Amber Bracken RCMP arrest Wet'suwet'en Coastal GasLink

‘I felt kidnapped’: a journalist’s view of being arrested by the RCMP

Police put me in handcuffs when I should have been doing my job. I wanted to be doing my job. I am furious

All at once, RCMP officers came out of their hiding spots to fill the courtyard surrounding a tiny house at a site known as Coyote Camp in Wet’suwet’en territory. Police wore both regular blue uniforms and a militarized green version, the latter laden with assault rifles and tactical equipment. The scene has already become known across Canada — police dogs barking and whining as officers used an axe and a chainsaw to enter the small structure to arrest seven unarmed and peaceful individuals. 

Soon they would take my cameras from me. After that, my rights.

Some of the first advice I was given as a baby journalist was: “Don’t get arrested. You can’t make any pictures from the back of a police car.” This maxim has served me well most of my career, which has taken me into zones of conflict and protest across North America.

But covering the Wet’suwet’en pipeline opposition last month, I realized its limit: I could not both do my job as a journalist and avoid arrest. On Nov. 19, the RCMP made that impossible for me.

Being a photojournalist stripped of my gear in a moment of profound national importance heightened my senses. 

As I’m escorted away from the camp along the main access road, I began to register all the photos I couldn’t make: the mountain forest road lined with Coastal GasLink trucks, heavy machinery and workers. As we drive by, a worker waves to the RCMP officers. 

A Gitxsan woman holds her cedar headpiece in her hands, a discordant echo of the two tighter circles of the steel handcuffs on her wrists. In the back of a police van, strained faces turned to joy at the news that arrestees Jocey Alec, daughter of Chief Woos, and Teka’tsihasere (Corey Jocko), Haudenosaunee supporter of the Coastal GasLink opposition, were newly engaged, the big question being popped on the eve of RCMP enforcement. 

At the Houston detachment where we are processed, Gidimt’en spokesperson Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham) places her hand on a wall of thick glass brick, reaching towards a distorted view of her mother’s hand on the other side. Eyes peer through food slots and cheeks press against the floor, straining to see and hear past heavy metal doors. 

These are all images I couldn’t capture after I was arrested on the  second day of an RCMP raid of opponents to the Coastal GasLink pipeline that saw 30 arrests. I have been reporting on this national story for over three years, but that day, I was forced to become part of it. I watched in agony as so many poignant moments slipped by, only recorded in my memory. I felt kidnapped. Having never been arrested before, it is the best word I can think of to describe being taken so abruptly out of my life and work, in violation of Canadian Charter rights protecting freedom of the press.  

That day I was documenting as Sleydo’ and her supporters locked themselves inside a tiny house adjacent to the pipeline right of way. Next to me in the cramped space was freelance reporter Michael Toledano, filming a documentary for the CBC. After RCMP arrived by helicopter, they surrounded the building, cut all communications, then broke down the door. Chunks of wood flew across the small space, before they switched to a chainsaw. As soon as there was a big enough hole, they pointed weapons at the unarmed group standing inside with hands raised. I kept photographing but adrenaline vibrated my entire body as I contemplated but decided against the risk of turning my back to the door, officer and gun. 

Just outside, a police dog barked incessantly as police arrested everyone — including me. I clearly said “I’m a member of the media,” but one police officer responded, “well you’re under arrest right now, so step out. You’re under arrest.” 

It also didn’t matter that The Narwhal had notified the RCMP ahead of time I would be on site, that I was displaying a Narwhal press pass, or that the RCMP had been tracking me as a journalist. They knew exactly what I was doing there. My arrest, and the arrest of other media covering Wet’suwet’en, is part of a pattern of police interference with reporting on Indigenous resistance movements. 

Most of those arrested that day were treated worse than I was — officers cut a medicine bag and ripped cedar regalia from Sleydo’, a hereditary wing chief. She says it was the only time she cried during the whole experience. Afterwards, they put her in a cell alone to worry about her kids, since they had also arrested her husband. Two racialized trans women were asked invasive questions about their bodies, denied important medication several times, put into the men’s side of prison and addressed by male pronouns.

An officer aims a rifle into a one-room wooden home where land-defenders are gathered in opposition to construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline
A militarized police officer aims his gun into a tiny house full of unarmed individuals on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

We were all detained for days in cold cells. If the charges had been criminal, rather than the less serious civil breach of injunction, we would have been afforded the right to see a judge within 24 hours — I could have signed release conditions and regained my freedom. They took most of our clothes, denied us soap and toothbrushes, and only allowed us to speak to our lawyers. We all listened as Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan and traditional struggle songs reverberated through the metal and concrete halls, their rounds of harmony transforming the cell blocks into cathedrals of the human spirit. 

