Eviction day has arrived for the encampments at the Manitoba Legislature grounds, but the people at the camp on the east side of the building say they have no plans to leave by the province’s noon Friday deadline.
“It’s important for people to understand why they’re here,” Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said at the encampment on Thursday.
The encampment was set up over a year ago, after the discovery of suspected unmarked graves at former residential schools.
A sacred fire was lit at the encampment in June 2021, with organizers saying they intended to keep it going until all former residential school grounds in the country are searched.
The camp, along with First Nations leaders, have been asking for dialogue with the government to discuss their concerns, and the possibility of establishing a permanent place for the sacred fire at the legislative grounds to honour the children who were forced to attend residential schools and never came home.
But last week, the provincial government issued eviction notices to the demonstrators, initially saying the camp had to be gone by Tuesday. Earlier this week, the group was given reprieve until Friday at noon.
Daniels met with the demonstrators on Thursday.
“I asked them if the government of Manitoba had ever taken the initiative to speak with them about the reason why they’re here, and it was pretty clear that hasn’t occurred,” he said.
A statement from Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen’s office last week said rallies and protests are acceptable on the legislature grounds, but encampments are not permitted for the safety of staff, visitors, tourists and other protesters.
That came after the Progressive Conservative government passed legislation earlier this year giving cabinet members authority to determine what can and cannot occur on the legislature grounds.
The legislation also bans fires on the grounds, and depositing firewood or other items that would support an encampment.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Deputy Grand Chief Cornell McLean, who also met with members of the encampment Thursday, said that restriction shouldn’t apply in this case.
“This is a sacred fire. I don’t go into their church and tell them that they gotta stop praying,” he said.
“They’re having a peaceful demonstration. They’re standing up for what they believe in.”
McLean says he spoke to Minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Alan Lagimodiere last week about the eviction, but hasn’t been able to reach the minister since.
He has also reached out to Goertzen and Premier Heather Stefanson, but hasn’t received a response, he said.
True reconciliation would include the government speaking to the demonstrators, McLean said.
“You have to create space for the truth to continue to be heard [and] continue to be visible for Manitobans,” he said.
A second encampment that formed earlier this year and includes a large teepee on the front lawn of the legislature grounds has also been ordered to leave.
That camp had previously been associated with nearby parked vehicles that had messages opposing COVID-19 public health restrictions posted on them.
McLean said earlier this week First Nations leadership is not in dialogue with that group.