Press freedom

INTERVIEW: Journalist Justin Brake risks arrest to get the story at Muskrat Falls

A Newfoundland judge ordered Brake’s arrest for covering Muskrat Falls protest
Justin Brake

This morning a Newfoundland court issued an arrest order for journalist Justin Brake, citing him for trespassing and failing to comply with a court injunction when he followed Indigenous land protectors whose protest he was covering onto the worksite of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

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This interview was conducted by phone earlier today, while Brake was still on the work site. He has since chosen to leave and continue his reporting from outside, rather than remain and potentially end up in jail.

Reached by telephone around 7 p.m. EDT, Brake confirmed that he had safely exited the worksite, where he was met by RCMP officers who took his ID and informed him that although he complied with today’s court order to leave or face arrest, he was in violation of an earlier injunction and may still face charges for contempt of court.

Tell me how you came to be at the Muskrat Falls site.

I've been in Labrador for about five weeks now, covering the growing grassroots and Indigenous-led resistance to Muskrat Falls. The movement has grown exponentially over that time. There have been rallies, on-the-ground actions, protests on almost a daily basis. The reason for that is that Nalcor, the proponent of the project and a Crown energy corporation here, issued a statement at the beginning of October saying that they could begin flooding the reservoir on October 15 or later.

Earlier this year there was a peer-reviewed, scientific report by researchers out of Harvard University that projected that flooding would increase methylmercury in the 3,000 square kilometer estuary just downstream from the dam, where thousands of people, many of them Indigenous, harvest food. Not only for living, but for subsistence, and to maintain their connection to their culture.

To clarify, you're there in your capacity as a journalist, so you don't see yourself as a participant in these protests, but as a journalist there to cover it, right?

That's right. I am here only in my capacity as a journalist.

Muskrat Falls has been covered to death for the last five years in my province, but this is a story that wasn't being told. The human rights and Indigenous rights narratives were not part of the story. So I made the decision to travel from Newfoundland to Labrador to get the stories of the people who are going to be impacted by the dam.

Are you the only journalist on the site there? Or have you been in the past several days? Have there been other journalists that have gone past the gate, or are you the only one?

I'm the only one that has gone past the gate. Others have arrived recently. APTN arrived yesterday, and they're outside the gate. CBC has been sporadically covering the protests, they've shown up to some but not others. And that's it, there's not much media up here.

Why do you feel it's important to your work as a journalist that you did cross that gate, that you did follow the protesters onto the site?

There was a rally happening Saturday, and all of a sudden somebody took out the bolt cutters and cut the lock off this gate and 60 people stormed the gate and started going up the road, and then some trucks went in after them.

I knew that whatever was going to happen inside that gate was a story that the rest of the province and the country had to know.

I didn't really hesitate, I knew that my duty, my responsibility as a journalist was to tell this story, particularly in light of the broader context, which is that going through that gate were members of all three Indigenous groups in Labrador, and they historically haven't maintained a united front against provincial and federal governments and the things that they've done in Labrador. Not only that, but settler-Labradorians were part of this too.

I noticed that in the last two weeks there was a feeling that Labradorians were uniting, and people were starting to take note of that, and saying that this is a truly historic moment. People are finally coming together, and it's over this large hydro dam. So I knew that whatever was going to happen inside that gate was a story that the rest of the province and the country had to know.

Tell me what happened this morning in court. Obviously you weren't there, but tell me how that came to your attention.

I came into the room that the land protectors were occupying — I was outside the room and came back in — and they said, "Have you seen this? There's been a court order handed down, and your name is on it."

I couldn't believe it. I was quite surprised, to say the least. In this day and age, it absolutely blew my mind that a Crown energy corporation would go to such lengths to suppress my constitutionally-protected right to freedom of the press.

I saw that there was some criticism in one of the newspapers in Newfoundland about journalists using the term "land protectors," as opposed to "protesters." Would you say that you cover this story with sympathy for the Indigenous peoples involved, and if so do you think that in any way compromises your ability to accurately and fairly report on what's going on?

I think as a journalist, if you can't understand how structures of power and dominance operate in our society, then you shouldn't be putting yourself in a position of power as someone who is telling important stories.

