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Protesters crash throne speech.

By Len Kruzenga

Windspeaker Contributor


Carrying banners reading "Help us with jobs not Welfare" and "We need better housing now," 500 protesters converged on the Manitoba legislative building, while inside, Premier Gary Filmon hosted opening ceremonies for the latest session of the legislature.

Chief Louis Stevenson of the Peguis First Nation, who according to several demonstrators acted as the principal architect of the protest, chastised Filmon and the conservative government during an address to the crowd.

"This government has done nothing for us. We continue to live in poverty and continue to suffer the poorest housing and unemployment rates while the politicians say we live in the richest and best country in the world."

Stevenson pointed out that despite Canada's democratic pronouncements, entry to the legislature was blocked by barricades and security officers.

"They call this a democracy, yet we are not allowed to enter the institution of democracy. We cannot be stopped from exercising our rights or obtaining what our treaties promise us."

With that, the crowd stormed the front entrance of the building only to be blocked by security personnel and a platoon of riot policemen inside the lobby.

When several protesters managed to scale barricades and force their way into the lobby, police responded with a blanket of pepper-spray and quickly arrested nearly a dozen protesters.

Grand Chief Bill Traverse of Southern Chiefs Organization had his jacket ripped off his back in the ensuing melee.

"It's a god damn disgrace to be treated like this on our own land and by our own government," he said.

As the confrontation threatened to escalate, several Aboriginal leaders, including Manitoba Keewaninowi Okimakinak Grand Chief Francis Flett, reasoned with protesters to let cooler heads prevail.

"We don't want anyone injured here. We've made our point and have sent a message to the government."

But other leaders, usually reluctant to adopt a confrontational approach with the government, appeared far less conciliatory.

"Today will be the start of something different," said Fisher River First Nation Chief David Crate. "They took our land and shoved us off to the side. It won't happen anymore."

Grand Chief Rod Bushie of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Stevenson also warned the government that unless it showed immediate signs of dealing substantively with Aboriginal issues, the Pan-Am Games would be disrupted by First Nations' protesters.

For his part, Filmon expressed surprise over the protest, noting that after a similar protest held two weeks earlier he had asked many of the same Native leaders, including Stevenson, to draft a summary of their concerns and demands so the government could discuss the issues. He noted none of the leaders had responded to that request.

Filmon also noted that his government has signed numerous agreements with First Nations over the last decade, including Treaty Land Entitlement agreements and Northern Flood agreements.

Also marring the protest were allegations that Stevenson had paid protesters from his community $75 each to attend the demonstration.

"Yeah, I'll get paid later when we go down to the [Interlake Regional Tribal Council] offices," said one Peguis resident who requested his identity not be revealed. "There's nothing wrong with that. At least it's giving us some employment for a day."

However when Stevenson was asked to confirm the reports, he dismissed the questions calling them irrelevant and not worth responding to.

"I'm not even going to respond to that. It has nothing to do with the reasons for this protest," he said.

However, later in the day, Chief Bushie all but confirmed the reports when he said, "Those people have to eat. It's the same thing as giving them a per diem that's all."

Bushie also swept aside Filmon's argument that the protest was anything but a spontaneous groundswell of opposition because many protesters were paid.

"We need the government to take action now and stop hiding behind the excuse that we're the federal government's responsibility," said Bushie. "The province has a lot of control over our lands and other issues so they have a responsibility to First Nations people."

But at least one protester said revelations that others were paid makes the whole demonstration smack of political opportunism.

"How can Stevenson and the others yell at Filmon and the government to use funding dollars more responsibly when he (Stevenson) is misusing funds from his own community," said Francine Nepinak.

"I came here because I thought the issues of unemployment, poverty and housing are real issues for the people, but the chiefs are making us all look stupid and dishonest. It makes me sick."
COPYRIGHT 1999 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kruzenga, Len
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:May 1, 1999
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