When journalists document the efforts of Indigenous land defenders, the RCMP obstructs and arrests them
The Tyee: The Breach – When Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians set up camp at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in 2016 to stop the flooding of their lands, the historical record held a frightening list of potential scenarios that might be about to unfold.
Just a few years earlier, the RCMP had responded to Mi’kmaw land defenders near Elsipogtog in New Brunswick with assault rifles and snipers. They arrested dozens of people.
Shocking as the Mounties’ response seemed at the time, their aggression toward Mi’kmaq was just the latest in a protracted pattern of militarized colonial violence against Indigenous peoples. The Kanesatake resistance, Ipperwash, and Gustafson Lake all serve as stark reminders of how merciless the Canadian state will be, via the RCMP, when Indigenous peoples dare protect their lands, rights, or ways of life.
The RCMP’s response to the Mi’kmaw land defense in New Brunswick had an additional element. The force targeted an independent journalist who had embedded with the Mi’kmaq.
As the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marks its 150th anniversary on May 23, 2023, it’s vital to understand how the encroachment on Indigenous land has always gone hand in hand with their encroachment on press freedom—part of their perennial effort to contain the danger of journalism that illuminates the violence of colonialism.
The threat of honest reporting
Through his coverage for the Halifax Media Co-op, reporter and editor Miles Howe conveyed in his reporting a more informed understanding of Mi’kmaw history than mainstream journalists, and an understanding of Canada’s tactics in dealing with Indigenous people who resist unwanted encroachment on their lands.
But it was Howe’s pro-Indigenous rights editorial position and his unorthodox style of reporting that likely made him a target for the cops. From a traditional journalism perspective, Howe’s work was neither balanced nor objective—the sort of slanted “objectivity” that settler media have long offered as their contribution to colonization.
In an apparent effort to capitalize on Howe’s supposedly controversial actions, they removed him from—and stifled his coverage of—the ongoing conflict. That RCMP tactic was front of mind as I covered the escalating resistance to Muskrat Falls, a major hydroelectric project on the lower Churchill River in Labrador, in 2016. The tactic was especially important to remember during the three-day occupation of a worker accommodations complex.
On the occupation’s first day, an Innu land defender, who was old enough to recall the Innu resistance to NATO low-level fighter jet training in Goose Bay in the 1990s, cautioned the others about what the RCMP might do. He said the Mounties might target him, and that if the others—including children and Elders—saw cops beating him up, not to intervene. He warned that any attempt to protect one another from police violence would be used to justify arresting everyone.
Over the ensuing 72 hours, I livestreamed the occupation. While Nalcor Energy, the Crown corporation building the dam, as well the provincial government and the RCMP tried to paint the protesters as a threat to workers’ safety, this coverage directly contradicted their carefully-crafted PR messaging.
Instead, my coverage for The Independent showed kids and their parents drawing and watching movies, Muskrat Falls workers sharing food and clothing with the occupiers, Inuit women lighting a Qulliq, land protectors singing the Ode to Labrador, and everyone uniting in prayer.
Criminalizing anti-colonial media
Tens of thousands of people tuned in to The Independent’s coverage, and the occupation gripped the province’s imagination. Detrimentally, for the RCMP, public support swelled for the locals fighting to protect their lands, waters and traditional foods. If the Mounties were planning to barge in with guns drawn as they did near Elsipogtog, they were going to have a major public relations battle on their hands.
Then, Nalcor named me and several of the land defenders on an application to a provincial Supreme Court judge, who in turn added us to his court order. That injunction empowered the RCMP to arrest me, even though I was a journalist in the midst of reporting a story of immense public interest. I was forced to either stay and risk arrest, in which case I would not be able to continue reporting, or leave the site and continue reporting from the outside. I complied with the court order, yet the RCMP still laid criminal charges against me several months later.
In 2019, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Court of Appeal overturned a provincial Supreme Court ruling that I had no special protections as a journalist covering the resistance. The decision recognized journalists’ right to cover Indigenous protest and it established a legal precedent prohibiting the use of injunctions against journalists. I was awarded a Press Freedom award for this work.
Surely, the RCMP would respect Canada’s clarified laws around press freedom and Indigenous land defense?
Continued incursions on Indigenous land—and press freedom
Since 2019, the RCMP has arbitrarily decided who is a journalist and who isn’t. They’ve prevented journalists from accessing sites of Indigenous resistance. And when journalists fought back, they reduced those barriers only to then obstruct journalists’ ability to document arrests. The Mounties have trained their guns on journalists. They’ve even arrested and jailed reporters for doing their job. These are all incursions on journalists’ and all Canadians’ constitutional right to a free press.
Most of the recent events have unfolded on Secwépemc, Wet’suwet’en, and other unceded First Nations territories in British Columbia. Amnesty International and countless organizations have condemned the RCMP’s treatment of Indigenous land defenders. And the United Nations’ Committee to End Racial Discrimination has decried the Mounties’ “use of force, surveillance, and criminalization of land defenders and peaceful protesters to intimidate, remove and forcibly evict Secwépemc and Wet’suwet’en Nations from their traditional lands.”
But the criticism has also extended to the RCMP’s continued suppression of journalists.
When the Mounties arbitrarily blocked journalists’ access to Fairy Creek protest sites in unceded Pacheedaht territory in 2021, a coalition of news outlets challenged them in court. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson ruled in the coalition’s favour, saying the RCMP’s use of “exclusion zones” to keep journalists at bay was not justified. Canadian Association of Journalists President Brent Jolly called the ruling “a watershed moment in the history of Canadian press freedom advocacy.”
Not even 24 hours later, the RCMP arrested photojournalist Colin Smith. “The utter contempt the RCMP has shown for the law, as it relates to the vital role journalists play in a free and democratic society, is both unacceptable and unjust,” Jolly said at the time.
If there was any ambiguity about the RCMP’s deliberate efforts to suppress press freedom in Canada, independent B.C. news outlet The Narwhal put the matter to rest. Last year, they reported that RCMP Chief Superintendent and C-IRG Gold Commander John Brewer sent an email to then-RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to explain why his unit had arrested photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano in November 2021. He alleged he would provide evidence that the journalists were in fact “activists”—but he never did.
Ignoring legal precedents
In the case of my arrest, the RCMP told The Narwhal that Brewer said “with certainty” that “every police officer was briefed on the Brake decision prior to commencing enforcement.”
But in the case of Bracken’s arrest, audio recordings of the incident tell a different story. “If you are accredited media, we will deal with that. But everybody’s been arrested here for breach of that civil injunction. You had the option to leave and should have left,” one officer told Bracken. “If you’re any credible media person, they would have left. I’ve dealt with hundreds, thousands of media people in my service, okay?”
Bracken asked another cop if he was aware of the legal precedent from my case. “Am I aware of the ruling? No,” he responded. “Want to explain it to me?”
The Narwhal and Bracken have launched a lawsuit against the RCMP they hope will “establish meaningful consequences for police when they interfere with the constitutional rights of journalists covering events in injunction zones,” while “clear[ing] a path for all journalists in Canada to do their work without risk of police interference.”
There will undoubtedly be more legal victories in journalists’ protracted battle with the RCMP over coverage of Indigenous land defense. But given their history and track record, the question remains: what will it actually take for Mounties to stop their violent attacks on Indigenous people who defend their lands, and on the journalists who tell those stories?
Justin Brake’s article is co-published with rcmpheritage.ca, a project that presents critical histories of the RCMP.