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Vote on future of Island rail corridor prompts First Nation board members to resign

Members sought non-rail uses after provincial report flags First Nations concerns
The federal government must state its intention for the future of the Vancouver Island Rail Corridor by mid-March. (Photo by Mike Bonkowski for Island Corridor Foundation)

With under two weeks to go until the federal government must state its intent for a disputed Vancouver Island railway section, several First Nation board members of the group trying to revive the train services have resigned.

The five resigning Island Corridor Foundation board members cited the defeat of their Feb. 28 motion – which was based on a provincial report flagging First Nations’ concerns about reviving rail on the 290 kilometres of tracks.

The foundation, which owns the line, has called for a return of passenger and freight services to address highway-constrained transportation needs on the Island, while also advancing climate and economic goals. However, the most modest price tags it’s put forward to revive rail have been 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 and one of the members who stepped down, told Black Press Media.

The federal government has until March 14 to decide whether it will fund infrastructure on a corridor segment that runs through Snaw-Naw-As. That Court of Appeal-imposed deadline was the result of a lawsuit launched by the Nanoose-area First Nation, which has argued the land was expropriated for an intended use that is no longer being used, following most rail services shutting down in 2011.

“It’s a safety concern, it gets in the way of access, we’re trying to do some economic development here and we can’t do that, we can’t plan those sorts of things when there’s this fallow rail line laying through our community,” Edwards said.

The board members who resigned represent the Ts’uubaa-asatx, Stz’uminus, Snuneymuxw and Snaw-Naw-As First Nations. In a joint statement, the members said their defeated motion called for the foundation to step away from resuming rail activities and to explore what else is possible.

The motion was inspired by a recently released provincial report looking at the impacts of and possible uses for rail segments traversing the traditional territories of 14 Island First Nations.

“Given the impacts of the corridor on some of these communities, there is limited interest in restoring rail service, in its current location(s),” the report states.

It also found that: the railway in some cases restricts access within communities; Nations being able to develop on their portions could provide significant employment and economic development; there were ongoing harmful impacts related to how the land was initially taken; that Nations don’t believe the Crown met its consultation requirements, and; there’s concern about the health and safety of those living nearby.

“We no longer see a role for ourselves in an organization that sticks its fingers in their ears to a First Nations engagement report, that sticks its hand out to government for a billion dollars when there are far pressing matters,” the joint statement said.

The former board members also called on the Canadian and B.C. governments to make it clear they will not “support the continuation of an uneconomical railway that will waste public goods and continue to harm the potential of First Nations on Vancouver Island.”

The federal government told Black Press Media it had not made a final decision as of early February and its approach would be informed by B.C.’s engagement.

The province sees the line as a significant goods mover as the population grows and First Nations have to be a part of that, as opposed to the past where trains ran through their land “while contributing nothing to the quality of life of Indigenous people,” B.C.’s transportation minister said Thursday.

“The ICF, as well as the province and the federal government, agree that rail restoration and reconciliation go hand in hand,” Rob Fleming said in the B.C. legislature halls.

With a report from Wolfgang Depner

A map of the 290-kilometre Island rail corridor tracks. (Courtesy of the B.C. Ministry of Transportaiton)
A map of the 290-kilometre Island rail corridor tracks. (Courtesy of the B.C. Ministry of Transportaiton)

READ: ‘Strategically important’: Feds weighing $431M Vancouver Island Rail Corridor future as deadline looms

READ: Regional districts call on feds to fund Vancouver Island rail revival Follow us on Instagram. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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