Judge releases journalists arrested by RCMP during enforcement of pipeline injunction

·5 min read
Filmmaker Michael Toledano emerges from B.C. Supreme Court in Prince George on Monday after his release from custody. Toledano was arrested for civil contempt as RCMP sought to enforce the terms of an injunction for the Coastal GasLink pipeline. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC - image credit)
Filmmaker Michael Toledano emerges from B.C. Supreme Court in Prince George on Monday after his release from custody. Toledano was arrested for civil contempt as RCMP sought to enforce the terms of an injunction for the Coastal GasLink pipeline. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC - image credit)

A B.C. judge has released two journalists arrested by RCMP at a pipeline protest camp last week as police sought to enforce an injunction.

Justice Marguerite Church of the Supreme Court of B.C., in Prince George, said she would release Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano from custody after they agreed to comply with the terms of an injunction intended to keep protesters away from the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Both journalists were detained by RCMP last Friday — arrests that sparked an angry response from advocates of press freedom across North America.

Both are required to return to court Feb. 14, 2022 for a hearing related to allegations of civil contempt of court.

A lawyer for Coastal GasLink said that unlike the other 27 people who were arrested at the resistance camp, Bracken and Toledano would be allowed to return to the "exclusion zone" covered by the terms of the injunction because they have a "justified reason to go back."

'Labelled as press'

Bracken is an Alberta-based photojournalist who has won awards for her work covering the Wet'suwet'en conflict; Toledano is an independent filmmaker who has been working on a documentary on the conflict and resistance to Coastal GasLink since 2019.

"This was a punitive arrest. A punitive incarceration. I was put in a holding cell for four days for filming Indigenous people being removed from their land at gunpoint," Toledano said in brief comments to CBC News upon his release.

"Canadians should know that journalists in this country can be arrested and incarcerated if they're telling a story the RCMP don't like."

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

Bracken's lawyer, David Sutherland, took issue with the company lawyer's contention that neither of the journalists had identified themselves as media immediately and were "crossing the line between being media and being protesters."

Sutherland said Bracken was well-known as a member of the media to both Coastal GasLink and the police.

"She was labelled on her body as press," said Sutherland, who said Bracken had pinned to her body a copy of an assignment letter from The Narwhal, the publication that hired her to cover the situation.

"Amber Bracken told me she was labelled as press and identified herself as press ... so there's no breach of the injunction at all."

Chief Supt. Warren Brown for RCMP's North District "E" Division said the police will never arrest anybody for being a journalist, but they will arrest people for actively participating in the protest.

"If they're engaged in good faith and in newsgathering activity, they're not going to be arrested," he said Tuesday to host Carolina de Ryk on CBC's Daybreak North. "But … if they are going to actively participate, assist and advocate for protesters, they're going to be arrested. If they're aiding and abetting, obstructing, interfering with those seeking to enforce the law, they're going to be arrested."

Long-standing protest

The Coastal GasLink pipeline, if completed, will span 670 kilometres across northern B.C., transporting natural gas from near Dawson Creek in the east to Kitimat on the Pacific Ocean.

The company has signed benefit agreements with 20 band councils along the route of the project. But Wet'suwet'en hereditary leadership says band councils do not have authority over land beyond reserve boundaries. The hereditary chiefs oppose the construction of the pipeline, saying the company does not have consent to cross Wet'suwet'en territory.

RCMP have previously taken action against protesters in this area in 2019 and 2020.

According to Church, the latest flashpoint in the conflict occurred at a blockade erected "in the name of the Gidimt'en band of the Wet'suwet'en people," that had halted Coastal GasLink's plans to drill a tunnel under the Wedzin Kwa river.

The blockades stranded about 500 Coastal GasLink employees, causing water rations and fears over food shortages, after the company declined to comply with an eviction notice issued by the Gidimt'en Checkpoint, which controls access to part of the Wet'suwet'en territory.

Last week, police dismantled blockades along the Morice River Forest Service Road that lead to two work camps by enforcing the terms of an injunction Church issued in December 2019.

Some protesters released with conditions

In a statement, B.C. RCMP Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs claimed Bracken and Toledano were inside barricaded structures that were the subject of police enforcement efforts when they were arrested.

"They were also among those to whom the injunction was read and they were afforded the opportunity to leave the structures," Stubbs wrote.

"They did not identify themselves at any point during this dialogue with police, which lasted over 60 minutes."

Stubbs claimed Bracken and Toledano only identified themselves as journalists once police forced open the doors of the barricaded structures.

Toledano gave a different account.

"I would argue that I had no opportunity to leave the scene," he said. "I was surrounded by men who had guns pointed at the house and so if I had opened the door, I would have endangered everyone else."

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

At the end of Monday's court proceedings, Church released five protesters who said they would be willing to sign a document promising to comply with the terms of the injunction, but felt they should be able to return to the injunction's exclusion zone.

Church disagreed, ordering them released on the condition that they promise to stay out of the proscribed area.

Beyond the courtroom itself, reporters and members of the public listened to the hearing through a teleconference line that was beset with technical difficulties and people who failed to mute their microphones, drawing the ire of other participants.

A number of other protesters remained behind bars Monday night, with a hearing on their applications for release set for Tuesday morning.

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