BRUNKILD — There were 28 pickups, nine cars and a few vans parked outside the Brunkild Community Hall when I pulled up a few minutes late on recent mid-week afternoon.
It was an impressive turnout, about 60 of an estimated 300 farmers in southwestern Manitoba who are being forced to carry the can for Gary Doer’s folly — the decision to ban Manitoba Hydro’s Bipole III transmission line from Manitoba’s east side wilderness and move it instead to a longer, less-efficient, less-secure corridor through rich, west-side farmland at a waste of at least $1 billion.
They were not gathering to hear bad news, but it’s what they got.
They learned their hopes that Clean Environment Commission hearings to weigh the environmental impacts of the line had been blinkered by a government order. The order prohibited the CEC from comparing the east and west side options, a comparison that would have confirmed Doer’s folly because the environmental impacts are pretty much a wash east or west side, but the costs and consequences are not.
They found out Manitoba Hydro had hired an Alberta company that was sending agents to each of the individual landowners in hopes of picking them off one by one in isolation of one another with “compensation” packages.
They learned the compensation is still undefined but inadequate — one-time payments of perhaps $15,000 per transmission tower, each of which will be there well into the next century — about $150 a year if you don’t count inflation.
They learned there’s a chance that if they resist, Hydro could expropriate their lands, in which case they might get less than if they just go along quietly.
They learned west side municipal governments and First Nations are being given grants by Hydro to play nice even when they are unaffected by Bipole III.
They learned total compensation to west-side farmers, RMs and First Nations is set at about $35 million — about one-fifth of what is calculated would be fair.
(While the 60 were meeting, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation revealed Hydro refuses to account for $223 million it spent negotiating with northern First Nations to secure permission to build dams in First Nations “territories.”)
The farmers already know what a blight Bipole III will be on landscapes they’ve loved and passed from generation to generation for at least the previous century.
Last week, they learned the visual blight could become a real blight for crops dependent on aerial spraying by aircraft that can’t approach transmission lines that will droop a quarter mile between towers.
They were told their best chance for fair compensation (and a long shot reversal of Doer’s folly) would be to form a landowners association to fight as one for fair compensation.
It’s a good idea. Together they just might be able to block the steamroller coming their way, or at least force the operators to pay them to get out of the its path.
They also were told, however, no one has stepped forward to organize such an association or to raise the money to hire experts to push back.
And just like that, a good turnout was less significant — they were just 60 farmers in a community hall in a small hamlet.
They were not the millions of American environmentalists opposed to an east side Bipole III Gary Doer said he dare not fight, but which he now battles strenuously as Canada’s ambassador for the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States.
They were not the hundreds of thousands of urban Manitobans who re-elected the NDP a year ago and thus ensured rural Manitobans carry the can; folks content to eat pork sandwiches while decrying hog operations and GM grains; folks who profess to value the “pristine” east side but who have never seen it, and will never see it because, frankly, there ain’t much to see no matter what the eco-tourist touts claim; folks who don’t seem to see they are going to spend $1 billion to keep Bipole III out of the east side and that much again to build more-damaging roads through the region.
They are not even as numerous as east-side First Nations who could have benefitted from Bipole III had they ever been offered a benefit.
No, the 60 west-side farmers might look like an impressive gathering in a small hamlet west of Winnipeg.
But they are really just the tiny minority that will carry the can for Gary Doer’s folly and all the Manitobans who bought into it out of sight and now out of mind.
» Gerald Flood is a columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press.