Last month journalists Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano were arrested at gunpoint while documenting the ongoing Indigenous land defence in unceded Wet’suwet’en territories.
Though the RCMP precisely knew the identity of Bracken and Toledano, militarized police handcuffed the photojournalist and filmmaker alongside a number of Indigenous land defenders, and put them behind bars for three days.
In their first joint interview, Bracken and Toledano sat down with The Breach’s contributing editor Justin Brake to talk about their experiences and share their thoughts.
In 2017, the RCMP laid criminal charges against Brake, months after he reported from the Innu- and Inuit-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls hydro dam in Labrador. A court ruling from the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador later affirmed his right, as a journalist, to be present to document the story of ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous peoples.
But the criminalization of journalists has since continued, and it has coincided with the criminalization of Indigenous peoples attempting to defend their lands and their rights.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So how are you two doing, more than a week now after you were released from custody? What’s the last week been like for you?
Amber Bracken: It’s pretty disorienting to be released from jail in essentially your underwear, five hours from where the rest of your belongings are. So I spent several days just trying to reorient myself and just literally track down my belongings. And I had to dig one bag of my things out of a snowbank where it had been unceremoniously deposited by Coastal GasLink workers after they cleared Coyote Camp. So they scooped everything up with heavy machinery and dumped it into dump trucks and put it at the bottom of the mountain. So I was able to find my bag, but it’s very muddy, and very wet and pretty damaged. But anyways, here I am, I’m glad to be here—it feels good to be free.
Michael Toledano: It feels good to be out of jail, and also to have all of my camera gear and all of my footage safe and sound, and a lot of it published.
I’m really glad that you’re both doing all right, and that you’re handling it so well. And I mean that sincerely, because, you know, having been through it before—I’ll admit, now that I’m free from the threat of further criminalization, it did take a toll on my mental health over those few years. I would like to ask you both to kind of share your thoughts on the wider story. And maybe begin by explaining why you’ve made such huge commitments, as journalists, and as a documentary filmmaker, Michael, to covering this story.
MT: Well, I think this is a story of tremendous importance to all Canadians, and also to the international community. And, you know, the way that Canadians are viewed on the world stage, this is a story which cuts to the core of Canada’s land rights, and the rights, in particular, to a territory that’s 22,000 square kilometers. The Wet’suwet’en territory is an area the size of New Jersey; it’s a massive piece of land that is being disputed. And so, you know, I think it’s just incredibly important for Canadians to be educated on the basis for the struggle—not just the crisis points where we see tactical police deploying, where we see militarized responses to unarmed land defenders. People need to know the context and the history and the actual issue that underlies it, which is the land issue.
So to me, it’s interesting to follow and focus on a conflict over so much land and, beyond it, one that has implications for people throughout the country and Indigenous people throughout the country. You know, 95 per cent of BC has a very similar status of being contested, unceded, non-treaty land. There’s so much at stake here for both Canada and for the Wet’suwet’en.
AB: Michael said it really well, but I would concur and just echo that we’re in an era of national dialogue where we talk a lot about reconciliation. We talk a lot about the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; we’re nearing a two year anniversary where it was actually passed into law in BC as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, obligating the province to take into serious consideration the treatment of Indigenous peoples who live there. So that’s part of the national dialogue. And at the same time you have this group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in the Wet’suwet’en Nation that has a very, very good claim, and has been making their case since at least the 1970s for why their their land is not really part of Canada, or that it deserves a special distinction.
And the government went ahead and permitted projects that they didn’t consent to, and then all through the process has continued to enforce the construction of those projects at the point of a gun. So that, to me, has major ramifications for Indigenous-Canadian relations across Canada. So this is something that has national importance to everybody. The Delgamuukw decision should really be a household term at this time.
I also think that the image that we’re talking about, where they are literally enforcing this unwanted—well, unwanted by that Nation, anyways—pipeline at the point of a gun is an inconvenient image for both the government and the RCMP. I think when they want to talk about reconciliation with one breath, and, you know, turn around and point guns at unarmed Indigenous people to take them from their land—I mean, it’s an obvious hypocrisy.
Amber, you mentioned Delgamuukw. Michael, I remember you saying last time we spoke that you didn’t feel there should be really any coverage of this story without mention of that, or at least situating the story in the context of that Supreme Court of Canada decision. Can you just elaborate on that point a little bit for us?
