Award-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken was among 15 people arrested Friday during an RCMP operation to remove protesters blocking access to a Coastal GasLink construction site in northern British Columbia.
At the time of her arrest, Ms. Bracken, a freelance journalist, was reporting amid rising tensions near Houston, B.C., at the Gidimt’en camp in Wet’suwet’en territory. Michael Toledano, another freelance journalist, was also taken into custody. Friday marked the second day of arrests by the RCMP. The force took 14 people into custody a day earlier.
At the centre of the conflict is Coastal GasLink’s construction of a 670-kilometre pipeline that would transport natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a liquid natural gas facility in Kitimat.
Indigenous protesters who oppose the pipeline had been blocking access for nearly a week to a forest service road used by more than 500 workers. The RCMP moved in Thursday to clear the site.
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was asked about the arrests at an unrelated news conference on Saturday.
“All I will comment on at this point is that the RCMP were enforcing a court injunction,” he said. “As you know, I do not direct the RCMP. I do know that two journalists were detained and subsequently released.”
However, The Globe and Mail has confirmed that Ms. Bracken and Mr. Toledano, along with the others who were arrested, remained in custody Saturday afternoon.
Frances Mahon, a lawyer for Ms. Bracken, who confirmed their status with RCMP, said the pair were being transported from Smithers to Prince George, where there will be a bail hearing on Monday.
Pressed on his role in the arrests as minister who oversees the Police Act and public safety in the province, Mr. Farnworth reiterated that he does not direct police.
“You do not want politicians directing the police,” he said. “For complaint processes, for people who feel that their rights have been infringed, there are legislated complaint processes that can be accessed by people, and I can tell you that they are. Those complaints are investigated, and there are bodies that do that.”
Ms. Mahon would not go into details about Ms. Bracken’s arrest, but told The Globe and Mail that she found the arrests “shocking, and the manner in which they were carried out was shocking.”
“It is really horrifying that Michael and Amber were arrested, but I also want to stress the horrifying nature of the arrests of the Wet’suwet’en and Gidimt’en people from the land yesterday,” she said. “In my view, [the arrests Thursday and Friday] were both profound violations of the rights of the people who were arrested.”
Gidimt’en camp members called the events at the forest blockade “an ongoing siege.”
“A convoy of dozens of RCMP officers, escorting Coastal GasLink workers and heavy equipment, violently raided Coyote Camp, removing Wet’suwet’en people from their own lands,” they said in a statement.
“Police were deployed in military garb, armed with assault weapons and dog teams, and enforced a media and communications blackout at the site.”
According to Gidimt’en camp members, RCMP officers with a dog unit illegally broke into a cabin with an axe, and without a warrant. Moments later, they said, officers used a chainsaw to breach a separate cabin built on Coastal GasLink’s proposed drill pad site, while snipers aimed at the door.
The RCMP said in a statement that officers were enforcing a court injunction granted to Coastal GasLink by the B.C. Supreme Court, which prohibits protesters from stopping pipeline workers from using the road. Police arrived on Friday to find “additional obstructions, blockades” and “two building-like structures” near the drilling site, the statement added.
Police read the court injunction aloud and encouraged anyone inside the buildings to leave, and, when protesters refused, the officers broke through the doors and began arresting people, the RCMP said.
“Police can confirm that among those inside the structures were two individuals who later identified themselves as independent journalists,” the RCMP added.
Ms. Bracken had been working on assignment for the online magazine The Narwhal and had been given press passes and a formal letter of assignment, editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail.
Ms. Gilchrist added that The Narwhal also reached out to the local RCMP media liaisons to inform them that Ms. Bracken would be working as a journalist covering the Gidimt’en camp.
“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 on Friday,” the statement said.
“As of Friday night, the RCMP were 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.”
The Narwhal said it has not been able to recover Ms. Bracken’s equipment.
Police action in the Wet’suwet’en territory and around other blockades, such as those at Fairy Creek, has contributed to longstanding concerns over whether police are infringing on the freedom of the press during protests.
Kiran Nazish, founder and director of Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), said she was surprised to see police treating journalists like protesters under any circumstances. But, she noted, such incidents are becoming more common in Canada.
“In recent months, Canada has risen the ranks among the top countries on two major trends: online trolling, and police violence,” Ms. Nazish said.
Over the past year, Ms. Nazish added, CFWIJ has received reports of police asking journalists to leave demonstrations or impeding them from reporting, restricting their access, intimidating them, physically obstructing them or arresting them. She said these things are disproportionately happening to female reporters.
“In a democracy, a crucial part of law enforcement’s job is to allow and protect journalists so they can do their job freely and safely,” she said.
“The current rise of police aggression towards the press is not ineptitude. We think this is done deliberately. This calls for not only a much-needed push back from the media industry, but also a national conversation about freedoms in Canada.”
Ms. Bracken is an Edmonton-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, Maclean’s and the Wall Street Journal.
She was recognized by the Canadian Association of Journalists for her “moral courage” during her coverage for The Narwhal of the Wet’suwet’en crisis last year. Ms. Bracken also won a World Press Photo Award for her coverage of Standing Rock in 2017.
Mr. Toledano is a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on Canadian resource extraction, according to his website. His writing and images have appeared in Vice and Al Jazeera America.
With files from Andrea Woo
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