When I was released, headlines across the world celebrated my freedom, even as Sleydo’, the two trans women and several other supporters still sat in the Prince George correctional centre. 

One of my first freedom calls was from a good friend, who is Indigenous. She was proud of me for following the story, but joked “so, how does it feel to be treated like a native?” Her point was clear — Indigenous people are criminalized every day. 

My experience of jail is not unique, but RCMP efforts to suppress press freedom — especially around stories that focus on Indigenous issues — is critically important in this moment.

The police prevented me from doing my job. I should have been documenting as the RCMP arrested the other land defenders. I should have been there to photograph as police and industry workers dismantled Coyote Camp and burned another cabin to the ground. I should have been present to capture the Gitxsan nation organizing solidarity actions, militarized police patrolling them, and as supporters gathered on roadsides and at the jails to sing.

Instead, my camera sat in lockup. I sat on cinder block benches and was transported between detachments in metal boxes. 

The public record of what happens in Wet’suwet’en territory should be beyond police interference. The arrest of Indigenous Peoples on their land concerns every single person in Canada as we wrestle with our collective history and future. 

The Wet’suwet’en Nation has never signed a treaty or ceded their territory, a vast area of 22,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of New Jersey. In the 1997 Delgamuukw decision, a case brought by Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed both nations’ Aboriginal Rights and Title are intact and that the nation’s territory had never been ceded to the Crown. In the Delgamuukw case the hereditary chiefs established that the Wet’suwet’en have a system of Indigenous law that existed before the creation of elected band councils enacted under the Indian Act. ​​​​​​Within Wet’suwet’en law, hereditary chiefs hold responsibility for territorial lands. These hereditary chiefs are the forces leading the opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

At the time of the Delgamuukw decision the Supreme Court also said that a second case would be needed to define the territory’s exact boundaries, but the nation’s claim was clear enough that the B.C. government and various industries began scrambling to try and extinguish that title to create more certainty for development. Although much has been made of the Wet’suwet’en elected chiefs who vocally support the pipeline project and the benefit agreements they’ve signed, the question of whether or not the project’s approval is in violation of Wet’suwet’en rights has not been resolved in the courts. The hereditary chiefs maintain, however, that the pipeline being forced through their territory is in violation of Wet’suwet’en law. 

The elected system was imposed along with the Indian Act and reservations, while the hereditary system predates colonization. Elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs fulfill a crucial role for their respective communities on multiple reserves. But the Coastal GasLink pipeline route doesn’t cross Wet’suwet’en reserve land, it crosses traditional territory where it’s hereditary chiefs who are tasked with ancient responsibilities, and where they have been recognized as stakeholders by B.C.’s Supreme Court. 

Despite the staunch opposition of the hereditary chiefs, the government has permitted a project through the most intact portion of Wet’suwet’en territory without consent — and the RCMP has been directed by the courts to suppress pipeline opposition, a task they’ve taken on with paramilitary force.

Regardless of who has a right to consent to the project, the show of force against Wet’suwet’en occupation camps — and the suppression of related coverage — is in itself worth talking about. 

The North-West Mounted Police formed in 1873 “to bring Canadian authority” to present day Alberta and Saskatchewan. Later they would be renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and gain national jurisdiction. This paramilitary force was instrumental in pushing Indigenous people from their land to make way for settlers and the railway. 

On Wet’suwet’en territory 150 years later, RCMP are back in military formation, with guns in hand, to remove people from the land. Over the last three years, police with authority to use lethal force have arrested more than 60 people on behalf of Coastal GasLink. 

This reality, especially images of militarized officers wielding advanced weapons, is an uncomfortable one for both the RCMP and governments in an era enamoured with the concept of reconciliation. British Columbia recently passed its two-year anniversary of codifying Indigenous rights in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. In June Canada implemented the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for free, prior and informed consent of natural resource and development projects on Indigenous lands. With Canada’s minister of Crown-Indigenous relations acknowledging “it’s time to give land back,” it’s no wonder Canadians and Indigenous Peoples are experiencing a kind of reconciliation disorientation. 

Stories that fit the comfortable reconciliation narrative are much easier for reporters to tell. I’ve never seen tactical weapons at a press conference announcing a benefits agreement between an industry company and a First Nation. I’ve never been arrested reporting on new federal funding for Indigenous protected areas, or when politicians are included in First Nations’ ceremonies. 

Coastal GasLink, operated by TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, also runs a sophisticated press strategy. Its narrative — of economic benefit for all, including nearby First Nations — gets coverage in the regular news grind, often generated by industry-supplied press releases. It’s much more difficult to tell the untold sides of the pipeline story. I’ve talked to journalists from multiple outlets who have also been frustrated by half answers or no answer at all to questions about the pipeline from company spokespeople. And forget about any unsupervised conversation with workers or a chance to get a close look at what’s actually unfolding on project sites and in construction zones.

