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Manitoba premier says flood protest was illegal and endangered lives

WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government is accusing a group of farmers and the Opposition Progressive Conservatives of taking part in an illegal flood protest that put lives at risk.

"It's unacceptable, it's reckless and it was dangerous," Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton told the legislature on Tuesday.

"Other citizens do not have the right to protest in a way that puts downstream communities and downstream lives at risk," Premier Greg Selinger added later.

Ashton filed a protest with legislature speaker Daryl Reid, demanding an apology from Tory member Ian Wishart. Wishart had stood with a group of farmers who used large farm equipment to blockade the Portage Diversion for 12 hours Monday. The NDP also tabled printouts of social media messages from the Tory caucus which expressed support for the protest.

The diversion is a channel that takes water from the Assiniboine River during flood season and dumps it into Lake Manitoba. The farmers who blocked the diversion said they have not been compensated adequately for the 2011 flood season, when more water than normal was diverted into the channel, causing area fields to be swamped.

Wishart said Tuesday the protest was legal and the farmers had notified the RCMP.

"They have every right to protest and they were exercising that right."

Wishart said the protesters were not putting lives at risk because the river level was still low by the time the protest ended late Monday night. But Ashton and his deputy minister said the water was rising quickly and the result could have been sudden, uncontrolled flooding of rural properties.

The government had planned to start operating the diversion Monday morning and by evening had obtained an injunction against the protest.

Selinger defended his government's compensation program. The province has offered payments above and beyond the normal programs that are cost-shared with the federal government, he said. The vast majority of claims from farmers around Lake Manitoba had already been processed and the average payout was $300,000, Selinger added.

But the Tories say some farmers got far less than they deserved, including those whose land was still unusable in 2012.

"Three-quarters of the people have been refused any payment and cannot appeal that ... and of those that have been paid, that ($300,000) is less than 50 per cent of their losses," Wishart said.

While the government maintains the protest was illegal, Ashton did not seem eager to have police lay charges.

"The recourse that we had open to us was really to get the individuals out of that area. I'm not sure if there's even the ability (to lay charges) under the existing legislation."

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