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Officers have until Aug. 28 to evict Manitoba Housing families in Portage

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Donna Gabriel holds eviction notices received last wek by families living in Manitoba Housing in Portage la Prairie.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Donna Gabriel holds eviction notices received last wek by families living in Manitoba Housing in Portage la Prairie.

Sheriff's officers did not show up in Portage la Prairie at 11 a.m. Monday to evict 18 families who haven't paid rent for their Manitoba Housing units for 21 years.

They could show up any time without warning until Aug. 28, the deadline by which a court of appeal ruling in June said the evictions would take place.

And that's about the only thing on which the parties in an ever-more-complex situation could agree Monday.

Residents' organizer Donna Gabriel said Monday that the families are unhappy with news coverage -- the story is not that they haven't paid rent, or that some of them also receive social assistance, she said from Portage la Prairie.

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Sheriff's officers did not show up in Portage la Prairie at 11 a.m. Monday to evict 18 families who haven't paid rent for their Manitoba Housing units for 21 years.

They could show up any time without warning until Aug. 28, the deadline by which a court of appeal ruling in June said the evictions would take place.

And that's about the only thing on which the parties in an ever-more-complex situation could agree Monday.

Residents' organizer Donna Gabriel said Monday that the families are unhappy with news coverage — the story is not that they haven't paid rent, or that some of them also receive social assistance, she said from Portage la Prairie.

"Our people are very upset about what you're writing," Gabriel said. She'd said Friday the sheriff's office had told the residents the evictions would start at 11 a.m. Monday.

Gabriel said that the province promised the residents they'd get free housing back in 1996, when they were removed forcibly from Waterhen —- now known as Skownan First Nation —- after protesting against the chief and band council of the day. That's the story, she said.

"It's not us who's breached," said Gabriel. "Talk to the Manitoba government."

Gabriel said she was surprised to read in Saturday's Free Press that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Minister Carolyn Bennett has suggested creating a new reserve for the families.

"Well, of course, that's what we've been demanding the last 20 years. We're entitled to land, as treaty people," she said. "I haven't heard anything yet (from Bennett)."

Families Minister Scott Fielding said in an interview Monday that he has 1,000 people on a Manitoba Housing waiting list who are all prepared to pay rent.

"There has been fairness over a 20-year period," he said. "We're going to abide by the court decision."

The province has been more than patient for many years, and now it's in the hands of the sheriff, Fielding said. He estimates the 18 families owe more than $1.2 million in rent.

Fielding said that it's up to Ottawa to decide if it will pay the housing costs of First Nations residents who are no longer living on the reserve.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg Centre Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette weighed into the fray while at an unrelated event Monday.

"You have to go back to whatever the original injustice was. Are they refugees in their own land?" Ouellette said in an interview.

"Housing is never free in our society," he said, but the answer may be a return to their home community, Ouellette said.

The chief and band council involved in the 1996 dispute are long gone.

Skownan Chief Cameron Catcheway declined to be interviewed Monday. "I'm not going to answer nothing right now," he said from the community about 108 kilometres northeast of Dauphin.

"I'd rather talk to the people in Portage, if they have the courage to give me a call," Catcheway said.

And if Ouellette has something to say, he can call Skownan, said Catcheway.

The final action and its timing are up to the sheriff's department, said Fielding, whose staff referred any inquiries about evictions to the sheriff's department.

It in turn referred inquiries to Manitoba Justice, which said the sheriff will choose when to start evictions.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Nick Martin.

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