For a full understanding of this issue, what actually happens to Indigenous people who assert land rights or challenge official narratives, it’s critical every Canadian has the opportunity to see and viscerally understand what’s happening on the ground. 

I was eventually released from Prince George, some four and a half hours from where I had been arrested. I had to literally dig my personal belongings out of the wreckage from Coyote Camp, which had been scooped up with heavy machinery and dumped along with ice, rocks and mud at the bottom of the mountain. Now that I’m safely back home, I’m finally catching up with the notes of concern and notes of solidarity from other journalists in Canada who have been through similar experiences. The following are just a few notable examples. 

The most famous photograph of a standoff between Canadian force and Indigenous land defenders — the young military man facing off with an Ojibwe warrior at Oka, Quebec, in 1990 — was taken by a photographer named Shani Komulainen, but not many people realize she was arrested, strip searched and detained for five hours as she left the scene. Army operatives tried their best to discredit Komulainen and the other journalists who ventured inside the razor wire. Officers were annoyed at contradictions to their official account. They spied on journalists. They ordered reporters to leave. They blocked supplies and the outflow of stories and film. They denied members of the media re-entry if they left the protest zone. 

Months after her arrest, Komulainen was charged with possession of a weapon or an imitation of a weapon, threatening and interfering with the work of a peace agent and participating in a riot. It cost The Canadian Press and its members over $100,000 to defend Komulainen, but the charges against her were eventually dropped. Komulainen says she had so much pent up emotion from the months of the trial (and her recovery from a terrible car accident) that she surprised herself by bawling, instead of celebrating, when the ‘not guilty’ verdict was read.

At the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff, a dispute over land rights for a Secwepemc Sun Dance ceremony, RCMP responded to the group of 24 with at least 400 heavily armed officers. No media was present when, on Sept. 11, the situation culminated in a 45 minute firefight, where police deployed land mines and thousands of rounds of ammunition. RCMP are alleged to have prevented media from speaking to Indigenous leaders during the standoff. At trial, a video was entered into evidence showing RCMP officers discussing “a disinformation or a smear campaign.” RCMP would later disavow it as “a joke.” Despite the incredible show of militarized police force and continued calls for an official inquiry, there is no public record of that day. Gustafsen Lake remains one of the most obscured Indigenous land rights disputes in Canada.

Much more recently, in 2016, Justin Brake, working as a freelancer for The Independent, followed a group of Inuit and their supporters into the Muskrat Falls dam site, and spent several days inside as the occupation stopped work on the project. When an injunction named and accused him of trespassing, Brake had to decide if he would face arrest in order to cover the story. He decided to leave before police enforced the injunction, but was still burdened with both civil and criminal charges.

It took four long years, but again, all of the charges against Brake were dismissed. When the civil charges were dismissed in 2019 in the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal, the ruling definitively affirmed the rights of journalists in Canada to report from within injunction zones, like I did. In his judgement, Justice Derek Green outlined specific parameters that apply to journalists following newsworthy stories. Notably, he emphasized that “particular consideration should be given to protests involving Aboriginal issues.” 

When I speak to police officers, I bring up the Brake decision all of the time — very few have even a peripheral awareness of the case. 

In the summer of 2020, Ontario police waited until Oneida journalist Karl Dockstader had already returned home before telling him to turn himself in after he covered LandBack Lane. Dockstader was arrested and charged with mischief and failure to comply with a court order, again for reporting from within another injunction zone. His charges were also dropped months later, along with charges against 24 other people.

Since 2018, Jesse Winter, Jerome Turner (who is Gitxsan), Melissa Cox, Dan Loan and at least two other filmmakers have all been corralled, detained, removed from the area or arrested while covering the Wet’suwet’en reoccupation camps. Media have routinely been denied access to RCMP “exclusion zones.” In 2020, I was threatened with arrest for having stepped on a blocked road as I documented police apprehending Howilhkat (Freda Huson), her family and supporters. I believe I was only saved from that set of handcuffs because of scrutiny on RCMP at the time, who were being criticized for their deployment of illegal media exclusion tactics and vocal threats of media arrests. 

Freda Huson Brenda Michell RCMP Unist'ot'en
Freda Huson, centre, and her sister, Brenda Michell, stand in ceremony while they wait for police to enforce Coastal GasLink’s injunction in February of 2020. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

And most recently, over this past spring, the ongoing protest against old-growth logging at Fairy Creek, became notorious for RCMP harassing and unreasonably restricting journalists. One reporter, Paul Johnson of Global News, compared the situation to his experience in China and other repressive countries. 

