Two journalists who were arrested for violating a court order against blocking access to a natural gas pipeline project have been released after an outcry over press freedom and heavy-handed enforcement by the RCMP.
Award-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano had been in custody since Friday, when they were arrested as RCMP moved in to enforce a court injunction designed to ensure access to Coastal Gaslink work sites.
In a statement on Monday, RCMP said both journalists had been released.
“The RCMP does not question or dispute that the two individuals who identified themselves as journalists while being arrested, were in fact journalists or on assignment,” according to a statement from Eric Stubbs, an RCMP assistant commissioner in B.C.
The statement said police are willing to work with the media to ensure clear processes are in place for all involved.
The RCMP statement said the two journalists did not identify themselves when they were inside a barricaded building and police were outside reading the injunction. During bail hearings in Prince George on Monday, the court heard that RCMP officers know Ms. Bracken from her work in the area, and that she was wearing badges that identified her as press.
Ms. Bracken, who was on assignment for The Narwhal, and Mr. Toledano, who is working on a film about Indigenous resistance to the Coastal GasLink project, were among 15 people arrested on Friday during a clash over the construction of the pipeline through Wet’suwet’en Nation territory in northern B.C.
Several people were arrested the previous day, putting the total number of arrests over two days at 29, as dozens of RCMP officers moved to clear a logging road.
Groups including the Canadian Association of Journalists and World Press Freedom Canada denounced the RCMP and called for the immediate release of the two journalists.
Politicians also criticized the arrests.
All Canadians should “be very concerned” about the “unlawful detention of journalists,” Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations said, adding that journalists play a crucial role in holding people to account in Canadian democracy.
Mr. Miller also referenced a recent court decision on the right of journalists to work unimpeded.
He told reporters in Ottawa on Monday that once journalists have identified themselves, they should be left to do their jobs.
In a September B.C. Supreme Court decision related to logging protests at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, Justice Douglas Thompson declined to renew a court injunction prohibiting blockades, calling the tactics used to enforce it a “serious and substantial infringement of civil liberties, including impairment of the freedom of the press.”
The B.C. Court of Appeal in October reinstated the injunction on an interim basis. The issue was back in court this month, and a decision is pending.
The arrests this month in northern B.C. renewed the spotlight on RCMP tactics, which have been criticized as excessive and obstructive, especially setting up exclusion zones that prevent journalists from seeing arrests or other interactions. The RCMP have used exclusion zones at Fairy Creek and while enforcing the Coastal GasLink injunction.
The arrests of the two journalists, along with Indigenous people and others, have rekindled tensions that flared in early 2020 as people blocked highways and railways across the country to support Wet’suwet’en Nation people who were fighting the pipeline project.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge granted the injunction in December, 2018, to ensure pipeline workers were not blocked by Indigenous demonstrators who opposed the project and their supporters. On Dec. 31, 2019, the injunction was extended after opponents of the project set up barricades along a logging road near Houston, B.C.
In her 51-page decision, Justice Marguerite Church cited the need for workers to have safe passage to their construction sites. She wrote that the “significant harm” from blockades against Coastal GasLink “is not only irreparable in nature, but significant in magnitude.”
Justice Church also pointed to the financial repercussions of obstructions for the project. She said her ruling provides “a mandate to the RCMP to enforce the terms of the order.”
Coastal GasLink last week said 400 workers at one of its accommodation sites and 120 people at another didn’t have food or water deliveries because demonstrators began blocking access on Nov. 14 to a site near the logging road. In this area, Coastal GasLink is preparing to drill under the Morice River, using a technique called micro-tunnelling.
“When the safety of our workforce is compromised and our ability to build our fully authorized and permitted project is stopped by individuals acting outside the law, we must rely on the authorities to ensure that the rights of all individuals in the area are respected and protected,” Coastal GasLink said in a statement late Monday.
The elected band councils of 20 Indigenous communities along the Coastal GasLink route, including five Wet’suwet’en bands, support the pipeline. But the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a non-profit society that represents hereditary chiefs, counters that elected Indigenous leaders don’t have jurisdiction over the Wet’suwet’en’s traditional, off-reserve territory.
Coastal GasLink’s 670-kilometre route crosses about 190 kilometres of the Wet’suwet’en’s traditional territory.
“LNG Canada respects the rights of individuals to peacefully express their points of view, as long as their activities do not jeopardize people’s safety and are within the law,” Denita McKnight, LNG Canada’s director of corporate affairs, said in a statement.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on Monday it is very important that journalists can do their jobs freely without any interference.
With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa
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