Skip to main content

British Columbia regained jurisdiction yesterday over a controversial underwater torpedo-testing range off Vancouver Island in a court decision that could rekindle old animosities between Ottawa and the West Coast.

The federal government expropriated the Nanoose Bay torpedo test range in September of 2000, the first federal expropriation of provincial property since lands were taken for the railways in the early years of the 20th century.

The federal process of expropriation was flawed "and cannot stand," Mr. Justice Douglas Campbell of the Federal Court of Canada said in a 45-page ruling.

A report of public hearings on the expropriation did not provide a full account of the grounds of objection, he said. In a report to the federal minister, the hearing officer gave contentious subjective analysis that was not required and failed to report information that was required, Judge Campbell also said.

A federal government spokesman said Ottawa has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ruling.

"We're reviewing the decision and will decide on what action to take in the coming days," Dan del Villano, a public works official, said.

Ottawa expropriated the land in the heat of a bitter fight with the New Democratic Party government of former premier Glen Clark over salmon fishing, support for fishing communities and the presence of nuclear-powered submarines in Canadian coastal waters.

The province owned the seabed off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, but the federal government had leased the 225-square kilometre site for more than three decades, mostly for use by the U.S. Navy.

The expropriation took place after B.C. tried to use the lease renewal as leverage in negotiations over fishing. The province also sought federal guarantees that no nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered submarines would enter B.C. waters.

The action drew opposition from more than 2,000 people from across the country and across the political spectrum.

Andrew Gage, of West Coast Environmental Law, said environmentalists who brought the case to court hope the provincial government will use the ruling to assert its commitment to have British Columbia be a nuclear-free zone.

Mr. Gage also said he was pleased that land that belonged to B.C. had been returned to the province.

"This wouldn't have happened in Quebec or Ontario," he said.

The province was seeking to exercise jurisdiction over its own property, he added. "If that happened in Quebec, could you imagine the uproar? It would be seen quite rightly as the federal government overstepping its role."

Premier Gordon Campbell said the province would try to recover money it lost because of the expropriation. He would not say how much B.C. would try to regain of the $125-million in lease revenue it was denied after Ottawa took control of the land.

Interact with The Globe