Canada's Warmest Welcome
Located in the far south of the Okanagan, Lake Osoyoos is the warmest lake in Canada, surrounded by a vibrant desert ecosystem and lush green orchards and vineyards. The area has been home to the Syilx Okanagan First Nations for millenia and was originally called "Sẁiẁs", which refers to the narrowing of the waters of the lake. Europeans first passed through the South Okanagan in 1811 as part of the fur trade, and Osoyoos's first permanent white settlers were cattle ranchers and farmers in the late nineteenth century. The town also served as an important spot for government, as it was home to a customs house run by Judge Haynes, who was both deputy customs collector and a justice of the peace during his career. The first orchards in Osoyoos were planted in 1857, and since then, orcharding has become a major part of the culture and economy of the town. Today, Osoyoos is home to numerous orchards, vineyards, and wineries, and its thriving community enjoys some of the warmest weather in the country.
This project was made possible through a partnership with Visit South Okanagan, with support from Destination Osoyoos and the Osoyoos & District Museum and Archives.
We respectfully acknowledge that Osoyoos is within the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territory of the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation.
"sw̓iw̓s" - The Narrowing of the Waters
* * *
The first Europeans to travel to the Okanagan were fur traders with the Pacific Fur Company, travelling through the region on what would become known as the Fur Brigade Trail in 1811. From then on, settlement of the area by Europeans increased at a gradual yet inexorable rate. Land treaties were never made, and while fairly large reserve lands were promised to the Okanagan First Nations people by Governor James Douglas in the middle of the 19th century, these promises were later broken. When Douglas left office in 1864, one of the new government's first acts was to reduce Okanagan reserve sizes. John Carmichael Haynes, one of the first white settlers in Osoyoos, was originally stationed there as deputy customs collector in 1862. In 1865, he was granted government permission to reduce the reserve sizes of two reserves in the Okanagan. In 1879, the crown granted Haynes 4,245 acres of land in the area near Osoyoos, which the government had previously promised to set aside as reserve land, a decision which was later attributed to "a settler's bad faith and a clerk's error."1 The historian Duncan Duane Thomson wrote in a 1985 UBC dissertation: “The evidence seems to lead to only one conclusion—the Inkamip Indians were cheated out of land which had been assigned to them by the Indian Reserve Commissioners and Commissioner Sproat... While one man dominated the main trench of the Okanagan, nearby, the Indians with 34 adult males were restricted to a dry, rocky and sandy area with little access to water.”2 Additionally, the government passed legislation in 1871 which allowed white settlers to preempt a total of 320 acres of land as opposed to the previous allowance of 160 acres. This allowed settlers to claim more and more land, controlling not only the best agricultural lands, but also much of the region's water. The Okanagan people were cut off from their land, water, and, largely, their traditional ways of life. Yet despite the many impacts of European settlement, the Osoyoos Indian Band is today a thriving and successful community that has created many profitable business and cultural ventures such as the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Center, the Nk'Mip Canyon Desert Golf Course, Spirit Ridge Resort, and Nk'Mip Cellars, which is the first Indigenous owned and operated winery in Canada. Since 2015, the Band has generated nearly $120.1 million in revenues from these ventures, and unemployment on the reserve is 3%, well below the national average.3 You can learn more about the history and culture of the sukʷnaʔqinx at the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, located on the eastern side of Osoyoos Lake.
2. Thomson, Duane Duncan. A History of the Okanagan: Indians and Whites in the Settlement Era, 1860 - 1920. The University of British Columbia, September 1985, pp. 147. URL: https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0107160
3. "Businesses." Osoyoos Indian Band. URL: http://oib.ca/businesses/
The Earliest Fruit in Canada
* * *
Smith's orchards, while they contained over 1,000 trees and vines, were located across the American border to the south. The first commercial orchards on the Canadian side of the border were planted much later, by Leslie Hill in 1907. He bought 1,100 acres of land on Osoyoos Lake and planted 30 acres of fruit trees, including cherries, pears, peaches, apricots, plums and apples. From then on, fruit growing made up a major part of the community's economy. In addition, vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes and zucca melons were grown between the rows of fruit trees to provide farmers with income while their young trees matured.2 Agricultural production only increased in the following decades and, given this agricultural history, it is perhaps not surprising that in 1949, Osoyoos developed an annual summer celebration on July 1st known as the Cherry Carnival. The Carnival honoured the fruit trees which had given Osoyoos much of its prosperity. Today, the festival is still going strong, though its name has since changed to the Cherry Fiesta. The first Cherry Carnival was based around aquatic sports to take advantage of the town's location on the banks of the Osoyoos Lake. The goal was to draw large crowds and raise funds to go towards park development. According to historian George Fraser writing in his 1952 book The Story of Osoyoos, this goal was reached: the first festival had a profit of $1,176.08, which would amount to over $13,500 in today's money.3In this photo from the first Cherry Carnival, the waterfront is packed. Festivities included water sports, the election of a carnival queen, and a parade. In 1952, a barbeque was added to the roster of popular events. The Osoyoos Times wrote: “The first annual Osoyoos Cherry Carnival has been acclaimed as the biggest event this district has ever staged. With hard work, and the perfect prevailing weather, the Carnival has gone down in the records as an overwhelming success.”4 Today, more than 70 years later, the festival has grown and includes fireworks, a pancake breakfast and a "cherry pit spit" competition. It is one of many local summer festivals across the Okanagan that celebrate the region's agricultural richness. The Peach Fest in Penticton, for example, takes place in August and celebrates the ripening of the peaches. These festivals are key parts of the culture of the region.
