Manitoba farmers are turning to a national grassroots group in their fight with Manitoba Hydro's BiPole III transmission line. Dozens of landowners have signed up with a group called Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations, or CAEPLA. It represents landowners in negotiations with power companies.

Jürgen Kohler, who lives in Winnipeg and has a farm in Brunkild, has signed up. His job with Agriculture Canada was downsized last month. Now, the 50-year-old's goal now is to farm full-time.

But Kohler says the transmission line will cut through that dream, their towers punctuating his grain fields, making it harder to plant, maintain and harvest. Kohler has twice turned down Manitoba Hydro's offers of take-it-or-leave-it compensation.

"I'm going to be saddled with costs, that, quite frankly, I don't really have a good handle on right now," he said. He is resigned the transmission line is coming, and that's why he paid CAEPLA $150 to negotiate a fair deal from Manitoba Hydro.

"(BiPole III) is this freight train that's coming down and you're going, I can't stop it. I better find a way to slow it down and try and get the best deal possible," he said.

CAEPLA describes itself as a landowner rights group that has negotiated and settled six power corridors in Alberta in the last three years. Kohler said joining was really the only option open.

"Manitoba Hydro is a monopoly, right?" he said. "They're very big. I'm a single farmer. I want somebody with me that is effective at voicing my concerns and taking them to Hydro."

Kohler said the transmission line will also crush his plan to build a home on his farm and live there permanently. The line would go right through the yard where the house would be built.

"This thing comes along so it makes you really feel, wow, like this is really disrupting my plans. It's throwing them all out. So it makes me feel very, well not respected really."

Landowners' rights group finds fertile ground in Manitoba

Dave Core, CAEPLA's CEO and director of federally regulated projects, said at first he hesitated when people in Manitoba asked him to look at their fight with Manitoba Hydro, because his expertise is with pipelines.

Dave Core CAEPLA

Dave Core, CAEPLA's CEO, said Manitoba farmers have a big fight on their hands to get fair compensation from Manitoba Hydro, and the Manitoba government, in exchange for having transmission towers erected on their land. (CBC)

But he came in August and after only two meetings, 69 people have signed up. Core said it's unusual to have so many so quickly.

"Like, this is unbelievable," he said. "These people are adamant and they want to protect their land. It's amazing how many people have joined already."

Core said he got into advocating for landowners after he lost his Ontario farm to a pipeline company.

"In 1993, I gave this guy a cup of coffee. He got me to sign a document that gave the pipeline company power of attorney over my whole farm. That's what's happening right across Canada on all these projects. They're just taking advantage of us," he said.

Core doesn't want to wade into the debate about BiPole III and its contentious route. He describes it as a "strange and political" project and that Manitoba farmers need all the help they can get.

"They've got a big fight ahead of them because they've got the government and Manitoba Hydro against them and they have no regulatory process," he said. "In a lot of provinces, there's a regulatory process to take people's land. From what I understand... your regulatory processes are very archaic and the minister can basically do what he wants. And it's disgusting."

Core said it's a battle he's seen many times before in Alberta and Ontario, and most recently in New Brunswick on TransCanada's proposed Energy East Pipeline.

"Most of these pipeline companies and utility companies are very used to having their own way and stealing our land for projects like this without respecting our rights," he said. Core insists, it's not about delaying the project. 

"We are pro-development. We're pro-pipeline. We're pro-power. We're pro-everything," he said. "But we are also pro-property rights and stewardship responsibilities of farmers, ranchers, and wood lot owners. We're business people. We just want to get contracts that provide us with safe projects and respect our rights."

Manitoba Hydro's response 

At first, Manitoba Hydro refused to deal with the group. In a letter dated Oct. 11, Hydro's lawyer told CAEPLA the crown corporation would not negotiate with it. Core said he wasn't surprised. He said power companies often react that way initially.

"It takes time before they finally realize that the landowners are adamant that they want to negotiate this in this way." he said. "It's a bit of a cat and mouse game."

Last week, CAEPLA got another letter from Hydro, indicating it would meet with the group. A date has yet to be set for that meeting and it's not known yet exactly what the utility will be prepared to discuss. Calls to Hydro were not returned Tuesday.

Dave Core will also be back in Manitoba Nov. 12 and 13 to meet with more farmers concerned about the transmission line's impact on their land at meetings in Niverville, St. Claude and St. Malo.

In the meantime, Jurgen Kohler said he already feels better knowing the group is on his side. And he doesn't mind the cost. In addition to the $150 membership fee, Kohler would have to pay six percent of any settlement CAEPLA negotiates for him.

"I know some people are going to be really stuck with that and say, that's a lot. But you know what? This is not going to be an easy thing, negotiating this agreement," he said. "I'm quite comfortable with the six per cent."

And he's vowing to spread the word.

"All I can do right now is rally my neighbours," he said. "So that Hydro will take us seriously. So hopefully the Manitoba government will also take us seriously. And hopefully the average Manitoba citizen will then also become aware of the issues that we have and that it's not unreasonable for us to do this."