MT: As a settler who’s reporting on Indigenous issues, I come from a very different place than the people in the community, you know, or the communities themselves. I grew up without any education about residential schools, any education about land rights, or historical disputes over land, no education about the pass system, or the Indian Act, or the myriad ways in which it oppressed and oppresses Indigenous people.
So, it’s really important for me in my work, that everything I publish, or everything I produce, is deeply historically grounded and includes the full historical context—or at least, you know, a robust historical frame around the issue. I think it’s irresponsible for journalists in this country to write about the Wet’suwet’en without writing about the Delgamuukw court case, without writing about the fact that Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, as representatives of their house groups, and their clans and their nation, went to the highest court in Canada and argued successfully that they had never ceded or surrendered or given up title to their land. That’s the baseline of this crisis. This is not a situation where people are blockading without a strong legal basis for their actions, or at least, like a strong legal argument backing their actions.
This is a case where these flash points and these conflicts that are coming up are the result of the Delgamuukw Supreme Court decision being, on one hand, recognized by the Wet’suwet’en as a victory, and on the other hand, being ignored or recognized as a failure by the state. The Wet’suwet’en were told they have to go back to court and resolve the land issue after they were told that the title to their land had never been extinguished. And so, you know, that’s the baseline of this history.
AB: And listen, we know that government and industry know about the Delgamuukw decision, and they’re well aware of this outstanding rights and title question to the fact that there’s documents that The Narwhal published in 2020, an investigative report by Shiri Pasternak and Martin Lukacs about the the backroom conversations that were happening. Effectively, industry and government were panicking and trying to figure out how to expedite the extinguishment of the rights and title of the Wet’suwet’en people. And the fact that they’re aware enough to be afraid of it, to me speaks volumes. Now they’re claiming it’s unresolved, or it’s in dispute, so they’re still behaving as though it was a “regular Indigenous land issue.” And it isn’t.
MT: I’d just like to go one step further and say that, regardless of the unique status of Wet’suwet’en land, all reporting on Indigenous issues should—if you’re telling these stories—have a strong sense of how the treaties were formed, what the responsibilities are, and you know, various contexts of land fraud, or various disputes and opinions and historical facts that really ground the different status of lands throughout so-called Canada within the context of how Indigenous people have experienced the dispossession of those lands.
There’s no doubt once you have some degree of awareness of the historical context, and you’ve thought critically about how Canadian journalism has been harmful to Indigenous people, it’s easy to see that a lot of the ongoing coverage of this story and other stories that involve Indigenous people defending their lands, their territories, their rights, lacks a lot of that context.
And there’s a tendency by journalists and by media to simply give voices to different sides of any dispute, including this one. And in terms of Indigenous politics and representation, we see a lot of reporting focusing on “divisions” within the community, or divisions within a nation, whereby elected officials through Indian Act bands are said to support, say, a project like the Coastal GasLink pipeline, while some hereditary chiefs oppose it. I’m really eager to hear both of your thoughts on this.
AB: First of all, we need to start with the understanding that this so-called democratic Indian Act system is an imposed system. And it exists parallel to, but not on top of, the pre-existing hereditary system—that’s an intact, original to that nation, governance system that is still active in the community. So the democratic system is imposed [and] it isn’t widely participated in. For example, Witset, which is the largest Wet’suwet’en reservation, has over 2,500 members—their current elected band chief had something like 92 votes to get into that position. So I mean, it tells you something about the level of engagement in that system. So saying that it’s democratic—yes, it is democratic but it isn’t necessarily representative of the community.
The other thing is that they like to say things like all 20 elected band councils along the route, right? Like, they really like to focus on that. And that obfuscates the fact that the majority of those band councils on the route, despite having some say—the majority of those band councils actually aren’t Wet’suwet’en First Nations, right. I think four of the 20 are Wet’suwet’en to begin with; so that’s a misrepresentation of the level of involvement for this particular piece of land. And I think that’s what matters.
It’s not whether or not the project has support as a whole, whether some people support it in different places—it’s really a question of who gets to say what happens on Wet’suwet’en land, right? Like, I would never get in the way of another nation’s right to speak but in the case of this particular territory—that is a Wet’suwet’en territory—that is what’s in question, not what Haisla think on the coast, or what any other nation thinks anywhere else. I think that we just need to pay attention to what the community actually, you know, follows and supports.
