The Great Land Grab: Settler Colonialism, Real Estate, and Commuter Rail on Vancouver Island

By Kelly Black

[This post first appeared on the BC Studies blog in two parts – here and here. It is reproduced here in its entirety]

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” a2008-10-11-23-18-59-2940615514-51b3cdb6373cd-1nd 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 – 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 – 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 – then owners of the rail line – brought forward an application to the Canadian Transport Commission to eliminate passenger trains on the line – a service far less lucrative than freight services. A 1969 Vancouver Suneditorial 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 – 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, includingTimberWest 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.[1]

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.

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.

Real Estate and Rail

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 – 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 – 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.


[1] 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