Canada has decided it will not fund the rail restoration of an Island Rail Corridor segment running through a Vancouver Island First Nation – reverting the lands back to the community.
Tuesday (March 14) marked the Court of Appeal-imposed deadline for the feds stemming from the Nanoose-area Snaw-Naw-As First Nation’s lawsuit. The legal action was launched years ago and claimed the land was expropriated over a century ago for an intended purpose that was no longer being used – after most rail services shut down over a decade ago.
“In support of our shared ongoing commitments to reconciliation, our governments have decided that reversion of the land bisecting the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation reserve is the first step in the process of developing a shared vision for the future of the corridor with First Nations,” Transport Canada and B.C. said in a joint statement.
The return of passenger and freight services on the 290 kilometres of tracks was supported by regional districts along the route and touted as a key transportation alternative to the Island’s highway-constrained travel.
However, provincial engagement with the 14 First Nations whose traditional territory the tracks traverse found there was “limited interest” in restoring rail services.
A report on that engagement found the impacted First Nations felt the railway restricted access within their communities, it’s a barrier to economic development, there were ongoing harms related to how the land was initially taken and those living near the tracks have concerns about their health and safety.
First Nations have also highlighted how funds for reviving rail could be better used as even the most modest estimates have put the price tag in the hundreds of millions.
“There are so many priorities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities where it could be better spent,” Brent Edwards, a Snaw-Naw-As First Nation councillor, told Black Press Media earlier this month.
The joint statement said Canada and B.C. acknowledge the importance of the corridor and will begin formal engagement with the affected First Nations on mutually beneficial next steps for the line.
“A partnership-driven approach represents the best way for moving forward together and achieving a collective vision for the corridor that benefits everyone.”
The province announced the $18 million toward future corridor planning involving affected First Nations and regional districts.
“The funding will also allow First Nations to assess identified concerns such as flooding, access, noise, or safety issues where the corridor crosses their land,” Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said.
The minister reiterated that any future corridor use must involve First Nations as he called reconciliation and the railway’s future “inseparable.”
The Island Corridor Foundation, the owner of the rail line, has promoted bringing train services back as a way to meet the Island’s transportation, economic and climate needs. Larry Stevenson, the foundation’s CEO, has said 2021’s damaging rain events were an eye-opener when they shuttered off Malahat.
Canada and the province echoed that sentiment as they highlighted how more climate change-induced extreme weather poses a risk to critical infrastructure. The joint statement said the corridor is of “strategic transportation importance” given the Island’s growing population.
“Vancouver Island will exceed one million residents and with that growth we need to consider the future value of the corridor for the movement of people and goods,” Fleming said. “And as we were reminded during the 2021 atmospheric river event, when the South Island was cut off from the rest of B.C. along the Malahat, we need to ensure we are more resilient to climate change.”