MT: There’s been a considerable amount of press given to the division in the community and to the differences of opinions. When people like Sleydo’, Molly Wickham, are speaking, they’re speaking from a position of specific delegated authority within the Wet’suwet’en system. These aren’t random people who are voicing their opposition. Molly Wickham is a wing chief of the Cas Yikh house. So when you’re talking about a blockade on Cas Yikh territory, she is actually the most appropriate person and the most informed person to speak to. For me, spending time in Wet’suwet’en community—I’ve been in the Feast Hall, I’ve seen how the governance system operates, and I’ve come to understand that there’s all sorts of cultural values that are distinct from Canadian cultural values.
Wet’suwet’en society is a distinct society. There are all sorts of normalized values about who should speak for what territory, and not speaking out of turn, not speaking over your chiefs. So a lot of the the coverage that has focused on the hereditary chiefs and isolated them from the broader community doesn’t take into account the fact that many Wet’suwet’en hold very closely to cultural value that you don’t speak over your head chief, who is your kind of authorized and delegated spokesperson for the Feast Hall for speaking in public. Those hereditary chiefs are also accountable to their houses and clans.
At the same time, band members are also clan members, and clan members are also band members. The bands are municipalities, and they are communities within Wet’suwet’en society. So this isn’t to discredit the opinions or the positions of people who are elected in band council elections, and who hold those positions of power, but the unique case in Wet’suwet’en territory is that—and in the neighbouring Gitxsan territory—is that it was the hereditary chiefs who advanced the arguments of title as representatives of the community. It was the hereditary chiefs who made a public claim to 55,000 kilometers of Northern BC for those two allied nations.
The band councils are now being put in a position where—and I don’t blame anyone in a position of legislated and imposed poverty for taking whatever money is coming their way—they are being asked to sign agreements on behalf of the whole nation, agnostic to the fact that there is this jurisprudence, that there is this history of the hereditary chiefs representing the nation in court. So it’s a complicated situation, but what Canadians need to remember is that Wet’suwet’en society is not Canadian society, and the opinions that reporters are forming and broadcasting on the basis of engaging with a very small number of community members are not necessarily representative of any truth of how the nation functions and operates and governs itself.
AB: Just to speak to the benefits agreements, as well; we know that those benefits agreements typically have non-disclosure agreements involved in them. We also know that they typically have some kind of a gag order, or a gag function, where they ask the the signatories not to speak poorly of the company, that they’re not allowed to speak publicly against the work that’s being done. There is reporting that says that that’s a fairly common practice. I have tried to speak to elected leaders, and for the most part they won’t talk about it.
But I did have the the elected chief who signed the Witset agreement tell me that, when they opened negotiations with him, they said this project is happening whether you like it or not—you might as well sign on. I’m paraphrasing, but basically it’s going to happen whether you like it or not, here’s some money to shut up and come along with us; or you can get bowled over and it’s going to happen anyways. So I mean, unless somebody tells me otherwise, when the elected leadership isn’t talking and won’t say anything to the counterpoint, that’s my assumption, that they’ve been that they’ve been strong-armed into it and that it’s really just a means of extracting whatever little bit of benefit that they can get.
Delgamuukw was 1997, so that’s like 25 years ago. Fast forward to now, and where is the story in terms of the relationship between the Coastal GasLink pipeline and TC Energy, and the Wet’suwet’en communities?
AB: I don’t actually fault TC Energy or Coastal GasLink pipeline for the way that they’ve conducted consultation. It’s not adequate, but it is actually industry-leading. I think they’re performing exactly the way that government and just common practice has established—as like, this is how you engage with Indigenous people, beginning with the idea of engaging first with the band councils. Because we’ve made that synonymous in Canada—that the band councils are synonymous with a nation, and obviously there’s a distinction there. But that isn’t the way that these deals are done, that these so-called consultations are done.
MT: The story begins around 2010, when Freda Huson and Warner Naziel occupied Unist’ot’en territory and built a cabin explicitly in the right of way of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines. At the time, there were multiple proposed pipelines. There’s Chevron’s Pacific Trail Pipeline, as well as several others that were slated to pass through other parts of Wet’suwet’en territory and Gitxsan territory. And the process that Wet’suwet’en people have been expected to follow—there’s, on one hand, Wet’suwet’en band councils who have been along the way kind of vocally opposed as decision makers by a group of hereditary chiefs. But there’s also a spectrum of different opinions and engagements within the hereditary society as well.
