First Nations’ engagement focus for future of Island Rail Corridor

First Nations' engagement focus for future of Island Rail Corridor

First Nations’ engagement is a major focus right now as the Island Corridor Foundation considers the future of the rail corridor, a director reported to the Regional District of Nanaimo parks and trails select committee.

Nanaimo director Ben Geselbracht provided an update at the May 3 regional parks and trails select committee following a presentation by a delegation advocating for the ICF’s mandate to allow active transportation options along the rail bed. The delegation argued the economic outlook was not on the side of the foundation to continue pursuing an intact rail system.

The Island Corridor Foundation owns and manages the rail corridor on Vancouver Island, which cuts north-south from Victoria to Courtenay and east-west from Nanaimo to Port Alberni and from Duncan to Lake Cowichan. It crosses the territories of 14 First Nations. Along with those Nations, the RDN, Comox Valley, Alberni Clayoquot, Cowichan Valley and Capital regional districts own the foundation.

A business case developed by the foundation, and based on the province’s cost assessment of the corridor, is currently under review by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

“The biggest challenge right now is First Nations engagement and establishment of a shared vision, so the ICF is really stepping back and taking the numbers that they have and engaging with First Nations’ communities on what their vision and needs are in terms of the rail corridor,” said Geselbracht, who sat as an ICF board director from 2019 to 2021.

“Right now there’s a real big push, that, OK what is the actual value of the corridor for everybody, and realistically, and what do the First Nations want and is this something to pursue as an integral corridor or should there be rail and trail.

“I think it’s time for regional districts to say what they’re interested in.”

Last September, the BC Court of Appeal ruled that a 10-acre right of way along the rail line in Snaw-naw-as reserve land must be returned to the First Nation within 18 months if in that time federal funding is not secured for use as a public railway.

Nanaimo director Ian Thorpe, who sits on the RDN Port Authority Liaison Committee reported the Nanaimo Port Authority sees opportunities for the rail line.

“As far as the port is concerned, the viability of freight rail coming between Nanaimo and Port Alberni is of great value,” Thorpe said.

In the late 19th century, the provincial and federal governments signed away 800,000 hectares of land, including First Nation reserve lands, to the E&N Railway Company. There has been no passenger service on the line since 2011.

“The rail corridor has a history and not a good one with First Nations and it’s really important that those discussions with them and understanding shared vision are taken first into account before any forward movement,” Geselbracht said.

Rachelle Stein-Wotten, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Gabriola Sounder/The Canadian Press

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