Unclear decision continues uncertain future for Vancouver Island rail corridor

By Transport Action | British Columbia

Mar 31

On March 14th, the British Columbia and federal governments made their long-awaited statement on the future of the Vancouver Island rail corridor,[1] just ahead of the deadline imposed by the BC Court of Appeal, confirming that they have decided that the ten acres of the corridor’s footprint at Nanoose will be returned to the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation.

However, the statement then spoke of the critical need to keep the corridor intact, the growing transportation needs of the island, the need for climate resilience, and echoing other concerns raised by advocates of restored rail service. Furthermore, it announced that $18M would be earmarked for new studies and consultations. To the two questions posed by the Court — Is the corridor in the public interest; and will the government fund the necessary infrastructure improvements? — there was no answer.

“Both levels of government are committed to working with First Nations to develop and advance a shared vision, and will respect reversion of the reserve lands as part of the process,”  said Rob Fleming, BC Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure.

The commitment to reconciliation is vital and welcome, and so is the recognition that the corridor is too important to be broken up. However, the ambiguous and potentially contradictory statement brings further uncertainty to the situation rather than clarity, neither ruling out the return of rail in the future nor presenting any alternative that might adequately provide for the transportation needs of Vancouver Island’s residents.

Speaking later in the day, BC Premier David Eby confirmed that the future of the corridor remains undecided: “This is not the end of the line for the corridor. This is just the beginning of the work in a different way, in the way that all of our projects and land use decisions need to work in this province in partnership with First Nations.”

With the Island Corridor Foundation already being a partnership between municipalities and First Nations, it is not clear what this sentiment really changes. The Court granted BC and Canada 18 months to consult and arrive at a decision, so there seems to have been a lost opportunity to meaningfully engage in nation-to-nation dialogue about the substantive issues, addressing the harmful legacy of how land was originally taken for the E&N corridor as part the wider reconciliation and modern treaty process.

In December 2022, the province published the results of its engagement with First Nations in the Island Rail Corridor First Nations Engagement Summary Report, but that document devoted less than 400 words to the issues raised.

Following the announcement, the Halalt First Nation, located north of Duncan, also expressed an interest in the reversion of its land. The reserve is located in a flood-risk zone beside the Chemainus River and the railway line further impedes water flow, contributing to significant flooding in 2021. Lawyers for the First Nation, which has opposed the return of rail service and expressed frustration at the lack of consultation, were also critical of the statement’s ambiguity.[2]

To fully return the lands, free and clear for future uses at the discretion of the First Nations, would require BC and Canada to make a significant investment in deconstruction of the railway, structures, and earthworks, plus environmental testing and remediation. No mention was made of that challenge by the province or Canada.

Transport Action Canada wrote to the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure on March 16th, seeking clarification, we were assured on March 24th the answers would be forthcoming, but we have yet to receive those answers at the time of writing. Our questions are:

  • The Minister acknowledged the importance of a contiguous transportation corridor, while at the same time allowing the right of reversion to be exercised. What is the actual effect of the announcement in terms of what the Snaw-Naw-As First Nation may do with their land, and what the other Nations that will exercise reversionary rights may do, if BC and Canada are still studying future uses of the corridor and have not earmarked funding to remediate the land being transferred back to the First Nations? 
  • How does the Minister anticipate spending the $18M announced, when the critical issue is government-to-government dialogue with First Nations about the future of the corridor and the future of the transport network on Vancouver Island in the wider context of reconciliation and the modern treaty process?
  • The Halalt First Nation has now protested they were not adequately consulted over the past 18 months. What steps were taken to consult them and the other 13 Nations along the corridor and is there any additional documentation to support the consultation summary published by MoTI?

The $18M earmarked for studies began to flow at the end of March, which MoTI describes as funding “…to support cooperative work, across the various First Nations and governments on Vancouver Island, towards the development of a shared vision for the Corridor in the near term and benefits directly impacted communities as well as the whole of Vancouver Island over the long term.” The work is expected to include both engagement and technical analysis — in addition to all the work already published — but does not appear to acknowledge the extent to which the future of the railway and the corridor is interwoven with the many other issues that must be addressed by BC and Canada in the reconciliation process.

The deadline for this new study to report back is December 31st, 2024. Notably, this will be after the next provincial election, so the substantive decision will be the responsibility of a future government.

Meanwhile, the transport crisis on Vancouver Island continues to deepen, with neither BC nor Canada responding to a request from the Wilson’s Group for gap funding to preserve daily year-round service to Port Alberni and Tofino leading the cancellation of the service in January.

Transport Action Canada and Transport Action BC will continue to engage with Transport Canada and the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure on these issues, in collaboration with the Vancouver Island Transportation Corridor Coalition.

[1] https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2023MOTI0030-000316

[2] https://vancouverisland.ctvnews.ca/lawyer-for-island-first-nation-calls-for-more-clarity-over-future-of-e-n-rail-line-1.6316352