The situation was so bad that a coalition of media organizations, including the Canadian Association of Journalists and The Narwhal, launched a successful legal challenge against the RCMP’s illegal suppression of press freedoms at Fairy Creek. 

On July 20, 2021, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson addressed the RCMP practice of creating vast exclusion zones and media access points, stating the “geographically extensive” areas weren’t necessary for police operations. He also reminded the RCMP of “the media’s special role in a free and democratic society, and the necessity of avoiding undue and unnecessary interference with the journalistic function.” This was a way past due affirmation of press freedoms in Canada and journalists were collectively pretty excited.

But less than a month later, on August 10, 2021, Victoria Buzz photojournalist Colin Smith was arrested at Fairy Creek. He was detained in the back of a prisoner transport in the hot sun. As he became claustrophobic, feeling faint, sweaty and visibly shaking, Smith says an officer advised him to take deep breaths but didn’t open the doors. Eventually Smith was released without charges but the experience left a mark — he says that when he went back to the site his fear of the police and the looming threat of being put back in the metal wagon interfered with his ability to document what was going on. At least two other independent media photographers were also arrested and detained at Fairy Creek, and many more have been threatened or severely limited.

Mere months after Thompson’s decision, and two years after Green’s decision on considerations for journalists covering Indigenous protest in injunction zones, the state of press freedom in Canada is worse than ever. 

On the first day of enforcement of the Coastal GasLink injunction in November, filmmaker Melissa Cox was the first person arrested at another Wet’suwet’en camp. Her footage wasn’t released until days later and as a result those 15 arrests, that included Wet’suwet’en Elders, legal observers and some people who were hit with clubs, punched, thrown on the ground and contorted, did not see as much coverage.

For two days in a row during the enforcement, APTN journalist Lee Wilson’s attempts to report on the situation were blocked by RCMP. The first day, the officers on the ground told him “no,” he couldn’t go up the access road, such decisions were left up to the local detachment. The next day he was told “no” by the local detachment, because the decision had to come from officers on the ground. Those officers finally gave him a flat “no” — he would absolutely not be getting access to the area. 

Wilson had found himself in a similar situation in 2020: the only difference was that now, instead of explicitly calling the area “an exclusion zone” or an “injunction zone,” RCMP were now conscientiously using the term “police checkpoint.” 

It seems the only thing the RCMP have learned from Fairy Creek is to police their language. 

Hours after Wilson was prevented from doing his job, an officer told me that if I was “any credible media person [I] would have left.” 

The threat of arrest does have a dampening effect on reporting. Karyn Pugliese, now at the CBC, was at APTN when she jumped in to support Justin Brake back in 2016. In an interview with Canadaland, Pugliese spoke about her anxieties as an assigning editor, forced to contend with escalating police tactics as she sends journalists into the field: “What if she ends up in jail? I’m responsible for that. What if I can’t protect her? And that’s where you start creeping into this police state.”

Police use exclusion zones, arrest and the threat of arrest to control media access to newsworthy places: places where Indigenous people and land defenders are resisting industry, government and corporate mandates on their territories, and where the RCMP or the OPP are spending millions in militarized response. No one in Canada should tolerate police efforts to intimidate journalists or limit news coverage.  

There is no doubt in my mind that my arrest was intended to frighten, humiliate and deter me from continuing to cover this story. Both Toledano and I faced police interference with our ability to report. We both now face civil charges. 

One of the more surreal moments of this experience was at the Prince George courthouse. When it was my turn to see the judge, sheriffs escorted me in socked feet down a series of institutional hallways and up a narrow staircase. At the end a door abruptly opened from the echoing gloom onto a bright room hushed by thick red carpet, upholstery and courtroom protocol. By that point, I had been wearing my now filthy nylon-thin leggings and sweatshirt for days. They had taken my glasses, my hair tie and my bra. I wouldn’t have opened the door for a delivery driver dressed like that — I felt indecent. The oak-panelled room held very few observers, including Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs Woos and Madeek. Everyone else was fully clothed, as were the sheriffs and the court reporter. Madam Justice Marguerite Church presided from the raised bench in her black judge’s robes, as I sat barely dressed and cold in the prisoners box. I was supposed to feel small. 

But my arrest actually makes me a big part of a national reckoning with press freedoms, and what reconciliation means for journalism. I know I am not alone in doing this work or in dealing with the fallout. So many media friends and colleagues have rallied behind us. I am eternally grateful. 

Many more have said it — “truth before reconciliation” but that can’t happen if journalists are routinely criminalized in pursuit of this truth. 

Our courts affirm the rights of journalists to access and report on these issues, Indigenous people are shouting to be heard and yet we let police be the arbiters of this crucial conversation. Let this be the last time. 

Police put me in handcuffs when I should have been doing my job. I wanted to be doing my job. And I am furious.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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