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An Okanagan History: The Diaries of Roger John Sugars, 1905 to 1919

By John A. Sugars

Review By Paul Koroscil

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 148 Winter 2005-2006  | p. 125-7

Between the 1890s and the Great War the Okanagan Valley was transformed from an extensive ranching landscape into an ordered landscape of orchards and townsites. This was a result of access to the valley thanks to the establishment of rail and water transportation and the promotion of settlement by land developers who purchased and subdivided ranches into orchard parcels and townsite lots. 

The majority of the developers were Scots and Englishmen who promoted the Okanagan as a place that had a healthy climate, a stunning physical landscape that offered unlimited sporting activities, and a place where fruit farming was a leisurely pursuit and a sound investment. Many of the British immigrants who purchased lands were members of the middle and upper classes who possessed a “proper” education and had at least a minimal amount of capital to establish themselves. By the time of the Great War, approximately 12,000 British immigrants had settled in the valley. 

One of the delightful aspects of researching this time period is the fact that many of the British immigrants were prolific writers and left their heritage in a variety of literary and documentary sources. This particular volume is an example of one of these sources – seven diaries left by Roger John Sugars. Roger Sugars was eight years old when his parents, an Oxford-educated father and an accomplished pianist mother, emigrated from London, England, in 1905. On arriving in the Okanagan, Roger’s father, John Edward, purchased a pre-emption of 160 acres (mostly forest land) on the west side of Okanagan Lake, south of Fintry, for $500. While Roger was away participating in the Great War, his parents sold the property to J.C. Dun Waters of Fintry for $1,000 and moved to Salmon Arm, where they purchased a farm. 

The first six diaries, beginning when Sugars was fourteen years old, cover the years from 1911 to 1912 and from 1914 to 1917, and they deal with his experiences growing up in the Okanagan. The early diaries have entries for most days of the month, while the later diaries have entries for only a few days of each month. The last diary, 1919, records Roger’s involvement in the Great War from the time he left the Okanagan as a twenty-year-old on 26 May 1917 to his return to Salmon Arm on 11 April 1919

As a young teenager growing up in the Okanagan, Roger is fascinated by its physical environment, flora, and fauna and the people who settled there. His literary skills enable the reader to visualize the time and place. He describes the flora, fauna, and the seasonal sporting activities of fishing and hunting as well as his physical endeavours, which included building a road between Nahun and Ewing’s Landing, picking fruit in Dun Waters, orchard, and working as a “swamper” in the logging industry. He provides detailed descriptions of the physiography and geologic profiles of the area and enhances a feeling for the place by sketching the features that he describes. 

On many of his outings, Roger kept a meticulous record of the flora and fauna, and when he had a problem identifying something, he would consult Allan Brooks, the eminent Canadian naturalist and ornithological illustrator, who was living at Okanagan Landing. 

Throughout his diaries, Roger offers his impressions of his neighbours, his logging colleagues, and Aboriginal peoples. With regard to the latter, he talks not only about those indigenous to the Okanagan but also the Nez Percés, “who came all the way from the reservations in Idaho or Washington” (47) to work as hop-pickers for a “man who owns a ranch up the Coldstream Valley” (45). The “man” was Lord Aberdeen, the former governor general of Canada (189398). 

In his war diary, written in France in 1919, Roger notes that, presumably because of his knowledge of forestry and his logging experience, he has enlisted in the Canadian Forestry Corps. He was part of 76 Coy Company, and his duties were to clean up the woods (as there was a fuel shortage in France) and to construct all of the various camp buildings and camouflage them with brush, “for we were right under the eye of German planes” (225). His company was shifted to various locations and, as it moved, Roger described both the war-zone towns he was stationed near and those that he passed through. 

During the war, he was entitled to general leave and so returned to England, where he described his travels and his stay with relatives. At the end of the war, the Forestry Corps was responsible for cleaning up the camps. Roger, realizing that it would be three or four months before demobilization, decided, along with a colleague, to extend a weekend pass to Troyes by going awol. He described the landscape and the towns that they passed through and the aftermath of the horrid war. “We came across one poor Fritzie who had been overlooked: his body was buried in a shellhole, but his arm was reaching upward out of the ground. The shriveled fingers were bent like claws and the sleeve of his tunic was almost rotted away” (251). As in his Okanagan diaries, so in his French diaries Roger captured the “terroir,” the landscape, and the sense of place. 

The diaries are a fascinating source of detail and opinions about life in the Okanagan and the Great War as seen through the eyes of a gifted, articulate young man. This volume is certainly an excellent contribution to understanding the emigration and settlement process of the Okanagan Valley. 

Even though the importance of An Okanagan History is in the presentation of the diaries, the volume suffers from being rather awkwardly structured. At the beginning of the book, there are seven pages entitled “A Word from the Author” followed by a “Foreword” of six pages, written by Roger’s daughter Lilian. At the end of the volume there is a two-page “Appendix” entitled “Characters in Roger’s Life” written by his son John, the editor of the volume, and an eighteen-page reprint of one of Roger’s articles. In all this material (thirty-three pages) there is a certain amount of repetition. The editor should have considered simply writing an introduction to the diaries. The editor might also have considered including three place-name maps: one of the Okanagan Valley, one of England, and one of France. The maps would certainly have been beneficial to the reader unfamiliar with the place-names mentioned in the diaries. One final point: I question the editor’s comment (275) that Roger Sugars’ 1919 diary was written from memory. I suspect, because of the detail, that the author completed his Great War diary from notes that he had made in England and France.