So you had hereditary chiefs who played the game, participated in the consultation process, and in some instances, for example, through the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which represented the majority of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, filed hundreds of pages of issues and concerns and criticisms of the project. And those concerns were broadly ignored. A big one, for example, would be around the Kweese Trail, which was a historic trail that the pipeline route essentially bisects and crosses in several places. And the outcome has been that that trail has been dug up and destroyed in large areas, and pipelines are being put through it. That’s a site that’s of great historic importance to Wet’suwet’en people, not just because of the stories and what they can learn about their own history, but because it’s believed to be, you know, an area containing a large number of graves of warriors who succumbed to their injuries after waging war against trespassers from another nation.
That concern, which was made clear by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, who were engaging with the Coastal GasLink through the consultation process, was totally ignored. Another issue is the river, which is what’s at stake right now.
On the flip side, you had certain people, like Unist’ot’en, who didn’t really engage with the consultation process, who simply said, “no, we don’t support this, we don’t consent to this.” And they were also ignored. So, you know, on all sides of the equation, the pipeline company knew that its legal responsibilities to the Wet’suwet’en people are pretty limited.
The bigger issue is consent—free, prior and informed consent. What the Unist’ot’en implemented on the ground years ago was a protocol where people coming into the territory had to answer a series of questions and obtain consent from the hereditary chiefs or their appointed spokespeople in order to access the territory. And that is consistent with UNDRIP, but it’s also consistent with ancient Wet’suwet’en laws around trespass and determining access to territory. And the response has been waves of militarized police intervention on behalf of the pipeline company.
Looking back at where this begins, it begins with a good faith effort by different actors within Wet’suwet’en society, and I’m sure to a degree Coastal GasLink, to actually undertake it’s consultation duties. But the problem lies not with Coastal GasLink or, you know, various Wet’suwet’en folks who absolutely under no conditions would ever consent to this project. It lies with the government, who passes on the legal responsibility that they have to undertake meaningful consultation with rights holding Indigenous groups, to industry.
The context for this is that Wet’suwet’en people have never given up their land—they have no formal agreement with Canada. And so, you know, the consultation regime as it exists in Canada is woefully inadequate to address this issue. There’s a lot more that should be required to do any work on Indigenous land than to provide information and check a box saying that you provided information.
AB: And also, the fact that the government’s well aware of the Delgamuukw decision and the outstanding conversations that are required to hammer out the details of what this Aboriginal rights and title looks like, and to establish new protocols. They know, and they have gone ahead and permitted various projects anyways. So I would say that, yeah, that the buck stops with them, from my mind, that there’s a lack of due diligence in addressing this unique situation and this outstanding question, that there’s lots of documentation on both sides of them knowing about.
Why is it important to both of you to be on the ground bearing witness and documenting what’s happening in the Yintah, deep in the woods, often out of cell range or away from any connection to the outside world, and for such a sustained amount of time?
MT: That’s where the story is. And that’s where the story has been playing out for years, is on the territory, often beyond police exclusion zones where police have blocked access to reporters with mainstream media who have arrived after a conflict has already begun on the territory.
So it’s important to be there to witness the kinds of state interventions that are occurring on Wet’suwet’en territory. The way that I have observed things to be happening is that, despite this question of land title, despite this unresolved open question of whether or not Canada has a claim to this land, there has been repeated armed interventions by militarized RCMP to assert ownership over Wet’suwet’en land at the barrel of a gun. That is the story, and that is the story that’s happening on the land.
AB: Some of it just comes down to the type of storyteller that I am. I am a photojournalist and I tell stories visually—that’s what I do. And so it necessitates being present. As Michael says, that’s where the story is. And there’s a number of things that have occurred over the last several years that, if I hadn’t seen them myself, I would not fully believe that they had happened.
In the beginning, I said there’s an inconvenient image here, of this militarized armed response of the RCMP against unarmed, peaceful Indigenous people and their supporters on the land. I mean, they’re literally being dragged off the land at gunpoint. In this larger conversation of reconciliation is an incredibly inconvenient image, and I absolutely believe that it’s being repressed and there’s an attempt to control and mitigate that image.
And that’s exactly the reason why I think I need to be there. I think Canadians need to know what’s being done with their government dollars and in their name, and at the behest of politicians who will stand at a podium and talk about reconciliation, and even our Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller talking about land back, and how it’s time to give land back. And here’s a nation with a really valid claim, or at least a claim that really deserves serious inquiry and conversation. And rather than engaging with that question in a meaningful way, they’re dragging people away at the point of a gun.
