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Angry farmers forced to leave

Province turns to courts to quell compensation protest at Portage Diversion

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PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- The Manitoba government said protesters who had been blocking the opening of the Portage Diversion along the swollen Assiniboine River have moved out and the channel has been opened.

Angry farmers who complained of not being properly compensated when the diversion was used and flooded their land in 2011 had moved tractors and other pieces of large equipment into the diversion on Monday.

Government spokesman Jean-Marc Prevost said when officials threatened to open the diversion anyway and sweep away the machines, the protesters themselves moved in and began to occupy the area.

In the early evening, the government was granted an injunction by the courts allowing them to call in the RCMP to remove the protesters.

However, Prevost said eventually the protesters agreed to leave and removed their equipment.

Prevost said the action took place just in the nick of time, as a buildup of ice was nearing the diversion, which moves the water into Lake Manitoba.

Farmer Kevin Yuill said the government needs to take steps to resolve the man-made flooding of Lake Manitoba.

"In has to equal out," he told radio station CJOB. "In other words, whatever they let down the Portage Diversion has to have a way of getting out, and there has been no structure put in."

The province said in a statement Monday that a buildup of ice less than four hours away from the diversion threatened to cause significant ice-jam-related flooding if the diversion was not operated immediately.

The province also said a risk is the potential for more ice jams east of the diversion and flooding in communities such as St. Franßois Xavier and Headingley.

"There are very significant risk elements if we do not proceed to operate it," Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said.

Yuill said how the government handled the situation Monday was typical of how farmers and ranchers have been treated in the aftermath of the disastrous 2011 flood.

"Our frustration is nobody has even come to talk to us," he said. "It's just typical bullying. Just like 2011 when they flooded us out and didn't care."

Many property owners blame the NDP for not acknowledging their land was deliberately flooded two years ago when the province had to force water beyond the diversion's capacity. The level on Lake Manitoba rose dramatically and in a late-May storm, hundreds of properties were destroyed by huge waves.

Ashton responded this year is not a repeat of 2011 and that only a "minimal" amount of water will flow through the diversion compared to 2011.

He also said the delay in opening the diversion put lives at risk and pointed the finger at the Conservative Opposition for sanctioning it.

"They want to shut it down but right now the operation of the Portage Diversion is essential to protect Manitobans," Ashton told the legislature.

The protesters said the Selinger government should build an outlet on the lake to release floodwater.

"This area wasn't a flood plain before they made changes to protect Winnipeg," Yuill said while standing in the diversion, just south of the Trans-Canada Highway west of Portage, beside the Assiniboine River.

"When you direct water to save yourself, you should pay your neighbour compensation. We need some reassurance the government is doing something so when they use the diversion again there is a place for the water to get out and that there will be fair treatment for people affected."

By late Monday, Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton had lost patience with the situation, saying his one and only priority was to ensure the diversion was open to protect communities downstream.

"Anybody who's preventing that operation is putting other Manitobans at risk," he said. "People are entitled, if they have issues, to protest, to request meetings. You cross the line when you end up trespassing and moving to impede the operation of flood protection.

"This is not the way we do things in Manitoba. Period."

-- The Canadian Press with files from Bruce Owen and Kevin Rollason

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2013 A4

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