Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The long, wet arm of the law

NDP wants to arrest protesters, those who refuse to evacuate

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LAW enforcement officers in Manitoba will be given new powers under a bill introduced Wednesday by the Selinger government they say is aimed at protecting lives during a state of emergency.

The Emergency Measures Amendment Act, introduced by Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton, is in response to what happened in 2009 when ice jams north of Selkirk created sudden flooding and inundated numerous properties at Breezy Point after people had been warned to leave. Emergency officials then had to rescue several stranded residents.

The bill would allow provincial peace officers, under the Emergency Measures Act, to use reasonable force to apprehend a person, without a warrant and without charge, for the purpose of taking them to safety.

The bill would also allow the province to assess costs in rescuing them from their home.

"I think, quite frankly, the people of Manitoba shouldn't have to end up footing the bill for that," Ashton said. "If there's a situation where for their own safety they do have to leave, we're going to make it very clear that rather than send in emergency responders into very dangerous situations, we will be in a position to take them into custody."

Ashton said the parts of the bill were crafted this week when about 25 Lake Manitoba farmers staged a protest at the Portage Diversion over compensation for the 2011 flood. The province says the protest, and the legal inability to remove them faster, delayed the opening of the diversion for 12 hours and raised the flood threat to communities east of Portage la Prairie.

In such a scenario, the bill would make it an offence to block the use of a flood-control structure and would allow a peace officer to arrest an offender without a warrant and remove them. The maximum fine would be $10,000.

Ashton said the process used this week to remove the protesters, a court order signed by Court of Queen's Bench Justice Doug Abra, was too slow.

"It took some time," Ashton said. "What we are bringing, in terms of legislation, will be provisions that allow us to act more directly."

"We hope these provisions generally will never be used, but then again, I quite frankly didn't expect to see what I saw over the past 48 hours where you had individuals blocking the use of the Portage Diversion fully supported by the PC party," Ashton said.

The NDP has blamed the Progressive Conservatives for supporting the demonstration, pointing the finger at Portage la Prairie Tory MLA Ian Wishart for attending the rally they claim increased the delay of the opening of the Portage Diversion.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister said the NDP is only using Monday's demonstration to further its own ends.

"It's a diversion 'diversion' if you will,' Pallister said. "It's an attempt to get Manitobans off the major topic, and the major topic is the PST increase they're going to be faced with on the back of last year's biggest tax increase in the history of the province."

Last year, the NDP extended the PST to a number of services that were exempt before, such as haircuts over $50, spa treatments and insurance products. This year, the NDP plans to raise the PST from seven per cent to eight per cent, effective July 1.

The court filings to secure the injunction do not mention the involvement of the PCs in the demonstration -- that was only raised in the legislature by the NDP.

"If they left out any reference to the party, that would tell me they don't feel they have any case to make, or they would have made it," Pallister said.

Ashton defended the proposed legislation, saying the government had to take quick legislative action after the Portage Diversion protest to protect Manitobans despite laws that already prohibit trespassing on Crown land and give the province the authority to deny access to flood control structures under the Water Resources Administration Act.

"We want the broader ability to have peace officers -- we do have peace officers within government -- that can enforce those broader provisions," Ashton said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A4

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