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Farmers, government spar over use of Portage Diversion

The channel ‘park-in’ demonstration by Lake Manitoba farmers and landowners 
was aimed at bringing attention to the government’s handling of 2011 flood

Protesting farmers used farm equipment to temporarily block access to the Portage Diversion April 29.   Photo: shannon vanraes

A protest by 60 fed-up Lake Manitoba-area farmers and landowners at the Portage Diversion April 29 was still making waves this week as organizers prepared for a court hearing into the province’s injunction against them.

Kevin Yuill, who farms about 3,000 acres north of Portage la Prairie, organized the event that saw tractors and heavy equipment parked in the bottom of the channel for about 12 hours just as flood waters started to rise and the government was preparing to open the gates.

“Our timing was perfect,” said Yuill May 2. “We knew it was awful close to when they would want to pop that diversion open and it was the only way we could put big pressure on them.”

The protest’s main goal was to call for an outlet on the north end of the lake to balance inflows from the Portage Diversion, and secondly, to bring attention to the government’s broken promise of “multi-year” compensation for losses due to the 2011 flood.

“We did not have any intention to disrupt anybody’s lives or put anyone in danger,” said Yuill. “Our plan was to put pressure on the idiots running the government and flowing water willy-nilly wherever they want.”

A provincial spokesman said that the injunction was issued to protect people along the Assiniboine who were threatened by ice-jam-related flooding, and the opening of the diversion to allow 15,000 cfs to pass through was aimed at keeping Assiniboine River levels upstream at a safe level of 5,000 cfs.

The event sparked heated debate in the provincial legislature, with Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton denouncing the landowners as “irresponsible” and demanding that the opposition Progressive Conservatives apologize for allegedly orchestrating the event that he claimed put lives and property at risk by delaying the opening of the water control structure that flows water from the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba.

The barbs were still flying this week as organizers of the protest were subpoenaed to appear in provincial court Tuesday, May 7. The farmers said they fear they will face charges for their actions and may be assigned costs. They were organizing a rally outside the courthouse. “We’ve had to hire a lawyer to protect ourselves so they don’t bite us in the ass,” said Yuill.

However, a provincial official said Monday that no charges are being laid and none are contemplated.

“They have not been ordered to come to court. They are being given an opportunity to come to court if they wish to oppose the continuation of the injunction,” he said.

Late last week, the province tabled a new law that would make interfering with flood protection efforts punishable by a $10,000 fine, and give police the power to arrest anyone for refusing an evacuation order.

At one point during the protest, an official from MIT arrived on site and “read the riot act,” Yuill said.

“He said that we had 30 minutes to get out or they would open the diversion and, if we were there, fine, we’d get flushed away,” said Yuill, who disputes the province’s claim that an ice jam downstream on the Assiniboine posed an immediate threat to communities alongside the river.

The protesters decided to remove their equipment shortly before midnight the same day after receiving an email from the CBC that a court injunction to remove them had been obtained by the provincial government.

The injunction was never served to the protesters, and Yuill said that he went to the local RCMP detachment and picked up the document the following morning.

Although provincial officials deny it, Yuill said that the injunction prevents him from “entering Crown land or any land adjacent to the Portage Diversion.”

With 200 acres of winter wheat already under water due to flooding from the “fail safe” built in to the channel running at 15,000 cfs, Yuill said he was dismayed provincial officials have resorted to legal measures to silence critics instead of working towards a long-term solution.

Jonas Johnson, a farmer from Langruth who was also at the protest, said the aim was to “ruffle some feathers” and bring the plight of flooded farmers to the public’s attention.

He was disappointed by the province’s response in the aftermath of the protest, especially the proposed amendments to the Emergency Measures Act. He also said the claim from Premier Greg Selinger that payments for the 2011 flood averaged $300,000 per farm was misleading, as most farmers didn’t receive anywhere near that amount.

“That’s just another tactic to make it look like they’re really going to keep on top of these terrorists who live around Lake Manitoba,” said Johnson.

He also denied the province’s claim that the protest put “lives in danger” by delaying the opening of the diversion.

“We’re not dummies. We know the water levels that can be handled by the Portage Diversion,” said Johnson.

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