Manitoba officials remove equipment from COVID-19 and residential school protests

WINNIPEG – The Manitoba government cracked down Wednesday on two long-standing protests near the legislature and appeared to be only partially successful in clearing out the groups.

Conservation officer trucks moved in and hauled away hockey nets, tables and other equipment from Memorial Park, a green space across the street from the legislature where people have been protesting COVID-19 restrictions. Temporary shelters including two teepees were taken down.

One of the protest organizers said they had been warned of the action via letter Monday.

“Manitoba Conservation served (a letter) to us, just basically informing us that everything had to be removed,” Caleb Brown said Wednesday.

“They came this morning at 7 and started to remove everything.”

The protest started out much larger in early February when trucks and farm vehicles blocked a street and blared their horns, and hundreds of supporters stood along sidewalks.

The protesters called for an end to all pandemic health restrictions including indoor mask mandates and a requirement to be vaccinated to attend most public venues.

The province later announced it would lift those restrictions, but the protesters stayed on to fight other rules such as the federal government’s requirement to be vaccinated in order to travel by air or rail.

Three weeks after the protest started, many of the protesters left after receiving an ultimatum from Winnipeg police to stop blocking traffic, while a small number — about 20, although it varied from day to day — moved into the park and set up temporary shelters.

The province said it moved in Wednesday after talks with the demonstrators dragged on.

“As a democratic society, we respect lawful protests and have seen thousands take up their cause on the (legislature) grounds, however, building structures and damaging public space is not acceptable and will be addressed by the appropriate authorities,” read a prepared statement from the office of Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen.

Brown said the group intends to continue the protest but will try to find another space, perhaps on the legislature grounds.

“I don’t think anyone intends on leaving, per se,” he said.

“I mean, it’s a Manitoba winter, it’s still cold out, so there is the issue of shelter. So I mean, those are questions that have to be answered.”

The government also moved in, with less success, on a separate encampment on the east lawn of the legislature. The series of tents was set up last summer after the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools.

Video posted on social media Wednesday morning showed a front-end loader and other government equipment taking away some of the tents and equipment. But several tents remained in place Wednesday afternoon.

“We will not be erased, and we will not stop standing for the children that never made it home,” read a message on the group’s Facebook page.

Government Services Minister Reg Helwer, who is responsible for the legislature grounds, would not say whether the government will try to force an end to the encampment.

“We’re in discussions with the people that came back today when they realized that pieces were being removed,” Helwer said.

The Opposition New Democrats accused the government of listening more to the COVID restriction protesters than to the people demonstrating over unmarked graves.

“What progress has the government made when it comes to searching former residential school sites for unmarked graves?” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

“We know some work is taking place. Most of that is being Indigenous-led.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.

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