Okanagan Indian Band Seeks Return Of Defunct Rail Line Following Tsilhot’in Victory

On the heels of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Tsilhot’in First Nation’s Aboriginal title case, an Okanagan First Nation is lobbying the federal government to purchase part of a defunct rail line between Kelowna and Vernon and return it to the First Nation. CN Rail is selling the land south of Vernon once used by the now defunct Kelowna Pacific Railway. The Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) has sent a letter to federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt requesting Canada to purchase the land to be repatriated to the band. “A significant portion of the rail line falls within the OKIB’s Commonage Reserve set up by the Joint Reserve Commission of 1877,” said Chief Byron Louis. “The Commonage Reserve was never lawfully surrendered or otherwise taken.”

The Kelowna Pacific Railway went into receivership on July 4 and suspended operations. The short-haul line provided a connection to CP’s rail yards in Kamloops for several Okanagan industries and employed about 40 people. It had not been profitable for some time due to reduced volumes in shipping for the forest industry. The rail line runs through a large portion of a larger 10,000 hectare claim area which the First Nation says it rightfully theirs.

The Okanagan Commonage Reserve is comprised of some of the Okanagan’s prime ranchland and lake front property and was set apart for the Okanagan Band in 1877 by a Joint Reserve Commission of federal and provincial reps. Local non-Native settlers urged governments to to take the prime real estate from the band, and following some secret meetings between Premier William Smythe and Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald, the land was taken from the First Nation and sold to settlers. They were never told at the time and were never compensated for its loss.

Chief Louis says that his people have been waiting for over 100 years to have their concerns addressed by the federal government. “In 1910, our chiefs presented Sir Wilfred Laurier with a document outlining our grievances and a desire to enter into negotiations,” he said. “They were ignored.” Canada had entered into specific claim negotiations with the OKIB in 2000 but withdrew in 2005. “Our entitlement to the commonage land remains, and the federal government cannot simply ignore our unresolved claim to our ancestral lands,” added Louis. “We have a strong case.”