Rolke: Onus on municipalities to step up when it comes to First Nations claim to corridor

With the referendum on CN corridor acquisition over, there is still the pressing issue of the OKIB claims to the Commonage reserve

The referendum may be over but the heavy lifting begins.

A major stumbling block to the rail corridor from Coldstream to Kelowna transforming into a recreational trail is the ongoing land claim by the Okanagan Indian Band.

“It’s difficult to deny the fact that the Commonage reserve, where the Commonage rail corridor is, was created in 1877 by the Joint Indian Reserve Commission,” said Chief Byron Louis in a recent release.

However, bureaucrats between 1886 and 1893 erased the reserve boundaries on a map and the band’s access to the land disappeared.

With calls for action ignored for more than a century, frustration has been building among band members and they believe sending a wake-up call to Ottawa is the only alternative. With local communities clambering to buy the rail corridor, legal action brings the band’s case immediate attention.

The band has been clear that local communities should exercise buyer beware when trying to purchase the corridor.

“When Kelowna Pacific Railway went bankrupt and Canadian National Railway decided to abandon the entire rail corridor, the Commonage rail corridor should have reverted to reserve land,” states the band.

“If the lands were to revert to reserve, as they should have, the Commonage rail corridor does not belong to CNR, therefore CNR cannot sell it.”

Local officials have stated that the land claim is a matter strictly between the band and the federal government, but the Regional District of North Okanagan, Lake Country and Kelowna are all identified in the band’s notice of claim filed in the B.C. Supreme Court.

The jurisdictions are involved whether they want to be or not, and it was disappointing that a press release Tuesday from the acquisition team made no mention of the situation with the band.

However, there is some sign of movement.

“This is a good opportunity for them (band) to get it before the federal government, perhaps with the support of local government,” said James Baker, Lake Country mayor, during an interview Monday.

“I’d like to see us support it (claim). The courts have said aboriginal title underlines all of B.C.”

And direct lobbying of the federal and provincial governments to resolve the land claim is what’s needed if a rail trail is to materialize. Mayors and councils and regional district chairpersons and directors must not only fire off letters to their senior counterparts, but demand face-to-face meetings with local MPs and MLAs. They need to make it abundantly clear that the OKIB’s claim can no longer be cast aside and First Nations must be treated fairly and respectfully.

And given that 3,336 Lake Country residents voted yes to borrow funds to buy the corridor, there is an army of rank-and-file citizens who can also be mobilized to contact their elected officials in Ottawa and Victoria.

Of course, the OKIB must also demonstrate a willingness to work with local communities to resolve this issue as a rail trail can benefit all economically (the band’s Duck Lake reserve includes the corridor and could eventually be the site of tourism services like hotels and restaurants).

But the overwhelming onus is on municipal councils who sold the dream of a rail trail to their residents and urged them to invest dollars. There is another hurdle to jump and now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.