By The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — An Indigenous-led protest camp on the east lawn of the Manitoba Legislative Building grounds that’s been in place for more than a year was removed over the weekend.
Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen says in a statement posted on Facebook that illegal structures were taken down Saturday in an operation that was “led by provincial enforcement personnel.”
The Winnipeg Police Service says it was not involved in the removal and none of its officers were present.
The camp began with a ceremonial fire that was lit following news in May 2021 that what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves of children were discovered near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says in a statement the demonstrators had committed to staying until all the undiscovered children’s bodies at residential schools across Canada were found and returned home.
Deputy Grand Chief Cornell McLean says in the statement it was troubling to hear that the province had bulldozers on site, handcuffed and arrested elders and gave out $672 tickets.
“Everyone has the right to demonstrate peacefully and to publicly express their frustration over the continued ignorance towards First Nations peoples in this province and across this country,” McLean said.
“This early morning raid on the camp sends a threatening message to all First Nations that Manitoba does not support our rights to criticize the government and to demonstrate our concerns peacefully.”
Another, separate camp on the north lawn of the legislature was dismantled by police at the beginning of October. That camp was adorned with signs and flags highlighting a variety of issues, from the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools to COVID-19 restrictions to conflict in the Middle East.
Several people were arrested in connection with the north camp and police say they recovered axes, body armour, a spear, a machete and a metre-long club, although protesters have said there were no weapons on-site and they only had materials to chop wood and build teepees.
Goertzen says the legislature should always be a place to express democratic opinions, but the safety of visitors, including schoolchildren, staff, elected officials and protesters, must be protected.
“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,” Goertzen said in his statement Saturday.
The Progressive Conservative government passed a law earlier this year that forbids encampments on the legislature grounds and bans people from supplying generators, firewood and other goods.
People who break the rules can be evicted from the grounds and face fines of up to $5,000.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says the province created the law in response to last winter’s Freedom Convoy, but has only used it to remove peaceful First Nations protesters.
“The Manitoba government’s still evicting First Nations people from our unceded territory and doing it while advertising their ‘reconciliation work.’ This kind of doublespeak is gravely concerning,” McLean said.