Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rural discontent growing

Running Manitoba like the 'province of Winnipeg' raises ire

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BOISSEVAIN -- A new surge of protests is spreading through rural Manitoba and it isn't Idle No More.

In Boissevain, farmers and townspeople recently protested the closing of their provincial agriculture extension office. In Grandview, a town hall meeting was held over the shutting of its Manitoba Conservation office, costing five local jobs. The positions were relocated to Dauphin.

In Beausejour, a petition has started to oppose padlocking its Employment Manitoba office and the loss of five jobs to the town.

The nerve of those rural Manitobans. Since when do they stage protests?

In addition, landowners around Lake Manitoba formed a blockade to delay the opening of the Portage Diversion, which drains the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba and contributed to flooding in 2011, for 12 hours. That made the province so mad it got a court injunction to clear them out.

The NDP government says offices are being shut across Manitoba to cut spending and modernize service delivery. The need for those offices isn't as great today with more rural people sourcing information via the Internet, a government spokesperson said.

Boissevain, Grandview and Beausejour will also be part of a pilot project -- the details are yet to be announced -- for a one-stop shop for information and services, said the province.

But people in the country don't see the same cuts to government offices in Winnipeg. Some allege the government has an urban bias. Neither are the cuts to government services all that's riling rural Manitoba.

At the same time, the province is forcing amalgamation on 92 rural municipalities -- almost half the municipalities in Manitoba. It also plans to zig Hydro's Bipole 3 all the way to the Saskatchewan border, upsetting scores of property owners along the way, then zag back northeast to Winnipeg, instead of the direct eastern route, which is about $1 billion cheaper.

The PST increase to eight per cent will hurt border towns such as Boissevain in southwestern Manitoba, vis-a-vis business and tourism with North Dakota. Roblin and Russell expect to lose business to rivals in Saskatchewan, where the PST will be three per cent lower.

"We live in the province of Winnipeg," said David Hicks, a rancher who organized the Boissevain rally.

There are reasons why he says that.

Grandview, Deloraine, Mafeking and Leaf Rapids have all lost their Manitoba Conservation offices in the past year. Fisher Branch, Starbuck, Boissevain, Stonewall, Treherne, Shoal Lake and Neepawa have lost or are losing their Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) offices. Minnedosa (four positions) and Virden (five positions) have lost their Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation offices. The Beausejour office of Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade is moving to Winnipeg.

Those are just the most glaring cuts.

And in Winnipeg? An office of Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade is moving from the west end of Portage Avenue to Lombard Avenue and 17 Manitoba Conservation staff will be moved from Carlton Street to offices on Main and Century streets.

It's almost a reversal of the government decentralization undertaken by the Filmon government in the 1990s.

For small towns such as Grandview, population 800, five jobs is a significant loss.

The total saving from all the moves is supposed to be $1.5 million, a figure rural communities dispute. That $1.5 million is simply the saving from abandoning buildings because the province is committed to relocate jobs, not cut them. Although that's not entirely true. At least 11 assistant conservation officers have been laid off recently.

Finance Minister Stan Struthers acknowledged several government initiatives are hitting rural Manitoba at once but "the sooner we move forward on each of these issues and have some tax savings for the rural Manitoba taxpayer, the sooner we can channel money into rural health care, education and infrastructure."

Struthers, a rural cabinet minister representing the Dauphin riding, maintained some people "like to promulgate the myth that the NDP is not friendly to rural Manitoba."

But the NDP has quadrupled spending on rural infrastructure such as roads and bridges from the previous government, he said. It also equalized hydro rates for rural and northern residents. "We have members in cabinet from rural Manitoba, Winnipeg and the north, and no one else can say that."

But Grandview Mayor Tom Bohun notes that being in government appears to have changed some MLAs.

"It seems that since they (rural NDP MLAs) got into the city, they have lost touch with their roots and with people that elected them."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A17

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