Wet'suwet'en Unist'ot'en camp Feb 6 2020 Amber Bracken The Narwhal

RCMP backtracks, says officers won’t stop journalists from reporting on Wet’suwet’en raid

Faced with widespread criticism, police back off on threats to arrest media reporting along the Coastal GasLink pipeline route in northwest B.C.

The RCMP is standing down on threats to arrest journalists who are reporting on a police raid in Wet’suwet’en territory in northwest B.C. that began in the early predawn hours on Thursday. The raid has continued into Friday afternoon as police advance down a forest road occupied by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Wet’suwet’en members and their supporters in opposition to the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. 

Journalists reported being threatened for photographing police in tactical gear, and some were physically removed from the site. But on Thursday evening the RCMP wavered in the face of outrage to infringement on press freedom in an email to Ethan Cox, editor of Ricochet Media. Photojournalist Amber Bracken is also on scene for The Narwhal at Unist’ot’en camp where police are expected to make arrests late Friday or Saturday.

Earlier that afternoon, Cox tweeted an email he received from an RCMP spokesperson that stated Ricochet journalist Jerome Turner was “subject to all the same restrictions as anyone else within the zone,” and would have to choose to leave or “be subject to arrest.”

By Thursday evening, the same spokesperson, Chris Manseau, amended the RCMP’s position and said journalists “can rest assured that the RCMP will make every reasonable effort to allow media personnel to get as close as possible to the enforcement area, while ensuring no interference with police operations.”

The pivot came after Cox referenced last year’s court decision in the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal, which overturned civil charges against journalist Justin Brake for disobeying an injunction as he reported on the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls hydro dam in October 2016. The court found the terms of the injunction did not apply to a journalist who is doing their job reporting events, not participating in the occupation.

The court referenced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and concluded that the media plays a key role in reconciliation. Judge Derek Green agreed with APTN (which acted as an intervener) that Indigenous Peoples have been “historically under-represented” in Canadian media.

“That makes freedom of the press to cover stories involving Indigenous land issues even more vital,” said Green.

The RCMP’s about-face is a win for journalists. But, Brake told The Narwhal, it’s a bitter win in light of the ongoing raid.

“Indigenous people are still being removed by police from their unceded lands.”

“We may be already seeing some tangible results on the ground in terms of justice for reporters [and] for everyone in this country who has the constitutionally protected right to a free press,” he said about the RCMP changing its mind and allowing reporters to do their jobs.

“At the same time, I don’t want to celebrate what’s happening. Indigenous people are still being removed by police from their unceded lands.”

The Wet’suwet’en’s hereditary leaders are opposed to the $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is under construction to move fracked gas from B.C.’s northeast to LNG Canada’s export facility in Kitimat, B.C. The RCMP are dismantling Wet’suwet’en camps as they enforce an injunction first granted to Coastal Gaslink in December 2018 and then extended in December 2019.

RCMP told press on Wednesday they would use minimal force. The next morning, before light, armed officers arrived and made 6 arrests at kilometre 39 of Morice West Forest Service Road. 

By publication time on Friday afternoon, the Gidimt’en Checkpoint at kilometre 44 tweeted they had been surrounded by RCMP and that two people had been arrested.

Wet'suwet'en Checkpoint map

Location of camps in Wet’suwet’en territory. The RCMP exclusion zone extends from the RCMP checkpoint west, past the Unist’ot’en camp. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

‘When we don’t show up, bad things happen’

Brake pointed to a long history of journalists not showing up to cover Indigenous land disputes.

“When we don’t show up, bad things can happen,” he said. He referenced the Ipperwash crisis that took place in 1995 when people from Stoney Point First Nation occupied a provincial park to assert their claim to land expropriated during the Second World War. Ontario Provincial Police moved in on the occupation and killed an unarmed man named Dudley George.

“The [Ipperwash] Inquiry found that had a journalist been present, things may have gone differently or … we may have had documentation of what happened,” he said.

Karyn Pugliese, president of The Canadian Association of Journalists and former news director at APTN, also pointed to Ipperwash as an example of the worst outcome when journalists aren’t present. She referenced a report written by Ryerson University professor John Miller. 

” … if the media would have been present that night, lives might have been saved.”

Miller looked at news coverage and saw there was little interest in the conflict from national media until the shooting happened. The night George was shot, there were no journalists present. 

Before George died, there had been 68 news stories about Ipperwash. In the month after he died, Miller counted 275 news stories.

“Back in the day, at Oka in 1990, media were front and centre. The Globe and Mail was behind the lines embedded with the protesters,” Pugliese said. 

“When Ipperwash happened, John Miller looked at the media coverage, he was convinced if the media would have been present that night, lives might have been saved,” she added.

Wet’suwet’en Gitxan supporter

A Gitxan supporter works to start a truck at a Wet’suwet’en re-occupation camp on Jan. 13, 2020. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

The book Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers (and other studies) found that the media has participated in discrimination and disenfranchisement of Indigenous Peoples by perpetuating stereotypes and neglecting to report on key issues.

Similarly, Brake said people have to consider the RCMP’s historical role in dispossessing Indigenous Peoples from their lands.

“It’s an ongoing part of the history, whether individual RCMP officers or commanders or governments see it that way or not,” he said.

He said he believes officers face a lot of pressure to enforce injunctions, but added “I don’t think all of the officers involved feel that they’re doing the right thing.”

As the raid descended upon Gidimt’en Friday morning, Brake predicts national movements of solidarity. Friday morning, supporters of Wet’suwet’en were marching through the streets in Ottawa, Indigenous youth occupied the steps of the B.C. legislature and Idle No More announced a solidarity event in Vancouver.

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