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Island Corridor Foundation still waiting on federal grant for track repairs

Foundation remains entangled in lawsuit with Snaw-Naw-As First Nation for return of land
The Island Corridor Foundation is still seeking $7.5 million from the federal government to help with track repairs on the E&N Railway in an effort to revive passenger rail service on Vancouver Island. VIA Rail suspended operations on the Island in 2011 due to track conditions. (News Bulletin file)

Vancouver Island remains without passenger rail because the federal government refuses to provide the funding needed to restore service.

That was the message from the Island Corridor Foundation, the non-profit organization that aims to restore passenger rail service to the Island, during its annual general meeting at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre Thursday.

Judith Sayers, ICF board co-chairwoman, told a conference room of about 50 people that her organization expected to have $7.5 million in funding from the federal government by now, but hadn’t received a single dollar.

One reason for the delay is due to a recent civil lawsuit filed against the Island Corridor Foundation and the Attorney General of Canada by the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation over the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, which runs through its traditional territory. Snaw-Naw-As claims the land was wrongfully taken from it years ago to build the railway and is seeking to have it returned.

“It took the federal government quite a few months to respond to that [lawsuit] and when they did they told us they would not be giving us any funds until we resolved that,” Sayers said, adding the foundation and Snaw-Naw-As were unable to reach a private settlement and the federal government won’t do anything to resolve the issue.

“In this instance, they have just put the burden on us,” she said. “We are always willing to work with the Snaw-Naw-As and we would like to see that resolved and we would like to move beyond that. Therefore we haven’t received federal funds.”

The foundation has been expecting the federal $7.5-million grant to help repair the tracks since 2011.

Derek Ollmann, president of Southern Railway, the sole operator on the track, told the audience that his company has lost $5 million and let go of 12 employees since the company began operations on Vancouver Island in 2006. Despite the loss, he said they have no plans to leave the Island and believes passenger rail can be economically viable once track upgrades are complete.

“Freight and the rail service on Vancouver Island is real and it is growing,” Ollmann said. “We are not packing up our bags to leave. We are actually unpacking to stay.”

Brent Edwards, Snaw-Naw-As chief, said the First Nation intends to get its land back because as long as it isn’t being used for its intended purpose it isn’t benefiting his people.

“There is no benefit to Nanoose at all for being part of the Island Corridor Foundation. You’re in our way and you’re not using it for railway purposes,” he said.

Edwards told the News Bulletin that he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because it was still before the courts. He said it’s doubtful the ICF will ever get passenger rail on the Island and that the railway land could be used in other ways to improve the lives of his people.

“We would like to see them pull that track and let us get on to developing that property for the benefit of our members,” Edwards said.

Graham Bruce, the foundation’s chief executive officer, said passenger rail has a future on Vancouver Island that includes Snaw-Naw-As, adding that it would be unwise to rip up the tracks because effective rail service could generate tourism opportunities and reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

He said he understands the position of Snaw-Naw-As and hopes the parties can come to some kind of agreement that will allow rail to move through the community.

“The advent of rail on Vancouver Island was not a happy occasion for our First Nation communities. There is a long history and a real history and we are trying to be respectful of that and deal with it as best we can,” Bruce said.