On November 19, 2021, RCMP raided a camp on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, smashing into a tiny house occupied by land defenders, and taking a photojournalist on assignment for The Narwhal into custody, along with another journalist on assignment for the CBC. Both would be held in custody for five days, unable to send photos they took to their editors or report on the story they were there to cover.
Now, The Narwhal is taking the unprecedented step of suing the RCMP.
Standing outside of British Columbia’s Supreme Court on Monday, Narwhal co-founders Emma Gilchrist and Carol Linnitt were joined by photographer Amber Bracken and lawyer Sean Hern to announce the legal action against the RCMP for an alleged violation of their rights under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“As a small, non-profit news outlet, The Narwhal certainly did not want to have to bring a lengthy and expensive lawsuit against one of the most powerful organizations in the country,” said Gilchrist at the news conference.
The lawsuit aims to establish “meaningful consequences” for police when they interfere with the constitutional rights of journalists covering events in injunction zones, she said. “To not move forward with this case would be to turn our back on what’s right.”
The lawsuit seeks declarations from the court that press-freedom rights were unjustifiably breached by police, as well as damages for wrongful arrest and detention and interference with constitutional rights.
“We are not filing this lawsuit for ourselves, but to clear a path for all journalists in Canada to do their work without police interference,” Gilchrist said. “All too often these incidents happen when journalists are reporting on questions of Indigenous land rights.
“The arrests of Indigenous people on their lands concern every single person in this country and should be a matter of public record, not hidden behind police lines.”
Gilchrist observed that Canada is ranked 19th globally for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. “The ranking notes that journalists have been arrested while covering protests, particularly those over Indigenous rights and land usage.”
Journalists never want to be the story
Bracken said the last thing journalists want is to put themselves inside the story.
“This is not where you want to be as a journalist,” she said. “The idea of spending time at a courthouse just for the right to do your job is offensive to me.”
Ricochet has been standing up to RCMP attempts to restrict access to areas like Wet'suwet'en territory and Fairy Creek for years. In 2021, Ricochet helped lead a coalition of press groups (including The Narwhal) that won a court order against the RCMP's attempts to deny journalists access to the Fairy Creek area to do their jobs. Journalists working with us, like Jerome Turner and Brandi Morin, have faced similar treatment to Bracken.
“Until now, Canadian police forces haven't had to face real consequences for their infringements on press freedom. That stops today,” Gilchrist said.
On that cold November day, Bracken and filmmaker Michael Toledano, on assignment for the CBC, were arrested while documenting activities around the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline.
Bracken described the events of that day leading to her arrest.
Inside the tiny house, where land defenders were hunkered down, Bracken knew that if she went outside, she’d be removed from the territory, unable to document the impending arrests. She watched as tactical officers were dropped by helicopters and surrounded the building. “I pressed myself up against the wall, and from that position I took hundreds of images.
“What happened next was a moment I will never forget. All at once, RCMP officers came out of their hiding spots to surround the tiny house.…A police dog barked as officers broke in the door, first with an axe, then a chainsaw.”
Determined to keep documenting what she saw, Bracken knew that she would soon be in handcuffs.
Bracken did everything right and by the book, Linnitt said. She carried a letter of assignment from her editor, press tags, and cameras around her neck. The Narwhal also alerted the RCMP in advance that she would be in the area taking pictures on behalf of the publication. Her arrest should never have happened, Linnitt said.
“Unfortunately, the RCMP’s mistreatment of Amber was just one in a string of incidents that display a troubling lack of regard for freedom of the press by Canadian police,” she said.
A free press is protected under Canada’s Constitution
The arrests of Bracken and Toledano drew international media attention and put the spotlight on the ongoing efforts by the RCMP to restrict journalists from exercising their right to photograph and report from within injunction zones without risking arrest.
Linnitt referenced a number of cases in which Canada arrested journalists covering Indigenous rights issues in recent years, including those of Karl Dockstader, at Landback Lane in Ontario, and Justin Brake, at the Muskrat Falls dam in Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the Fairy Creek blockades, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, the RCMP used exclusion zones to keep reporters from covering the arrests. Following a successful legal challenge, the court confirmed that civil injunctions restricting the movement of people or demonstrations in Canada do not apply to journalists who are covering these types of events.
“There needs to be a very specific understanding that this cannot happen to journalists in Canada,” said Linnitt. “It can’t happen to freelance journalists working for The Narwhal or Canadian Press or The Globe and Mail. One thing overlooked is how much publications rely on freelancers, who are very vulnerable to abuses of power like this.”
With regard to her mental health, Bracken said she can’t rewatch those moments without experiencing a physical reaction. “It has had some impact, for sure.”
Lawyer Sean Hern said the journalists are commendable and brave for taking on this important case.
“This was a very difficult decision…Hundreds of thousands of donors and members put their faith in us, to see this through to the end,” Gilchrist said.