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Social assistance irrelevant in eviction battle, Portage residents say

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Donna Gabriel, from Portage La Prairie, holds eviction notices for more than 15 families which were received yesterday. It orders them to vacate the Manitoba Housing project by Monday. </p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Donna Gabriel, from Portage La Prairie, holds eviction notices for more than 15 families which were received yesterday. It orders them to vacate the Manitoba Housing project by Monday.

Some members of 18 families who haven't paid rent to live in their Manitoba Housing units for 21 years are also receiving social assistance support from the province.

But Donna Gabriel, spokeswoman for the residents who are being evicted from the Portage la Prairie units Monday at 11 a.m., says that fact is irrelevant.

"What does it matter if some of us are on social assistance?" Gabriel said Friday. "How does that relate? There are people living on income assistance in units, and they still want them out. Those are people who are disabled and unable to work. Look what they've done to us."

Gabriel said there's even one Indigenous elder who has been paying rent: "They're putting him out."

The 18 families have been living in Manitoba Housing units since they were forcibly removed from Waterhen First Nation in 1996, after protesting against the chief and band council at that time. The community located on the south shore of Waterhen Lake, some 280 kilometres north of Winnipeg, was later renamed Skownan First Nation.

Federal officials suggested Friday the creation of a new band may be a possible long-term solution.

The province says the families owe more than $1.2 million in rent they've refused to pay. After years of negotiation and hearings, Manitoba Housing obtained a Court of Appeal ruling in late June that has allowed the government agency to have sheriff's officers evict them.

The families have said they'll move Monday afternoon to the lawn of the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg.

Families Minister Scott Fielding is out of the city this week and has not had a formal request to meet with the group, said his press secretary, Andrea Slobodian.

Gabriel said she'll submit a formal request to meet Fielding, but can't see any point.

"We've been having meeting after meeting," she said. "But they've made their point so clearly already in the news. What is it going to do, anyway?"

Gabriel said the families have been taken aback by the social media reaction and online comments to coverage of their rally Thursday on the legislature's steps. "It's getting to a point where it's racist," she said.

Slobodian pointed out online comments on the Free Press website asked whether the families have received social assistance, which could have covered their rent. "Online comments on your article raise some good questions," she said.

Slobodian said the province cannot reveal if someone is on social assistance, but said it "could be a question to pose (to) protesters who claim they will be forced to live on the street."

Meanwhile, Ottawa is not involved in the original dispute that forced the families off the First Nation in 1996, said Stephanie Palma, a media spokeswoman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

However, Bennett's department is helping the families set up meetings with government officials to explore possible options for housing, and discuss the creation of a new and distinct band, Palma said.

"We encourage all parties involved to work with Manitoba Housing toward a resolution," she said.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs did not respond to an interview request Friday.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Nick Martin.

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Updated on Friday, August 11, 2017 at 6:04 PM CDT: Updates

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