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‘ICF has had a very narrow vision of what the corridor can be’

Snaw-Naw-As First Nation wants to consider non-rail options for the Island Corridor

The E&N Dayliner pictured in Goldstream Provincial Park in 1981 (BC Archives I-03771).

For more than a decade the Island Corridor Foundation, a non-profit organization that owns the corridor of land formerly used for a railroad between Courtenay and Victoria, has worked to get financial and political support to restore the tracks and buy new trains.

As time passed with no commitment from governments, questions about rail’s viability circled—including suggestions of what else could be done with the contiguous right of way that spans the lower third of Vancouver Island. What about light rail? Could the land be paved and used by buses? What about a pedestrian greenspace?

But the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) remained focused on trains, and the land sat dormant.

That single-solution focus has frustrated more than one of the local First Nations along the corridor, who along with regional districts own ICF and therefore the corridor. Some of those nations are increasingly calling for ICF to look beyond rail and consider alternatives that would benefit affected communities.

It came to a head at a January board meeting when five board members voted to expand ICF’s scope beyond rail. In light of recent consultation that showed “limited interest” in rail among Indigenous communities on the route, these five board members brought a motion to have ICF formally consider other non-rail options. The motion was defeated 6-5, and five First Nations representatives who voted in favour all resigned.

The board members who resigned are Aaron Hamilton of Ts’uubaa-asatx at Lake Cowichan, Brent Edwards and Chris Bob both of Snaw-Naw-As, Tim Harris of Stz’uminus, and William Yoachim of Snuneymuxw. Charlene Everson of Komoks is still on the board, but did not vote on the motion. Their respective nations are still part of the ICF, they just aren’t on the board anymore.

First Nations interest in rail restoration “limited,” per report

Their motion had been in response to months of consultation between the 14 First Nations and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) last fall. MoTI wanted to know if First Nations were amenable to having rail restarted. In a report summarizing key themes from the consultation meetings, it said there was “limited interest in restoring rail service.”

The report also highlighted concerns about how the land was taken, the way the corridor still affects First Nations, and unresolved legal matters that will affect any new development. There was, however, some “openness to considering non-rail transportation use due to the potential environmental benefits” like light rail, rapid buses, freight transportation, or active transportation paths, so long as First Nations considerations were prioritized over corridor uses.

Brent Edwards, a Snaw-Naw-As First Nation councillor and former ICF board member, said he thought the MoTI report made it clear that ICF needs to start looking at non-rail alternatives to the corridor.

“When you have this engagement report that outlines the owners—not stakeholders—have a limited interest in rail, it doesn’t preclude other possibilities, but it leaves a question to be answered: What else is possible with this corridor?” he said.

“At the end of the day, the federal government doesn’t own it, right? The province of British Columbia doesn’t own it either. This is a charity and organization that’s owned 50% by First Nations Indigenous communities and 50% by the Regional Districts. So I have a feeling they’re looking at the organization to come up with some solutions that are going to be palatable.”

Island Rail Corridor map

A lack of information on updated costs or non-rail costs

It’s hard to conclude if rail will be the best option for the corridor when other options haven’t been properly assessed. Cost estimates to restore rail service are based on pre-pandemic numbers, and there hasn’t been a full feasibility study yet. A study released in 2020 by MoTI estimated full line revitalization at $728 million, with an initial phase costing $227 million and providing slow service from Victoria to Courtenay with two to four freight trains and two to four passenger trains per day. ICF also commissioned a business case report, which calculated a budget of $431 million.

“It’s easy to say it’s going to be the tincture for all the transportation problems,” Edwards said, but he argues the cost estimates are too old to be valid.

Snaw-Naw-As reserve land in Nanoose Bay is bisected by the 10 acres it lost to the corridor. It was that nation’s lawsuit that instigated today’s deadline. In 2020 it asked for the land to be returned since it wasn’t being used for the purpose it was taken for. The court gave ICF 18 months to get a commitment—and if it couldn’t, then Snaw-Naw-As is welcome to reintroduce its suit.

ICF is expecting news today from the federal government as to whether it will commit funding to restore the railway.