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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks to the media prior to the reading of the Speech from the Throne, at the Manitoba Legislature, in Winnipeg, on Oct. 7, 2019.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

The Manitoba government is promising to reform welfare and education, cut a major property tax and enact new penalties for protesters who block transportation routes.

The Progressive Conservative government laid out its plans for the next 12 months in a Throne Speech at the legislature Wednesday. The document, which makes promises in broad strokes and is traditionally short on specifics, says social assistance will be changed to “instill greater self-reliance and personal growth” in people.

Premier Brian Pallister, in a series of public letters to his cabinet months ago, tasked Families Minister Heather Stefanson with transforming social assistance from a program “that encourages dependency on government to one that provides a short-term bridge to meaningful employment.”

The speech was presented by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon in the legislature chamber. Half the usual number of politicians were present to comply with COVID-19 rules and ensure physical distancing

Education reform, which was shelved when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, is to proceed in the new year. The government has hinted that changes could reduce the number of school divisions

“I think we should have a discussion about how many (divisions) we have and I think we should take a look at best practices (elsewhere),” Pallister said Wednesday

After protests that interfered with truck and train traffic earlier this year, the government is promising to introduce a proposed law that would prevent blockades of critical transportation routes.

“The idea here is to make it clear what the obligations are of law enforcement officials in respect of protecting public property, not just private property,” Pallister said.

The Alberta government earlier this year passed a law that provides for heavy fines and possible imprisonment for people who block structures such as pipelines, highways and oil production facilities.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said Pallister seems to be looking for a way to prevent protests similar to ones earlier this year against a Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en Nation traditional territory in British Columbia.

“First Nations in Manitoba will not tolerate this attack on our civil liberties,” assembly Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said.

Much of the Throne Speech deals with the fallout from COVID-19. Pallister is promising to pass legislation to allow for paid sick leave for people affected by the novel coronavirus under a recent deal that will see the federal government pay for the measure.

The Tory government is also promising to keep costs down during the pandemic. Electricity rates are to rise by less than three per cent this year under a government order, and more private retailing of liquor is to be encouraged to keep prices down, the throne speech says.

The government is also moving up a plan to eliminate the education tax on property, which currently costs Manitobans about $830-million a year.

The Tories originally promised to phase out the tax over 10 years, starting once the provincial budget was balanced. The government says, because of the pandemic, the budget will be in deficit for several more years, but the education tax will start to be reduced next year anyway.

“Manitobans need more tax relief sooner, not later,” the Throne Speech reads.

The opposition parties and public-sector unions said the Throne Speech offers little hope to people being hurt by the pandemic.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government is trying to reduce social assistance numbers at a time when unemployment has spiked.

“If you want people to get into the work force, then how about let’s have a government in Manitoba that creates job opportunities,” Kinew said.

The Manitoba Liberals said the government must do more to help small businesses that have seen revenues plummet during the pandemic.

The Manitoba Nurses Union said the Throne Speech does not offer help to people waiting in long lines for COVID-19 tests and for other health care.

“There is no commitment to recruitment and retention of health-care professionals, including nurses,” union president Darlene Jackson said in a statement.

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