RCMP officers arrested and detained photojournalist Amber Bracken and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano during a land rights protest on Wet’suwet’en territory.
The Nov. 19, 2021 arrests were made during an RCMP raid on the Gidimt’en clan, at the two-kilometre mark of the Marten Forest Service Road near Houston, B.C., according to RCMP documents.
Bracken (who sits on the Canada Press Freedom Project’s advisory board) was on assignment for The Narwhal when she was arrested. Toledano has been working on a documentary on the conflict and resistance to Coastal GasLink since 2019.
The Narwhal had provided Bracken with “press passes, a formal letter of assignment and notified the RCMP that she was reporting on our behalf from within the injunction zone,” publication co-founder Carol Linnitt said on Twitter.
The RCMP later confirmed that police knew Bracken was on assignment at the camp, The Narwhal reported.
As police officers raided the camp, protesters were inside a cabin which had been built to block access to a proposed Coastal GasLink drill site. Toledano and Bracken were also inside the cabin, documenting the raid, The Tyee reported.
In one of Bracken’s photos, a police officer can be seen pointing a rifle directly at her as officers break down the door of the cabin.
In a video taken by Toledano showing the moments after police broke into the cabin, a police officer can be seen with his hand on Bracken’s backpack as she moves to the door of the cabin. A police dog can be heard barking in the background.
“For the record, I’m a member of the media. You’ve been notified that I’m here,” Bracken can be heard saying to police officers outside the cabin. “You’re under arrest right now, so step out,” an officer replies.
Two officers can be seen putting their hands on Bracken’s back and leading her away from the cabin.
Police took Bracken’s cameras and equipment and took her to the Houston RCMP detachment.
Alongside arrested Indigenous land defenders, Bracken and Toledano were transported from the Houston detachment to Smithers, then to the Prince George correctional centre, over the course of four days.
Bracken was charged with breaching a 2019 civil injunction against disrupting construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
She later wrote in The Narwhal that because the charges were not criminal, she didn’t have the right to see a judge within 24 hours.
A Nov. 22 letter signed by more than 40 professional and press freedom associations, journalism schools and media organizations (including J-Source) urged federal public safety minister Marco Mendicino to investigate the arrests.
Bracken was released on Nov. 23 after a bail hearing, a day after Toledano, who was released on the evening of Nov. 22.
Both journalists were released on the condition that they appear in court on Feb. 14, 2022 and that they comply with the terms of the 2019 injunction.
The RCMP had also been tracking Bracken and Toledano in a law enforcement database, reported The Narwhal.
Bracken’s cameras were held by police and returned to her when she was released. Her arrest prevented The Narwhal from publishing photos of the raid until Nov. 25.
After the arrests, the camp was bulldozed. Bracken returned after her release to find a bag of her camera gear buried in a pile of debris.
Coastal GasLink dropped the charges against Bracken and Toledano on Dec. 24.
In an email to The Narwhal, RCMP Chief Superintendent John Brewer said “with certainty” that police officers on the scene had been briefed on the 2019 Justin Brake decision, which confirmed that journalists have the right to report in areas that are the subject of civil injunctions, like the one in Wet’suwet’en territory.
“Every police officer was briefed on the Brake decision prior to commencing enforcement,” said Brewer, who is in charge of an RCMP task force that works with energy companies, including the Coastal GasLink project.
But three officers who spoke with Bracken after her arrest appeared not to understand the decision, and two of them said they were unaware of it when Bracken explained the decision to them, according to audio recordings published by The Narwhal.
On Feb. 13, 2023, The Narwhal and Bracken filed a lawsuit against the RCMP at B.C. Supreme Court. The lawsuit seeks damages, and a declaration from the court that police violated Bracken’s and The Narwhal’s press freedom rights.
“The arrest and detainment of Amber Bracken should never have happened. Unfortunately, the RCMP’s mistreatment of Amber was just the latest in a string of incidents that showed a troubling lack of regard for freedom of the press by Canadian police,” Narwhal co-founder and executive editor Carol Linnitt said at a press conference.