RCMP comments on C-IRG arrest of photo-journalist Amber Bracken on Wet’suwet’en territory
Video (at 12:12): Photojournalist Amber Bracken was arrested by RCMP C-IRG officers on November 19, 2021. Bracken says: “For the record, I’m a member of the media. You’ve been notified that I’m here. I’m an observer.”
On February 13, 2023, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) posted: “The Narwhal and award-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken have filed a lawsuit in British Columbia’s Supreme Court today against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for the violation of their Charter rights after Bracken was wrongfully arrested and detained while covering the enforcement of an injunction in Wet’suwet’en territory as a journalist in late 2021.”
The CAJ media release added: “The Narwhal and Bracken are suing for damages related to the RCMP’s arbitrary arrest and detention. The lawsuit is also seeking acknowledgment that The Narwhal and Bracken’s press freedom rights, pursuant to Section 2(b) of the Charter, were breached.”
RCMP responds to The Narwhal’s lawsuit
Now, eight months later, the Canadian Press reports: “The RCMP say a photojournalist who is suing the force was not exempt from complying with a court injunction while reporting on protests over the Coastal GasLink pipeline that’s nearing completion in northern B.C.”
“The RCMP response to the lawsuit says another Narwhal journalist had written to notify police of Bracken’s presence in the area on the day before her arrest. It says an RCMP media relations officer, Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, replied saying, ‘As long as (Bracken) is clear with the members on the ground there shouldn’t be any issues. I will pass along the information to the officers out there.’ Shoihet’s email was sent just over four hours before Bracken was arrested.”
“The Mounties’ response to the claim [also] says Bracken identified herself as a member of the media immediately after her arrest, not before. …Bracken’s lawsuit says she was wrongfully detained after identifying herself as a journalist with media credentials that were visibly attached to her camera gear.”
The article adds: “The response, filed Oct. 5, alleges Bracken was ‘not engaged in apparent good faith newsgathering activities’ and was instead ‘aiding or abetting’ protesters ahead of her arrest during an injunction enforcement operation in November 2021.”
This news article seems to suggest that the RCMP are saying that even if the C-IRG were aware that Bracken was a journalist, she was still not exempt from the injunction and that they somehow deemed she was still “abetting” the land defenders.
The C-IRG as arbiters of who is a journalist
The Narwhal now comments: “This response indicates freedom of the press is severely endangered in Canada. If police officers are allowed to be the arbiters of who is considered a journalist, the health of our democracy hangs in the balance. The right to a free press is one held not just by the media, but by every person in this country. The Narwhal remains committed to establishing meaningful consequences for police when they interfere with the constitutional rights of journalists covering events in injunction zones, and we will see the RCMP in court in October 2024.”
C-IRG also aware of media “optics”
In December 2019, The Guardian reported on the C-IRG raid on Wet’suwet’en territory on January 7, 2019, and their preparedness to use “lethal overwatch” – lethal force – against Indigenous land defenders despite police intelligence that indicated there was “no single threat indicating that [land defenders] will use firearms”.
That article further reported: “Police established a ‘media exclusion zone’, blocking reporters from accessing the area. They took care to hide their carbine rifles on the approach to the roadblock because the ‘optics’ of the weapons were ‘not good’, according to one of the [RCMP C-IRG] documents.”
The CRCC on the media and exclusion zones
On March 9, 2023, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) announced: “Today, Michelaine Lahaie, the Chairperson of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC), initiated a systemic investigation into the activities and operations of the RCMP “E” Division Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG).”
The terms of reference for this systemic investigation notes: “The file review will focus on the C-IRG’s governance, command and control, and operational planning, as well as its activities and enforcement operations with respect to at least three sites [including] the Coastal GasLink Ltd injunction on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.”
In this February 13, 2020, response to a complaint from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs about RCMP exclusion zones on Wet’suwet’en territory, CRCC Chairperson Michelaine Lahaie cited past findings of RCMP actions in Kent County, New Brunswick.
Lahaie wrote (on page 7): “The Commission specifically noted that other instances of blocking public access to roadways, especially when such actions may have directly or indirectly unnecessarily hindered the media’s ability to report on the protests, may have been unreasonable.”
When PBI-Canada contacted the CRCC in June 2023 about the status of the investigation, they stated: “The CRCC strives to complete its systemic investigations within 12-18 months; however, the timely provision of requested information and access to RCMP personnel will largely determine when the CRCC’s report will be available.”
When we contacted them again in September 2023, they replied: “At this point in the investigation, it would be premature to specify a timeline for its completion.”
We await both a status update from the CRCC and a firmer commitment on the completion date of this systemic investigation.
For more, please see this FAQ backgrounder from The Narwhal: The Narwhal and Amber Bracken’s case against the RCMP: what you need to know.