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BC VOICES: PART 2 – The Great Land Grab: The Expansion of Settler Colonialism

BC VOICES: PART 2 – The Great Land Grab: The Expansion of Settler Colonialism

June 28, 2016


By Kelly Black

Rapid growth on southern Vancouver Island and an obstinate commitment to fossil fuels demand serious consideration of passenger and freight services by rail. Driving north from Victoria, it is immediately evident that the Western Communities (Colwood, View Royal, Langford, Metchosin and the Highlands) have begun to reach their limits. The stark reality of this growth is apparent: both sides of the highway, once knolls of solid rock, have been blasted into rubble to make way for single-family homes. The overburden and exploded rock now form walls and berms in an effort to hide the highway and its thousands of commuters.

The climbing price of real estate in Vancouver – and by extension southern Vancouver Island –  has made Greater Victoria increasingly unaffordable. Victoria has long had a problem with housing affordability, but it is not difficult to see the current state of inequality walking past tent city on Blanshard Street. Just a few blocks away, houses go on the market and are sold within days – some are quickly demolished, the lots transformed to accommodate bigger, more modern residences.

As more and more people are pushed out of the Greater Victoria housing market, the region’s environs – Langford and the Cowichan Valley in particular –  are in turn affected. Looking to the future, a commuter rail service seems inevitable if we are to support transit-oriented growth and slow climate change.

Despite exasperation with the Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) and the future of rail service, the Mayor of North Cowichan and Chairperson of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, Jon Lefebre, recently stated that local governments in the Cowichan Valley remained supportive of the ICF and its project.

A 2011 estimate from the province puts the cost of commuter rail service between the City of Victoria and the Western Communities at between $70M and $90M. This estimate does not include the price of improvements made to the rest of the rail corridor. Although the costs seem substantial, consider that the province recently approved construction of an $85M interchange at Mackenzie Avenue to relieve traffic congestion resulting from the unabated growth of the region.

The ICF and local governments have long touted the economic benefits of passenger service on the E&N. Should the service eventually be updated to allow for commuter travel, the economic and environmental benefits seem evident – more communities gaining easier access to employment opportunities and fewer cars on the road.
If a commuter service was to ever take shape, it is likely that municipalities and regional districts along the rail corridor would see significant growth. Ideally, such growth would be limited to city and town centres. However, the effect of the great land grab means that rail service could once again be a catalyst for further expansion into unceded First Nations territories.

Returning the Land

For the Hulq’umin’um Treaty Group, a majority of their territory ‰ÛÒ about 83% for the HTG – is considered off limits for treaty negotiations. In present-day BC treaty negotiations, the provincial and federal government have excluded any discussions over private land. This injustice prompted the HTG to bring forward a submission to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2007. The group cited violations of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, specifically Article XXIII, the right to property, Article XIII, the right to culture, and Article II, equality before the law. These legal cases follow a long trajectory of First Nations on Vancouver Island exerting their rights and title. A 1906 delegation of Salish chiefs travelled to London to meet with King Edward VII to press for the return of their territories and petitions to the King in 1909 and 1910 followed. Court cases and international shaming have so far yielded no restitution of lands.
The ever-growing force of real estate as commodity is a transformative one. As residents seek affordability, property values will continue to rise in those communities located outside the urban core. As heirs to the E&N land grant, forestry corporations have spent the past several years enhancing their real estate divisions. They acted early, in an effort to outpace the legal proceedings snaking through Canadian and international legal systems.
As a non-profit charity directed by elected officials, the ICF could be a key pivot in determining a future where the restitution of lands to First Nations peoples is possible. As it did in during the 1890s, passenger service on the E&N will transform communities. The next “flood” is already here ‰ÛÒ precipitated by historic and present-day demands for land.

There are questions about the future of rail service on Vancouver Island that can no longer be ignored. I would like to propose a few questions that should be taken up:

1. Can the ICF, and the communities that direct it, use the E&N corridor as a device that contributes to the restitution of First Nations lands?

2. How is growth managed in regions that are currently rural or suburban? What strategies need to be developed to address the benefits and the consequences of rail corridor/transit-oriented growth?

Openly discussing these questions could begin a shift in the way that the E&N is talked about on Vancouver Island.

The rail corridor is much more than a future bike path, it is central to the past and present of Settler-First Nations relations on southern Vancouver Island.

Kelly Black
Instructor, Vancouver Island University
Department of History
PhD Candidate, School of Canadian Studies / Institute of Political Economy, Carleton University

Photo: Nanaimo Station