The criticism last week towards me by a columnist at the Telegram, the largest newspaper in the province, comes from an older, white journalist sitting in a newsroom, who has no idea what's happening on the ground in Labrador, and who seems to think that members of an Indigenous-led movement should not be able to identify as they wish, and challenge antiquated notions of objectivity that lead journalists to call all people who are in marginalized communities, and resisting dominance, protesters.

This is a growing phenomenon in journalism in Canada and elsewhere. People do identify, especially in Indigenous societies, as "protectors" or "defenders" or "warriors" and if that's what they are, according to their customs, then it's not for media outlets staffed primarily by white people to not allow Indigenous people, and Indigenous-led movements, to identify as they wish.

I believe that this court order is about trespassing, and so obviously the trespassing that you've committed has been to follow these protesters, these land protectors, into the worksite. Have you participated in any actions, or have you done anything that any journalist in your position wouldn't do?

I don't think so. Some journalists would say that it's not objective to embed yourself, and I've been sleeping in the same room as these people, and I've been having conversations with them. But I made clear to them that "while I'm in here, I'm a reporter, and if there's something that you don't want me to hear, don't assume that you can say it in front of me and expect me not to report it." I told them, "go somewhere else and have that conversation, if that's how you feel about that." I've livestreamed several times from here, and they've garnered tens of thousands of views, and I know that the province is watching, I know that a lot of people across Canada are watching. There's been a huge response to it, and these people have the entire province on their side. Everybody except the provincial government and the crown energy corporation.

You mentioned that there's been word the RCMP is coming to serve these arrest orders. Tell me what you're planning to do if and when they arrive, and also what you think the impact will be if you have to leave because of this arrest warrant. What will the impact be on the land protectors there, and on the coverage that's going out to the rest of the country?

I've been deliberating on this for the last hour or so. It's clear to me that Nalcor does not want me telling this story. These people have gained tremendous support and sympathy from the community outside [because of the reporting], so among the considerations I've been contemplating is my ability to continue to tell the story. If I end up in jail, I can't keep telling the story.

The biggest thing right now is that I'm able to continue to tell the story, and I have to balance that as well with my ability to fight a legal battle. If I end up staying and then getting arrested later today or tomorrow, I can't continue to tell that story. Unfortunately, being with an independent media outlet, I don't have the support to fight a legal battle, as important as this story is.

If you do end up having to leave, that will mean that there will be no journalists on scene to cover whatever does happen with those land protectors if they choose not to leave, right?

Yes.

Tell me a little about that. Are you concerned that if you leave there won't be any media there to observe what's happening?

Oh absolutely. This is exactly what Nalcor wants. The stories of these people getting out to the outside world has been devastating to Nalcor.

The RCMP don't know how to handle this. Everyone I've talked to who has commented on the matter has said there's no way these people would have occupied the space for four days had it not been for my presence. It's been completely peaceful, they've garnered tremendous support from workers inside the camp, who have given them hugs and handshakes, and dropped off food and clothing, and everything, to them.

One worker even went on the record yesterday, on our video and at the risk of losing his own job, to say he supports these people, these land protectors.

In weighing my decision I had to figure in whether I could maintain strong contact with them, from the outside. They can livestream on Facebook, and I can publish that feed through the Independent. Nalcor is making an effort to get rid of everybody here, but even by naming me in that court filing, and singling me out as the only journalist here, they're not going to get rid of the ability for these people to broadcast their fight.

Was there anything else you wanted to add?

In my last interview, which was with my own publication, reconciliation came up, and I hadn't even thought of that but it is an important point that call to action number 84 in the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report explicitly states that media should continue or begin to cover important Indigenous issues, and bring to light Indigenous history, and current struggles.

I'm big on the TRC report, and objectively as a journalist, I've spoken out a lot about this, and criticized other media outlets for failing to tell important narratives of Indigenous people in our province. Part of the reason why I'm here is that I'm fulfilling my obligation, not only as a journalist to tell important stories, but also the obligation the TRC report compels upon us in recommended action number 84.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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