanagan, pictographs drawn by the sukʷnaʔqinx are still visible on the rocks.
The language of the Okanagan syilx Nation is nqilxʷcn/nsyilxcən which is a part of the larger Salishan language. nqilxʷcn is one of 23 Salishan languages which are still spoken today across Southern British Columbia, Washington State, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. Many of the traditional Okanagan place names have been anglicized and used for communities across the Okanagan. The word "Okanagan'' is an anglicized version of the nqilxʷcn word sukʷnaʔqin which translates to "transport toward the head or top end of" and refers to the sqilxʷ that would travel throughout the whole territory to deliver messages.3 Other familiar names derived from nqilxʷcn are kiʔlaw̓naʔ (Kelowna), sən̓pin̓tktən (Penticton), and súyus (Osoyoos).
Today, the Osoyoos Indian Band is thriving and has established a strong economy through viticulture, tourism, and construction. In the last 5 years, they have generated around $120 million through business ventures and partnerships.3 According to Chief Clarence Louie, the Okanagan People have always been skilled at business, “Archeological evidence proves that we traded with tribes from thousands of miles away. Today we’re probably the only band in Canada that has the number of businesses and joint ventures that we have on a per capita basis.”5
The history of Indigenous peoples in Canada is best told by the Nations themselves. To learn more about the Osoyoos Indian Band and the syilx Nation, visit the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos.
4. "Businesses" Osoyoos Indian Band. 2021. Website
5. "Our People" Nk'mip Desert Cultural Centre. 2021.
Irrigation in Oliver
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The provincial government purchased 22,000 acres in the South Okanagan for the purposes of this project and the newly irrigated land was offered to veterans returning from fighting abroad in World War I at a low cost. In 1921, the townsite for Oliver was surveyed, and the first buildings erected in the new townsite were constructed from reclaimed lumber salvaged from the vacated buildings at the former boomtown of Fairview.
To successfully irrigate the valley, a 40 kilometer concrete irrigation canal was built in 1923. The canal included a wood stave siphon that measured a little over 2 metres in diameter and ran almost 1.2 kms. The siphon transported water from one side of the valley to the other. Installing the "Ditch" as locals call it, transformed a dry desert valley into sprawling acres of orchards, farms, and vineyards. The siphon once ran up what is now School Avenue, and propelled the water upwards. Much of the irrigation system now runs underground, but there are areas where it resurfaces, namely where it crosses the Okanagan River. It can be seen from the Fairview Road bridge.
In 1949, the Okanagan River was dug into a canal between Okanagan Falls and Osoyoos. Dams and drops were added to adjust lake water levels and provide flood control during the spring run off. While this has been beneficial to farms and settlements, the channelization of the river has had a powerful effect on the river ecosystem.
In 2017, the Okanagan River Restoration Initiative reported that only 16% (4.9 km) of the river remained in a natural (2.8 km) or semi-natural state (2.1 km) and, that 84% (30.4 km) of the river had been channelized, straightened, narrowed and diked.1 The ORRI has been working for several years on restoring portions of the river to a more natural state and reclaiming habitat by replanting riparian zones, relocating dikes, lengthening the channel, re-establishing habitat features such as fish spawning beds, gravel beds, and pools.
They are also expanding the bounds of the river by reconnecting the river to contiguous floodplains and creating side channels. Their work has led to increased use of the river by species such as sockeye salmon and rainbow trout, as well as some bird and toad species. The ORRI was founded in 2000 and is a partnership between several organizations, including the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Canada Fisheries and Oceans, and the Okanagan Region Wildlife Heritage Fund Society.
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The first mining claim, the Stemwinder, was founded In 1887. The first mine, called the Rattler, opened the next year. Only four years later, the area was home to a total of 10 mines, including the large Morning Star Mine. This mine opened in 1889, attracting notice from gold seekers who began flooding into the area. A stamp mill was soon established in Fairview where rocks were processed to extract gold and quartz.
The Stratheyre Mining Company, the owners of the Morning Star Mine, built a house across from the mine in a location that gave it a vantage point overlooking the valley. The "fair" views from this spot gave the growing community its name. Fairview became home to miners, ranchers, and businesses. The growth led to a need for some basic community amenities. The first hotel in town was the Golden Gate Hotel, built in 1890. While the Golden Gate was the first, the Hotel Fairview was the best. It was built In 1897 as a large three-storey hotel with a pointed wooden tower on the roof. The hotel was known as the fanciest hotel in the Okanagan and was known for its good food, which was served on fine china with silver cutlery.1
As the town grew it established horse stables, grocery stores, a drug store, a post office, a blacksmith, a butcher shop, a school, churches, a government building, and a jail. At the height of its growth, there were around 1000 people living in Fairview and it was one of BC's largest towns at the end of the 1800s.
When J. M. Robinson, founder of Naramata, Peachland, and Summerland passed through Fairview, he had this to say of the town, "The town of Fairview is not inappropriately named, for it looks out onto a prospect as desolate as one could well find outside of the Sahara Desert. Nevertheless, the view is all fenced in by ranchers, whose cattle manages to pick up a living by working faithfully on day and night shifts. If the valley were only irrigated it could look like a paradise."2
As impressed as Robinson may have been by the views, he was less enthused about the valley heat, "When the midsummer sun catches the traveller in that gulch and pours down his angry beams upon him in one flood of etheric fire, he presently begins to find himself melting away on his horse like so much drawn butter."3
Despite Fairview's promising beginnings, the Hotel Fairview burnt to the ground in 1902, killing three people and injuring several others. This disaster coincided with a sharp downturn in the mines' fortunes as the miners turned up less and less gold. In 1904, the Stemwinder, the town's most important mine, closed its doors, with others following suit. The town began to decline and people moved away. By 1907, the Church of England's registry showed only 145 people remaining in Fairview.4
The Morning Star Mine reopened in 1933 and was minimally profitable for a short period. However Fairview failed to recover as the majority of people in the area had now settled in nearby Oliver. The mine soon declined and finally shut permanently in 1961.
2. John Moore Robinson "West to Grand Forks and Beyond" in The Journal of the Okanagan Trust Society 3, No. 4 (Spring 2018), 12.
4. "History" The Town of Oliver, 2021. https://oliver.ca/history/
Then and Now Photos
The Land Office
The Palace Pool Hall
A Wheelbarrow Race on Main Street
The Oliver Theatre
The Fire Hall
Oliver's High School
Oliver's Elementary Schools