The board at the Cowichan Valley Regional District is still committed to the restoration of rail on Vancouver Island, but some directors are expressing concerns with the initiative.
The board passed a motion at its meeting on July 27 in support of resuscitating local rail at the request of the Island Corridor Foundation, which owns the deteriorating 220-kilometre E&N rail line that stretches from Victoria to Courtenay, but issues were raised regarding the economic viability of the initiative and whether some First Nations are actually behind it.
Blaise Salmon, director for Mill Bay/Malahat, said he was uncomfortable supporting the motion without more information on where the Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose) First Nation stands on reviving the Island rail corridor, which runs through its territory.
The First Nation filed a civil lawsuit against the project in 2015 that claimed its reserve land was wrongfully taken away in 1911 to build the railway, and now that the land sits unused, the First Nation is within its legal rights to ask for the return of the land.
However, the court dismissed the case in 2020, and also an appeal in 2021, stating that the ICF is attempting to restore rail on the land, rather than leaving it indefinitely.
But the judge attached a number of conditions when the case was dismissed, with the key one being that the federal government needs to determine if the Island’s railway is in the public interest and whether it will help fund its rebuilding, and that must be decided by March, 2023.
The ICF is looking for letters of support from local governments as the deadline approaches.
Salmon said it’s not clear to him whether the Snaw-Naw-As would still want the land back if the rail project moves forward.
“I’d rather wait [to make the motion] until we’ve heard directly from all the First Nations to make sure we don’t have to update our thinking on this issue of rail going through First Nations territory,” he said.
Lori Iannidinardo, chair of the board and director for Cowichan Bay, said she believes the ICF is working closely with all the First Nations that have rail through their territories.
“The ICF is recognizing the First Nations and this is simply just a letter of support,” she said.
North Cowichan director Kate Marsh said the vision for restoring the rail corridor would not have happened without the support of First Nations, particularly Cowichan Tribes.
She said 50 per cent of the ICF’s board consists of First Nations representatives.
“We all know there is a deadline [March, 2023] so I think it’s important that this project is taken to the next step,” Marsh said.
“If half of the [ICF’s board] are First Nations, it would be against reconciliation not to support a letter that comes from that board.”
Salmon said he agreed with much of what Marsh said but, in the case of the Snaw-Naw-As, the ICF did apply to have the rail corridor that runs through the First Nation’s territory revert to the foundation.
“I’m not comfortable until I hear directly from the Snaw-Naw-As that this kind of letter would be in alignment with what they would like,” he said.
Klaus Kuhn, director for Youbou/Meade Creek, said he wouldn’t support the motion for economic reasons.
“I don’t think that the reestablishment of rail in the Island is going to happen,” he said.
“I can’t see the financial viability of it.”
Shawnigan Lake director Sierra Acton said she believes the letter of support for the project is meant to help the ICF prove to senior levels of government that the project would be economically viable.
“That’s the direction they’re taking to get support from the province,” she said.
The motion to send the letter of support was passed, with five directors opposed.