The City of Thunder Bay wants a judge to determine if CN Rail bears responsibility to maintain a damaged bridge that provides a vital link for the neighbouring Fort William First Nation (FWFN).
After months of acrimonious negotiations between the city and North America’s largest rail carrier on how to reopen the James Street Swing Bridge to vehicle traffic, the two parties are taking the matter to the Superior Court of Justice.
The city filed its documents on Feb. 23 in response to CN commencing legal proceedings on Feb. 20.
The bridge was damaged by fire in October 2013 and has been closed to vehicles ever since. However the century-old span, which crosses the Kaministiquia River, remains open to CN rail traffic.
The swing bridge provides the most direct link between the city and the reserve.
At issue is a 1906 bridge construction agreement between the then-Town of Fort William and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company (now CN) that included a stipulation that the railway would “maintain the bridge in perpetuity.”
The city accuses CN of trying to break that agreement and wants a judge to decide if it still remains valid.
“The city is very sensitive to the fact that the operation of the James Street Bridge is significant to FWFN and that FWFN has a substantial stake in the outcome of the City’s litigation,” said city manager Tim Commisso. “The courts will now determine each party’s rights and interpret the agreement.”
In early February, city council rejected CN’s final offer to reopen the bridge but only to alternating one-way traffic, a measure the city regards as being an unacceptable long-term solution.
Both CN and the federal government offered $3 million for repairs, but the city claims they can’t assess the bridge’s post-fire condition since CN has not shared any engineering studies.
The city also said CN’s offer was conditional on being granted a release from the 1906 agreement and the First Nation consenting to give up its current and future rights in any land claims process.
Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs said that’s negotiating in “bad faith” and accused CN of trying to “buy its way out” of the agreement. The city called it further “unconscionable” that CN would use the city's interest in having the bridge re-opened as leverage to require the First Nation to relinquish its inherent rights.