By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The province showed a lack of empathy and a lack of long-term planning when they dismantled an encampment on the east side of the Manitoba Legislature over the weekend, according to one longtime advocate for the homeless and impoverished.
“Where are they supposed to go? There is no exit strategy, and I think it shows a real lack of empathy on their part,”
Winnipeg-based advocate for the homeless Al Wiebe said on Monday, after an Indigenous-led protest camp on the east lawn of the Manitoba Legislative Building grounds that had been running for more than a year was dismantled on Saturday, and those living at the camp were removed from the grounds.
“It just sets a bad, bad precedent when the provincial government is removing camps from public property.”
The camp was first set up and a sacred fire was lit in May of
2021 after the news broke that what is believed to be 215 unmarked graves of children were discovered near a former residential school in Kamloops, and protesters had remained at the sight since then, with many living and sleeping in tents.
Wiebe said he is certain that some of the protestors who were removed from the grounds over the weekend were homeless, and will now just be looking for another place to go.
“The whole strategy seems to be, `throw them out and make them go somewhere else,’ and that is not an answer,” he said.
“It just gives the appearance they don’t care about these people and just want them out of sight and out of mind, and that is never a good strategy because they are just going to be resettling somewhere else.”
In a statement posted over the weekend after the camp was dismantled, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen claimed it was taken down because of safety issues and concerns, and the work to take down the encampment was undertaken by provincial law enforcement officers and not city police.
“Our government strongly supports the right to legal protests,” Goertzen said in his statement.
“The Manitoba Legislature should always be a place to express democratic opinions. However, these must be done in a way that protects the safety of all those who come to the Legislature, including school children, tours, staff, elected officials, dignitaries, and protestors.
“Unauthorized permanent structures and encampments are not lawful or safe on the grounds of the Legislature. This has been seen by the significant security concerns that have arisen over the past few months at the Manitoba Legislature.”
A second encampment that was set up on the north side of the Legislative Building was removed earlier this month amid reports of safety concerns stemming from that encampment and the province said that weapons were found at the sight of that encampment after it was taken down.
The province passed a law earlier this year that forbids encampments on the legislature grounds and bans people from supplying generators, firewood and other goods and people who break the rules can be evicted from the grounds, and face fines of up to $5,000.
But Wiebe said he believes that the encampments were often viewed as dangerous because of existing biases, and not because of serious safety concerns.
“I see it as less of a safety issue and more of a stigmatization issue. It’s easy for those who have never even gone down there to judge, but that shouldn’t lead to knee-jerk reactions,” he said.
Vic Ketchum is a Winnipeg-based residential school survivor, and she said the sight of uniformed officers taking down the encampment on the weekend was traumatizing for her and for other survivors she has spoken to.
“To see officers taking down teepees and putting out the sacred fire was very disturbing, and it was giving me massive flashbacks,” Ketchum said.
“It was a reminder of when police took us out of our homes and took us to residential schools or foster homes when I was a kid, so for me it was sickening.”
-Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.