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Press freedom breach alleged in B.C. reporter's arrest

Narwhal reporter Amber Bracken was arrested in November 2021 while covering Wet’suwet’en First Nation protests against Coastal GasLink.
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Reporter Amber Bracken and The Narwhal allege freedom of the press rights breaches in pipeline protest arrest.

A photojournalist and a B.C. media outlet are suing the federal government and RCMP alleging wrongful arrest and freedom of press breaches.

In a notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Feb. 13, The Narwhal News Society and Amber Bracken seek general, aggravated and punitive damages and a declaration that her charter rights were breached. Bracken was arrested in November 2021 while reporting for The Narwhal on the Coastal GasLink protests.

The court documents state the pipeline runs through Wet’suwet’en traditional and unceded territory and is opposed by leaders of some of the nation's clans. Once completed, the pipeline will connect northeastern B.C. gas fields to an under-construction Kitimat LNG Canada terminal. 

Named as defendants are the Attorney General of Canada, the Province of B.C., RCMP Chief Supt. John Brewer and three unknown RCMP officers.

In December 2014, the same court issued an interim injunction prohibiting people from interfering with pipeline work. A 2019 interlocutory injunction gave RCMP power to remove protesters. The claim said protesters have prevented Coastal GasLink's pipeline work.

At the centre of the civil claim is a statement that the plaintiffs were covering a newsworthy event involving:

  • climate change;
  • First Nations reconciliation;
  • roles of hereditary and elected Indigenous leadership;
  • Canadian reliance on resource extraction;
  • youth and Indigenous activism;
  • the role of courts in issuing injunctions against the public in private civil law proceedings; and
  • the role and conduct of the RCMP in enforcing the injunction.

The claim said the plaintiffs had been covering the situation since before the dispute began to broaden in late 2021.

It was then that several camps of Wet’suwet’en people and supporters sprang up on forest service roads and on the pipeline right of way.

Bracken was assigned to the story at that time. Court documents say she was given a media identification tag that she carried, along with her Canadian Association of Journalists membership card.

Bracken’s plan was to visit the protest camps. However, as she was preparing to go, the situation began to escalate. Clans were ordering pipeline workers to leave Wet’suwet’en land Nov. 14, 2021, the claim said.

The next day, the RCMP established an access control point as well as an exclusion zone whereby they would determine who would be allowed to travel up a forest road.

Bracken chose to stay in one of the camps and continue her work.

On Nov. 18, police began clearing the camps.

Meanwhile, Narwhal journalist Matt Simmons contacted RCMP media relations officers advising Bracken was on assignment and working at a camp. He was told the information would be given to officers in the field.

On Nov. 19, Bracken learned protesters around her would be arrested. She decided to stay and cover the situation. However, RCMP then cut the power, preventing further transmissions.

When police arrived, court documents state, clan members asked for a warrant that officers did not have. They soon returned, chopping a hole in the door with an axe after which an assault rifle was pointed through, the claim said. A chainsaw was then used to get through and arrests began.

Bracken identified herself as a media member. The claim said the officer acknowledged that and then said she was being arrested for violating the injunction. Her camera was taken, her hands were zip-tied and her press credentials were ignored, the claim said. She continued to stress she was a media member.

She soon spoke to RCMP media relations officers who said there was nothing they could do for her.

The claim said the enforcement actions were carried out with no observation by the media, Wet’suwet’en or the public.

After being processed in Houston, she spent a night in a Smithers cell before being driven to Prince George on Nov. 20. Her bra, tie and glasses were confiscated, state court documents.

After widespread criticism of the arrests, the claim said Brewer claimed a package was being prepared for the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General to show Bracken had been advocating for and assisting the protesters.

“No such package bringing into question Ms. Bracken’s conduct as a journalist was ever produced by Mr. Brewer or the RCMP,” the claim said.

After a court appearance, the claim said Bracken was released with insufficient clothing for the Prince George winter weather.

“Upset and in a state of exhaustion, with her finger she poked the arm of one of the male sheriffs while explaining herself,” the claim said. “She was then arrested for alleged assault.”

Coastal GasLink ended contempt proceedings against Bracken on Dec. 21.

The claim said the camp house she was in was not obstructing an injunction area, making any RCMP order unlawful.

Further, it said, because she was not a camp occupant with an intention to obstruct the pipeline, the injunction did not apply to her.

The court documents say she had been expressly identified as a member of the media and any lawful basis for her arrest should have been questioned.

RCMP E Division spokesperson Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said the force is seeking clarity to determine whether the RCMP has been served with the notice of  civil claim.

"The RCMP is however aware of the claim, but, as we are subject to it and the court process, it would be inappropriate for us to comment," Saunderson said in a statement to Glacier Media. "Once served, the Department of Justice will review and a statement of defence for the RCMP will be issued through the appropriate court process."

The federal Department of Justice said, "RCMP 'E' Division is best placed to comment on the civil claim."

B.C.’s Ministry of Attorney General said it could not comment as the case is before the courts.

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