2. Fraser, Dorothy. "A Short History and Description of Osoyoos." Osoyoos Museum, 1967, p. 6. URL: http://www.osoyoosmuseum.ca/index.php/about-us/history-of-osoyoos/a-history-and-description-of-osoyoos.html
3. Fraser, George J. 54.
4. "The Way We Were: First Cherry Carnival in 1949." Osoyoos Times, 2018. URL: https://www.timeschronicle.ca/the-way-we-were-first-cherry-carnival-in-1949-was-aquatic-sports-event-but-parade-was-always-popular/
Watering the Desert
* * *
The creation of early irrigation systems generally fell to the developers of land. Across the South Okanagan, rich landowners would buy large plots of land, subdivide them, and sell them to farmers. It was in their interest to provide watering systems to their purchasers; a plot of land without irrigation could be sold for $10 to $40 an acre, while one with irrigation could instead be sold for $150 to $350 an acre—water was everything.3
With the promise of this price hike, however, less wealthy developers often created inadequate irrigation systems, with plans to later improve them with the profits from land sales. When these sales slowed down, as they did during a real estate depression in 1912, those farmers who had already purchased land were left with shoddy systems and an inability to properly water their orchards.
In Osoyoos, however, a developer-created irrigation system was put in place which was actually successful. A land syndicate headed by George Fraser in 1920 purchased land on the eastern shore of Osoyoos Lake from Leslie Hill, who had planted Osoyoos's first commercial orchards over a decade previously, and subdivided it, selling plots to new farmers.
That same decade, the BC government became involved in the problem of irrigation. After the First World War, Premier John Oliver began a land settlement and irrigation project which was intended to provide cheap, easily farmed land for returning soldiers. The South Okanagan Lands Project was centred on the creation of the town of Oliver, but Osoyoos eventually benefitted too—in 1927, water from the government's successful irrigation project in Oliver reached the west side of Osoyoos Lake.4
With access to an irrigation system now secured, the lands surrounding Osoyoos Lake gradually filled, and the population of the settlement increased. Many of the farmers who settled in the region were from diverse backgrounds. A large portion of the original orchards were planted by German immigrants. Later, Portuguese fruit growers arrived in the South Okanagan in 1955, originally as farm labourers. By the late 1980s, these immigrants owned half the orchard land in Oliver and Osoyoos. Likewise, by 1987, there were 200 families of Hungarian immigrants in the Oliver and Osoyoos area. This growing diversity created a vibrant and multicultural community.
With increased settlement and irrigation waters secured, the desert lands surrounding Osoyoos slowly grew covered in lush green farms. In 1944, in the midst of the Second World War, a spur line of the Kettle Valley Railway was finally built to Osoyoos, and transporting fruit grew easier and more profitable.
Vineyards first entered the scene in the 1970s, at a time when the global popularity of wine was taking off. Today, there are over 5,000 acres of vineyards in the region of Oliver and Osoyoos. Osoyoos also has the distinction of being home to the first Aboriginal owned and operated winery in North America: Nk'Mip Cellars.
Yet the agricultural prosperity of the region came at a cost. Farming encroached on the important desert grassland habitat. As early as 1998, the BC Ministry of Environment listed the South Okanagan grasslands as "one of the four most endangered ecosystems in our country."5 Agriculture and urban development has replaced most of the original grasslands.
In Osoyoos, a 1,600 acre desert conservation area was created in 2007 by the Osoyoos Indian Band, who founded the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre to not only protect this important ecosystem but to provide cultural and ecological education to visitors and locals alike. The state-of-the-art interpretive centre located on the east side of Osoyoos Lake is constructed into the hillside and built to be as environmentally sensitive as possible. The centre works towards the stewardship of both the natural landscape of Osoyoos and the rich culture of the Okanagan First Nations people.
Visitor’s can also experience the beauty and diversity of this unique desert environment at the Osoyoos Desert Centre, a 67-acre nature interpretive facility located three kilometres north of Osoyoos. Guided and self-guided tours are available along the 1.5 kilometre elevated boardwalk, and the centre includes hands-on displays and a native plant garden. The Osoyoos Desert Centre is operated by the Osoyoos Desert Society, a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to conserving the South Okanagan’s rich biodiversity for future generations. The society was formed in 1991 by volunteers and has been working towards preserving the desert ecosystem ever since.
2. Webber, Jean. A Rich and Fruitful Land: The History of the Valleys of the Okanagan, Similkameen and Shuswap. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, 1999, pp. 169.
3. Webber, Jean. 172
4. Cox, Doug. Okanagan Roots… A Historic Look at the South Okanagan and Similkameen. Skookum Publications, 1987, pp 78.
5. "Habitat Atlas for Wildlife at Risk."
Then and Now Photos
The Old Town Site
Osoyoos Beach and Community Hall
Haynes Family at Ranch
The Community Hall
Main Street Looking West
Main Street in the 1940s
Cherry Carnival Tricycle Parade
Cherry Carnival Water Events
The Cherry Carnival Parade