Two journalists, including award-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken, remained in custody this weekend and were scheduled to appear Monday in Prince George, B.C., for a bail hearing, after being arrested by RCMP at an Indigenous protest in northern British Columbia on Friday – a move widely criticized as a violation of press freedoms.
The Canadian Association of Journalists called for the immediate release of Ms. Bracken and freelance journalist Michael Toledano, who were arrested, among 15 people, during a police operation to remove protesters who had been blocking access to a Coastal GasLink pipeline construction site.
“They were doing their job,” said Brent Jolly, the president of the CAJ. “That’s the real coldness of this whole situation. People are there to serve the public – that’s what journalists do – to be the public’s eye and ears, and this is how they’re treated.”
Frances Mahon, who is representing both journalists, said Sunday she was “hopeful that we will be able to secure their release tomorrow.” Ms. Mahon told The Globe and Mail in an earlier statement that the “manner in which the arrests were carried out was shocking,” and, in her view, constituted “profound violations of the rights” of the people arrested.
Mr. Jolly said there has been an alarming and increasing pattern of police violating the rights of journalists in Canada. He specifically cited the recent Supreme Court of British Columbia decision, in which Justice Douglas Thompson refused to extend an injunction related to the old-growth logging protests at Fairy Creek because of police misconduct, and specifically referenced the RCMP infringing on civil liberties, including preventing media from covering the event.
Ms. Bracken, who was recognized by the CAJ for her Wet’suwet’en coverage last year and won a World Press Photo Award for her work at North Dakota’s Standing Rock in 2016, has appeared in many publications, including National Geographic, The New York Times and The Globe and Mail. She was covering the protest for the online magazine, The Narwhal. Mr. Toledano is a filmmaker who specializes in environmental and Indigenous issues, and is working on a documentary.
Asked to comment on the arrests, Vanessa Adams, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, said in an e-mail the reports were “deeply concerning.” The rights of journalists to cover events such as the protest are “essential to our democracy,” she said, and the journalists should not be detained “any longer than is necessary to verify that they are journalists.”
Mr. Jolly said that on Friday morning, following a number of arrests at another location, the CAJ e-mailed the RCMP to let them know that journalists were covering the protest at the Gidimt’en camp. “We wanted to just make sure that there was no ambiguity here,” Mr. Jolly said, “that it was abundantly clear what was going on and who these people were and why they were there.”
Narwhal editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist also told The Globe, by e-mail, that the magazine had taken precautions to alert police to Ms. Bracken’s presence, and that she had been given press passes and a formal letter of assignment from the magazine. Ms. Gilchrist said not releasing Ms. Bracken was a violation of her Charter rights. “We strongly condemn the RCMP for this behaviour.”
Tensions had been rising over Coastal GasLink’s construction of a 670-kilometre pipeline that would transport natural gas from the northeastern part of the province to a facility in Kitimat.
In a statement, the RCMP said officers were enforcing a court injunction granted to the company by the B.C. Supreme Court, which prohibits protesters from blocking a forest road used by more than 500 workers to access the site. At the scene, the statement said, police found a blockade on the road, as well as two “building-like structures” near the drilling site.
According to the RCMP, officers read out the injunction and gave protesters a chance to leave; when they refused, officers “broke through the doors” of the buildings and arrested 11 people – including, RCMP confirmed, two people who later identified themselves as “as independent journalists.”
Jen Wickham, the media spokesperson for the Gidimt’en camp, and also one of the producers of the documentary that Mr. Toledano is directing, confirmed that RCMP read the injunction out loud upon arriving, but said that officers did not show warrants to enter the buildings. They arrived on the scene on buses, she said, and, accompanied by canine units, broke down the doors of a tiny home and a cabin with an axe and chainsaw. The tiny home has since been towed away, she said, and the cabin has been burned to the ground.
“It’s a lot of resources they’re using to come and remove people from their own territory,” Ms. Wickham said, “while there is a state of emergency in this province [because of last week’s flooding].”
Ms. Wickham, who spoke while travelling to attend the bail hearings in Prince George, suggested that one issue for those arrested has been that a condition of their release required them agreeing not to return to the site, which is on Wet’suwet’en territory.
This was the second day of arrests related to protests at the Gidimt’en camp. On Thursday, 14 people were taken into custody, RCMP said in a statement. As they left the site on Friday, according to the RCMP, officers also arrested four people related to reports of rock-throwing at industry vehicles – an allegation that Ms. Wickham said did not happen.
The RCMP said a journalist at that scene was detained, but released after identifying herself and “escorted out of the area.”
With reports from Wendy Stueck and Emerald Bensadoun
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