The federal and provincial governments have announced they will return the 10.78-acre section of the E&N rail line that goes through the Snaw-naw-as First Nation, and will continue consultation on the future of the rest of the corridor.
In a joint statement by Omar Alghabra, the federal minister of transport, and Rob Fleming, B.C.’s minister of transportation and infrastructure, the pair said they are returning the section that goes through Snaw-naw-as First Nation as the first step in the process.
“In support of our shared ongoing commitments to reconciliation, our governments have decided that reversion of the land bisecting the Snaw-naw-as First Nation reserve is the first step in the process of developing a shared vision for the future of the corridor with First Nations,” the statement says.
Chief Gordon Edwards with Snaw-naw-as says the announcement the land will be returned to the First Nation is welcome news after it has been working to get it back through the courts since 2015.
“This is a historic day for the Snaw-naw-as Mustimuxw. Rail has served an important purpose for British Columbia; it was a condition precedent to bringing Vancouver Island into the Dominion of Canada, but this came at the expense of hindering the Snaw-naw-as and other First Nation Communities,” Edwards said in a statement to CHEK News.
“We sincerely hope that the Corridor once again benefits all people of Vancouver Island. There are many questions about what lies ahead for the rest of the corridor, but for today, we celebrate the successful return of our land.”
Edwards says there is work that needs to be done in order to ensure the railway no longer impedes safety, development and access for the community, and there are plans to get started on that work immediately.
In a separate statement, Fleming says he understands that breaking up the E&N is not ideal, but that the province supports reversion of the lands.
“We recognize how important this corridor is and we would like to see it preserved as much as possible. If the corridor is broken up and built over, it will be lost forever, and future generations will likely be unable to assemble a continuous transportation corridor of land like this again,” Fleming said.
The two levels of government have been consulting with stakeholders since Madam Justice Barbara Fisher set a deadline of 18 months for a decision on this section be made on Sept. 14, 2021, making March 14, 2023 the deadline.
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“There were many voices in favour of the restoration of rail infrastructure. Projected population growth, potential risks to critical infrastructure, including from extreme weather events brought by climate change, and wider economic and environmental policy objectives make this corridor of strategic transportation importance to the province,” the joint statement says.
“At the same time, those First Nations living along the line raised concerns about the impact restored rail service would have on their communities and have reiterated the importance of being involved in decision-making around the future of the corridor.”
Though this news doesn’t mean the E&N corridor will not be returning at all.
“Canada and the Province of British Colombia [sic] acknowledge the importance of this corridor,” the joint statement says. “As a result, we will begin a formal engagement process with affected First Nations on the next steps of the corridor for the mutual benefit of the province and First Nations. A partnership-driven approach represents the best way for moving forward together and achieving a collective vision for the corridor that benefits everyone.”
Fleming’s statement says Vancouver Island is expected to exceed a population of one million by the early 2030s and the province needs to consider transportation options for people and goods.
“To that end, we are committing $18 million to allow for future corridor planning involving affected First Nations and regional districts. The funding will also allow First Nations to assess identified concerns such as flooding, access, noise, or safety issues where the corridor crosses their land,” Fleming said.
“There is much more discussion to be had around the future of the corridor and that must be done in collaboration with the federal government, First Nations, and local government. The provincial government is committed to finding the best use for the Island rail corridor as well as supporting First Nations’ rights, jurisdiction and interests in these discussions.”
The Island Corridor Foundation, which owns the E&N railway, says it is going to take time to review the decision by the federal and provincial governments before making a formal statement.
“The Island Corridor Foundation will take the necessary time to review the decisions of the Provincial and Federal governments prior to making any statements,” it said in a statement. “We remain committed, as we always have been, to the principles and spirit of reconciliation and will work with the government and First Nations on a shared vision for the corridor.”
Read Chief Gordon Edward’s full statement below.