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Photojournalist Amber Bracken, centre, lawyer Sean Hern, back left, and Emma Gilchrist, editor-in-chief and executive director of The Narwhal, listen during a news conference after filing a lawsuit at B.C. Supreme Court against the RCMP, in Vancouver, on Feb. 13.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A photojournalist and The Narwhal media outlet are suing the RCMP over her arrest and three-night detention while covering the Wet’suwet’en pipeline standoff in November, 2021, with the plaintiffs saying they want to stop Mounties from further alleged breaches of reporters’ Charter rights at contentious demonstrations.

Edmonton-based Amber Bracken spoke to reporters on the steps of Vancouver’s B.C. Supreme Court on Monday moments after filing the lawsuit that wants a judge to award general, aggravate, special and punitive damages against the defendants for her arrest – which made international headlines and drew condemnation from a raft of media outlets.

The suit also wants a judge to rule that the RCMP had no justification for violating her and her employer’s constitutional rights to freedom of the press under Section 2b of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“As a journalist, I never wanted to be the story, but the police took that decision from me when they finally made it impossible for me to do my job,” said Ms. Bracken, while flanked by the two co-founders of the non-profit media outlet and their lead counsel.

“What happens in Wet’suwet’en territory continues to be critically important, with newsworthy events intersecting energy, environment, Indigenous rights and policing.”

The suit states Ms. Bracken stationed herself inside a tiny cabin so that she could capture the arrests of the handful of protesters that day, because any journalists found within the “exclusion zone” of the remote northern B.C. area covered by a court injunction would be arrested immediately and escorted out.

The suit alleges RCMP leadership knew she was on assignment for The Narwhal inside the area and yet front-line Mounties did not verify her repeated claims she was a journalist as they were arresting her. Mounties also, the suit alleges, told her they were unaware of the landmark 2019 Newfoundland Court of Appeal decision she cited as underscoring that she, as a journalist, should not be arrested for contempt of an injunction as long as she was reporting on matters of public interest and not directly taking part in any unlawful activity.

The officers told her a judge could decide and drove her to a nearby detachment. It was a Friday afternoon, leading to her spending the weekend in the cells of two RCMP detachments before being released by a judge in Prince George the following Monday afternoon, according to the lawsuit.

The arrest of Ms. Bracken, who later won the 2022 World Press Photo of the Year for her image of a memorial on Tk’emlups te Secwepemc land, and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano sparked an outcry over press freedom and heavy-handedness from the RCMP.

At the time, the force 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 said, at the time, they arrived that Friday to find “additional obstructions, blockades” and “two building-like structures” near the drilling site.

On the Christmas Eve after her arrest, Ms. Bracken received official notice that Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is owned by Calgary-based TC Energy, was dropping its civil-contempt lawsuit against her, which also meant she was no longer bound by the terms of her release or the injunction.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and The Globe and Mail did not receive a substantial reaction to the lawsuit Monday from any of the defendants, which are the attorney-general of Canada, the provincial government, and three unnamed front-line Mounties.

The suit also names Chief Superintendent John Brewer, the commander of the force in that area, whom allegedly e-mailed provincial bureaucrats a day after her arrest to let them know Mounties had evidence casting doubt on Ms. Bracken’s “impartiality” as a journalist and that showed she had been “advocating” for and “assisting” the Wet’suwet’en protesters. This “package” of evidence was never produced by this Mountie or the RCMP, the notice of civil claim states.

Staff Sergeant Kris Clark, a senior spokesperson for the Mounties in B.C., said his force is aware of the lawsuit but did not know Monday afternoon whether it had been served yet.

“Once served, the Department of Justice will review and a statement of defence for the RCMP will be issued through the appropriate court process,” he said in a statement.

The attorney-general of Canada was also named in the lawsuit, but a spokesperson for the federal Department of Justice deferred to the B.C. RCMP to comment on Monday. A spokesperson for B.C. Attorney-General Niki Sharma did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

Emma Gilchrist, co-founder of The Narwhal and its editor-in-chief, said a judge could help protect journalists from future infringements on their freedoms as they try to document arrests at controversial protests.

“That would also have implications because police would have to change their practices,” she said.

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