BC VOICES: PART 1 – The Great Land Grab: Real Estate and Commuter Rail on Vancouver Island
June 20, 2016
By Kelly Black
After years of questionable service and maintenance, it’s time to get serious about retaining the E&N rail corridor for future rail service. It is well past due, however, that we take seriously the colonial legacy of the E&N Railway.
When it was first completed in 1886, the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway transformed transportation and access to markets on Vancouver Island. Resource extraction, at first coal then later timber, and capital accumulation were the impetus for the railway’s construction and the growth of Settler communities. Historian Elizabeth B. Norcross explains the train’s impact on the agrarian Cowichan Valley:
New people started to come in, people with capital to buy land and the equipment and stock to work it. When the trains actually started regular service this third wave of settlement could almost be characterized as a flood.
(Memories Never Lost, 1986, p. 141)
The torrent of settlers via the E&N continued until they found another route via the Malahat Highway, constructed less than three decades later. The demise of passenger and freight service on the line mirrors the ascent of the automobile, but it was not until 2011 that passenger service ended. By then, the corridor had finally succumbed to decades of “deferred maintenance” and ever-shrinking budgets.
I recall taking the train from Nanaimo to Cobble Hill in 2008 when the train suddenly slowed to no more than a few kilometers per hour as it crossed the Chemainus River bridge. Maintenance on the bridge was so “deferred” that a 2012 report recommends it be replaced if used for freight purposes ‰ÛÒ owing to the extensive deterioration and overall coast and complexity of repairing it.
When the passenger service ended, few people lamented the loss of a decrepit transportation route that seemed to travel the wrong way at the wrong time of day (Victoria to Nanaimo/Courtenay in the morning and Nanaimo/Courtenay to Victoria in the evening).
In 2006 the non-profit Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) became the owners of the E&N tracks, stations, and right-of-ways when Canadian Pacific and Rail America donated their portions of the track to the charity. The foundation, consisting of representatives from local governments and First Nations located along the corridor, has made some repairs since taking over the line ‰ÛÒ new rail ties, tracks, some updated crossings. The ICF currently has a $21M plan to revive passenger and freight service on the line. This project is contingent on funding from regional districts ($7M) and the federal and provincial governments ($7.5M respectively). This planned return to passenger service includes twice daily runs from Nanaimo to Victoria and service north of Nanaimo on Wednesdays and weekends.
Whatever the practicality of this proposed schedule, it’s not likely to quell complaints about passenger service on the E&N.
The Great Land Grab
In 1968 the Canadian Pacific Railway ‰ÛÒ then owners of the rail line ‰ÛÒ brought forward an application to the Canadian Transport Commission to eliminate passenger trains on the line ‰ÛÒ a service far less lucrative than freight services. A 1969 Vancouver Sun editorial by James K. Nesbitt summed up a common sentiment at the time: “I hate to see the E and N go, but it’s likely inevitable, and there’s no use crying about it.” (July 28, 1969, p. 20). Although the passenger service did not end in 1969, it was greatly reduced and was accompanied by declining maintenance of the rail infrastructure.
Recent headlines from the Cowichan Valley Citizen letters section reveal more frustration:
“E&N railway nothing but a money sinkhole” (March 18, 2016); “Many questions surround rail line” (March 18, 2016); “After years, railway line a dead asset” (March 24th, 2016); “All aboard the E&N rail plan? I don’t think so” (April 7th); “Fixing train tracks would take too much money” ” (April 13, 2016).
In early April 2016, the Regional District of Nanaimo voted to stop collecting monies toward its contribution to the project, citing ongoing delays and the continued deterioration of the rail corridor. There has also been a recent proposal to tear up the line to create a bike path ‰ÛÒ something the City of Vancouver decided to do when it paid CP Rail $55M for the Arbutus rail corridor.
However, rumblings about deteriorated bridges and poor scheduling are frivolous compared to the affect the E&N has had on First Nations communities.
Land grants and railways are synonymous in Canadian history and the E&N is no different. In 1884, the provincial government granted nearly 2 million acres to the federal government for the completion of a railway on Vancouver Island. In 1887, upon completion of the line, the federal government granted the land to coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and his investors, as well as $750k and all mineral and timber rights. The land grant had the effect of privatizing crown lands – and First Nations territories – within its boundaries.
Most of that private land is now in the hands of forestry corporations, including TimberWest and Island Timberlands. Over the last decade, these companies have developed real estate offices and have sold choice parcels to supplement their bottom line. As this protracted and piecemeal sell-off takes place, First Nations within the land grant have continued to assert their rights to land that was taken without consent.
Discussions about the future of rail services on Vancouver Island have long been centred on whether or not rail transportation is practical or financially viable. Within the context of soaring real estate prices, climate change, and calls for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, it seems likely that the E&N Railway could once again play a pivotal role in shaping Vancouver Island’s future.
Earlier this year, the Snaw-Naw-As (Nanoose) First Nation initiated a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court against the ICF and the Attorney General of Canada. The Snaw-Naw-As are asking for the return of a parcel of land taken from them to build the railway. The Hul’qumin’um Treaty Group (HTG) calls the E&N grant, the great land grab.
The legacy of the land grab looms large. Although the ICF has partnerships with and directors from local First Nations, the ICF does not own or control these privatized lands – it is responsible only for the rail corridor. However, a push to return passenger service, and perhaps one day a commuter service, cannot be divorced from the realities of the land grab or the failure of successive BC governments to address its impact.
**Check back for Part 2: The Expansion of Settler Colonialism next week**
 The HTG consists of six First Nations: Chemainus First Nation, Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation, Lake Cowichan First Nation, Lyackson First Nation, and Penelakut Tribe
Photo 2: E&N Cowichan River Tresle
Photo 3: Nanaimo plaque