David Gall of Moosehorn doesn’t know where his family will be living in two years, nor does he know how much he will be paid for his house, his barns or the rest of his home quarter, land already expropriated by the province.
Gall is among the Interlake farmers in the direct path of the Lake St. Martin outlet channel, a project that has been hailed as much-needed flood protection around the southern tip of Lake Manitoba, but that those losing land say has put the brakes on farm planning and gripped them with anxiety as expropriations go through with no firm word on compensation.
Gall’s own home quarter is the future site of a bridge, one of three that will cross the 23-kilometre channel between Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin.
“This is all of our infrastructure,” he said. “My dad’s been farming there since the early ’60s and has built everything up to the way it is now and it’s going to be taken.
“This is the most stressful thing a person can ever go through in their whole entire life, I can tell you that much,” he later added.
Why it matters: The new flood channels between Lake Manitoba, Lake St. Martin and Lake Winnipeg are important infrastructure to help avert future flood damage in the area, but producers in the path of the channel say they’ve been left looking for answers during expropriation.
For residents around Lake St. Martin, it’s a saga that has been ongoing for years. The province first pitched the two channels in 2013 — one running from Lake Manitoba to Lake St. Martin and another to replace an emergency outlet running from the north Lake St. Martin to Lake Winnipeg and accommodate larger flows. The proposal lingered in the background of provincial politics until 2015, when it got a new promise of federal and provincial funding. The issue eventually found its way into the 2016 election as part of the successful Progressive Conservative platform.
“Our government is committed to a respectful process in dealing with landowners, as we know that the people affected by the floods along the lake have already sacrificed so much,” Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said on the heels of a $540-million federal and provincial funding announcement for the project last year.
At the time, the province hoped ground might break on the channel by this fall.
For some local farmers, that promise to landowners is ringing hollow.
The province confirmed that expropriations went through April 11, prompting a 120-day window before landowners had to be provided with a compensation offer. Possession dates have yet to be determined, the province said.
Gall and his neighbours, however, are dismayed that they were not informed of what they could expect for their land before it was expropriated.
“I have never been offered a cent,” landowner Glen Metner said in the third week of June. “I still don’t have a value letter and I no longer own the land.”
Metner and his son have multiple parcels on the chopping block, as well as Crown land leases that have since been pulled.
The channel splits Metner’s home quarter off from his pasture to the east and will present a hurdle when moving cattle, he said. Any future land he buys will be to the west of the channel, due to the inconvenience, he added.
Gall also expects to lose a chunk of ranchland, on top of his home quarter. About 400 acres have been expropriated out of his 1,300 acres of deeded land.
The project’s delays have also been hard on long-term planning and succession.
“We need (the offer) to be fair,” landowner Barbara Weigelt said. “We are not young enough to start again.”
Expropriation claimed 433 acres of their land, plus 50 acres they typically rent, and rolled back years of planning, years in which she said her husband Arden purposefully bought land adjacent with his brother’s, but that the channel now cuts through. The loss of hay land will cripple their farm if they cannot replace it through compensation funds, according to the couple.
The province says offer letters were in the mail as of June 26.
Ross Jermey is more optimistic about the project.
The farmer watched his own hay land flood in previous years and is now fighting salinity and productivity loss on that land, but is still paying a mortgage on it.
He hopes the project will stop similar losses.
“I’ve always been in favour of this channel,” he said. “Yes, we’re going to give up some land. I understand that. I have no problems with that. We can buy land elsewhere.
“There are some people who are being extremely affected because it’s going right through the centre of their properties and I’m hoping that they’re being looked after,” he added.
The channel will skim his own land, although he is close friends with those hit hardest by the expropriations.
“(The province is) quibbling over the purchase of the land and I said this from the start; if they made fair offers for the land, if they treated the producers fairly that they’re getting this land from, I think it would eliminate a lot of the hard feelings that are kind of going on right now,” he said.
Bound for wildlife?
Other producers argue that the province is taking more than they need.
Metner says he intends to fight for about 80 acres south of Reed Lake that he says is slated for wildlife rather than the channel itself.
“I’m not fighting for the land under the ditch,” he said. “Even though I think it’s in the wrong place, I do consider the greater good. I’m not fighting for it. I’m fighting for the land that’s not under the ditch and not inside the ditch perimeter project; that they’re just going to take and hand over to wildlife.”
His lawyer is currently attempting to separate the parcel from the rest of Metner’s expropriated lands.
The land is used to transport cattle from pastures to the northeast to five quarters of leased land to the south and is also his drought protection, Metner argued, pointing to dry years like this one, when he often hays the dried marshy areas. The rancher also pointed to sentimental reasons, citing memories with his late father soon before his death in the early ’90s.
The channel, however, will take out the current access to the parcel.
Potential wildlife areas also spark concerns for Jermey. The area has issues with night hunting, he argued, and questioned the wisdom of having a swath of wild land running through the middle of private farmlands.
“We have been able to control who has access to our property, but now if they’re going to have a direct corridor right through the centre, we won’t be able to refuse access to anybody,” he said.
That corridor would also be a fire hazard, he argued, while pasture and hay pastures could be managed to encourage wildlife without designating it as wild.
The province denies that any of the land being expropriated is for wildlife. Land was expropriated for the actual channel or because the channel will cut off access to those parcels, a provincial spokesperson said. The province added, however, that some of those cut-off parcels might be considered for wildlife use according to the still incomplete federal environmental assessment.
Gall was not optimistic about the offer letter he was assured was in the mail as of the third week of June. Previous conversations with the province did delve into compensation, he said, although no dollar figure was mentioned. Gall’s family, meanwhile, wants to be relocated roughly two miles away from their current yard.
He later confirmed that he has received an initial offer, although he declined to speak to the amount offered, citing ongoing negotiations.
“We’ve been told that now the negotiations can begin, because up until now there’s been absolutely no negotiating.
They’ve listened to our concerns and they’ve listened to what we want… we’ve been told how it will proceed, but there’s been no talk of money,” he said.