The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) demands the RCMP immediately release award-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentarian Michael Toledano from police custody with their belongings. The two were illegally arrested by RCMP officers late yesterday afternoon while reporting on the construction of a contentious natural gas pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia.
“As was the case this past summer in Fairy Creek, and several other instances before it, the RCMP has gone outside the law in its efforts to prevent the press from covering events taking place in the public interest. It is an absolute disgrace,” said Brent Jolly, CAJ president. “In fact, in late September, Justice Douglas Thompson of the Supreme Court of British Columbia refused to extend an injunction around Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island because of police misconduct.”
“On multiple occasions, courts and quasi-judicial bodies have been clear that restrictions on media are unjustified in a free and democratic society. Whether through open defiance, or downright ignorance, the RCMP continues to act with outright impunity in defying these legal orders. This audacious subversion of Canadian law cannot — and will not — be tolerated.”
At this point in time, the CAJ is unsure where Bracken or Toledano’s camera equipment is located. If it is with police, the CAJ demands that their property be returned to them, with the contents intact.
On Thursday, the RCMP detained independent filmmaker Melissa Cox, who was later released without charges. This incident marks the second time Cox has been detained while covering a land dispute related to the Wet’suwet’en territory. In March 2020, she was charged with mischief and trespassing at a railway blockade in New Hazelton, B.C. Those charges were thrown out of court last summer.
Both Bracken and Toledano are known to the RCMP as journalists, having spent considerable amounts of time reporting on the land disputes associated with the construction of the Coastal GasLink project. Bracken, who last year was one of three journalists awarded with the CAJ’s Charles Bury Award for her outstanding contributions to journalism in Wet’suwet’en, was on assignment for The Narwhal. Bracken was specifically chosen for protecting the public’s right to see events unfolding at Wet’suwet’en despite threats of arrest at an earlier conflict. Toledano has been living in the Wet’suwet’en territory for the past three years as a member of the media to create a documentary called “Yintah,” which will be airing on national television in 2022.
The RCMP stated the reason for arresting the two was because they had “embedded” with the protestors, which has never been illegal in Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Justice Derek Green affirmed these rights when he found in favour of journalist Justin Brake who faced criminal and civil charges after spending several days inside the Muskrat Falls site covering a protest that shut work down at the project in 2016. The civil charges were dismissed in 2019 by Justice Green. The criminal charges, too, were subsequently dropped.
“The Narwhal is extremely disturbed that photojournalist Amber Bracken was arrested for doing her job while reporting on the events unfolding in Wet’suwet’en territory,” said Carol Linnitt, executive editor of The Narwhal. “The RCMP are refusing to release Bracken, in violation of her charter rights. We strongly condemn the RCMP for this behaviour and all violations of press freedoms in this country.”
In response to the arrests, an outpouring of support for Bracken and Toledano has been expressed online by fellow journalists and press freedom groups. Bail hearings for Bracken and Toledano are scheduled for Monday in Prince George.
The arrest of Bracken and Toledano is the latest instance of Canadian police detaining journalists who are simply trying to do their jobs. In addition to Cox, law enforcement also arrested Indigenous journalist and podcast host Karl Dockstaderwho was covering a land dispute in Ontario. Those charges were withdrawn.
“This militarized police force, and others, continue to arrest journalists despite the fact that doing so is illegal, knowing charges will never stick,” said Jolly. “They are now openly defying the courts, the law, and operating outside the norms of a democracy. One can only conclude that their sole reason is to keep the public from witnessing their actions.”
The CAJ calls on Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino to instruct the RCMP to immediately drop any charges against Bracken and Toledano. Mendicino must also tell the RCMP to stop arresting journalists.