'Fake news': Shuswap lobby group calls rail trail project a 'sham' | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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'Fake news': Shuswap lobby group calls rail trail project a 'sham'

Mara Lake
Image Credit: FACEBOOK: Shuswap Trails

A well-heeled group of Shuswap homeowners involved in a spat with the local government over access to their docks has raised its game and hired a lobbyist to put out a media release that reads like a conspiracy theory.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District has described the release as "fake news."

While raising money and lobbying local government is standard practice, publishing a media release containing such far-fetched ideas aren't normally seen at the local government level.

"Putting out these allegations and talking about confidential documents that don't exist is absolutely ludicrous," Shuswap Regional District Chief Administrative Officer Charles Hamilton told iNFOnews.ca. "We're certainly living in a post-truth era.”

The Nov. 23 press release from the B.C. Dock Owners Coalition says the Columbia Shuswap Regional District is not planning to create a rail trail from Sicamous to Armstrong but instead intends to build a “Commuter Train Mega-Project.”

"Communities from Sicamous to Armstrong misled by promise of walking trail that will instead see Mara Lake industrialized for transit purposes," reads the release that continues to say the "entire" rail trail project "appears to have been a sham."

The Coalition backs up its claims by saying it has obtained a copy of a "confidential agreement" confirming the Regional District's intent to build a commuter rail line on the banks of Mara Lake. That's not true.

Simon Fraser University linguistics professor Maite Taboada studies the language around fake news and says the press release has all the hallmarks of misinformation.

“Fake news articles contain a lot of questions and subjective language like ‘sham’ (and) ‘disastrous scheme,’” Taboada said. “What I see here is a press release with a lot of questions, and we know that rhetorical questions are often used in misinformation.”

While petitions and passionate speeches from grassroots organizations at local council meetings are commonplace, the individuals behind the B.C. Dock Owners Coalition used different tactics, quickly raising more than $120,000 and hiring a lawyer and an Alberta-based lobbyist – an impressive feat for an issue that only affects around the two dozen or so properties. More than 30 names now appear on the B.C. Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists having given donations of $1,000 or more.

Its conspiracy theory-laden press release is also unique at the local government level.

So where did the idea that the Columbia Shuswap Regional District was secretly planning on industrializing Mara Lake and building a hugely expensive light rail system come from?

It appears in the wording of a new crossing agreement which has been a contentious issue between the Regional District and the dock owners living adjacent to the proposed rail trail for months.

The document states that “The (Regional District) may in the future, utilize as part of a transportation corridor (such as for commuter rail) and that the (Regional District) ability to safely and efficiently operate same is paramount.” 

Taboada said most conspiracy theories have some bits of truth in them.

“(Including) facts that are perhaps surprising, and that nugget of truth goes over a lot of spin to enter into a full explanation of a particular world view,” she said.

Hamilton says the passage was put into the agreement for illustrative purposes if such a project came about in 50 or 80 years' time.

READ MORE: Shuswap residents raise $120K and lawyer-up in rail trail dock dispute

However, B.C. Dock Owners Coalition spokesperson Natalie Sorkilmo doesn't see it like that.

"If they're not planning on building it, why is the intent indicated in these legal crossing agreements?" Sorkilmo said.

It's hard to fathom that the Columbia District Regional District would secretly be planning to build a billion-dollar light rail system behind closed doors, especially when the City of Surrey campaigned for years for more transit and only finally got the OK this year to the tune of $3.95 billion. However, Sorkilmo stood by the press release and said she did believe the Columbia Shuswap Regional District was planning to build a commuter rail “mega-project.”

As evidence, she points to the cost increasing.

The Coalition's media release correctly says the cost estimate for the rail trail increased from $13 million to $23 million. However, it speculates that this increase is "likely driven by a level of engineering not necessary for a simple hiking area, but one which would make sense for an operational railway carrying railcars and people.”

The logic may sound somewhat convincing, if the extra costs hadn’t come from increased shoreline erosion work, along with building a bridge over Highway 97A near Enderby; issues well documented in 2020.

READ MORE: Sicamous to Armstrong rail-trail estimated to cost $10M more than predicted

Sorkilmo however, doesn't see the press release as "fake news."

"It isn't fake, it's founded within this legal document. Yes that is open to interpretation, but our interpretation is that the intent is there," she said.

Hamilton doesn’t see it like that and calls the Coalition's move a "thinly veiled" effort to advance their private interests.

While the B.C. Dock Owners Coalition hangs the existence of a multi-billion dollar transit project on a tiny reference to a “light rail corridor” if it looked further south it would find the Regional District of the North Okanagan also has the same reference in its rail trail plan from 2016.

The 2016 plan confirms the long-term commitment to protect the corridor as a public “multi-modal transportation corridor” and lists light rail transit options as one possible long-term use. No feasibility study into this use has ever taken place.

Somewhat ironically, the original issue the B.C. Dock Owners Coalition is fighting is lost in the noise and misinformation in its media release.

The Coalition is fighting against clauses in new crossing agreements for people living adjacent to the rail trail they don't want to sign. The homeowners had decades-long agreements with CP allowing them to cross the rail line and access their private docks. The new agreement states the Regional District can cancel the agreement without cause and only give 90 days notice.

While the move seems heavy-handed, it’s actually a watered-down version from the same agreement they had with CP Rail – which only gave 30 days notice without cause.

The Regional District has also said it has no intention of removing any of the docks.

Columbia Shuswap Regional District Board Chair Kevin Flynn said he wouldn't comment about the media release at this time, but added: "With regards to the headline (CSRD Signals Replacement of Rail Trail with Commuter Train Mega-Project) is it April Fools Day?”

To read the B.C. Dock Owners Coalition press release go here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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