You can’t report that from your desk in the city or far away. This is something that needs to be witnessed. The over-policing is extreme. I cannot overstate how over-policed this small movement is. Like, it is wild that you have 50 to 100 officers in tactical gear with assault rifles, sniper rifles, helicopters, dogs, and all kinds of tactical equipment under the sun responding to a small handful of unarmed and peaceful people in the woods.
Is that what you meant when you said that some things you would have to see to believe? Are you talking about the police response?
AB: Yes, absolutely, the police response. I’ve covered all kinds of different issues in the city: you know, hostage situations and various police responses to active shooters and things like that. And I have never seen as many tactical officers in my life, in my over a decade of of news coverage in various places, like I’ve seen it out there. You cannot be prepared for helicopters dropping green men from the sky. I mean, it is absolutely—like, it’s wild. I just don’t have any other words for it; it’s not something that you think should be happening in a reasonable society. And yet, here it is. And it’s happened multiple times over the last three years. So, I mean, I think that that needs to be part of the conversation. Canadians need to know this is what their government’s idea of reconciliation looks like. This is how they’re engaging with Indigenous people on their own territories.
There’s been some debate around the attention that you two are getting, versus the story that you’re covering. At the same time, you can’t talk about press freedom in Canada and the role that you’re both playing in Wet’suwet’en territory without talking about the story that you’re covering. Would you both like to share your thoughts on how you feel about this apparent targeting of journalists specifically who are covering Indigenous land defence?
AB: I mean, there’s an obvious pattern, going back to Oka, where journalists have been at much higher risk, like you say, of being criminalized reporting on Indigenous land defence or Indigenous resistance than they are on just about anything else. Karl Dockstader at Land Back Lane. There’s you five years ago getting dragged into the courts for following the opposition to the Muskrat Falls dam, and then multiple people at Ferry Creek. So I absolutely think there’s a pattern of behaviour here. And I think that the criminalization of journalists reporting on these issues is related to the criminalization of this resistance to begin with. I think there’s both a likelihood for police to want to suppress the images—they don’t necessarily want to be recorded engaging, or have their interactions with Indigenous people recorded in this context.
But also, I think that they have a tendency to want to criminalize those movements. [Police] want to present them as dangerous, criminal, militarized—and I think that potentially journalists are getting caught up in that as well.
MT: I think more broadly, the RCMP, in their relationship with Wet’suwet’en people, have a really intense vested interest in repressing not only contemporary images of their violence, but a historical analysis of their violence. I’ve been through three militarized raids, as has Amber, and we photograph these kinds of spectacular moments where, you know, like Amber says, there’s green men deploying from the sky. There’s snowmobiles and dog teams and the whole nine yards.
But I’ve also stayed on the territory to watch the kind of quotidian harassment and abuse that police do. And, you know, to see how the police station that was established on Gidimt’en territory has been active on the territory in criminalizing Wet’suwet’en people as they go about living on their lands and practising their constitutionally protected Section 35 rights. And the police don’t want a sense of what their actions really look like, or what their actions really are on the territory. Because the more you dig, it’s not just the spectacular moments of violence, but it’s an entire history of abuse of Wet’suwet’en people, and it’s the same institution.
The RCMP has been the organization that has removed Wet’suwet’en people from their lands at gunpoint since the early 1900s. Since the RCMP’s inception, all of these stories that we hear from Wet’suwet’en elders of being walked off their territory at gunpoint, and having their homes burned down—you know, the RCMP plays a central role in that. All of the trauma around residential schools, the RCMP plays a central role in that. They were the ones who abducted children so that they could be tortured and murdered in Canadian residential schools. They also played a central role in the criminalization of the feast system on Wet’suwet’en territory and on Gitxsan territory, enforcing provisions of the Indian Act that barred Wet’suwet’en people from having their own system of governance, and provisions which drove those systems of governance underground. The RCMP actually spied on and criminalized people for participating in that.
So what we’re seeing now on Wet’suwet’en territory, the fuller context of this really is that decisions were made under Wet’suwet’en law, within Wet’suwet’en society, in the Feast Hall. The decision for the Gidimt’en to begin controlling access to their territory in late 2018, was made in the Feast Hall, and it was with the whole nation as witness. It was announced to the nation. And that decision has resulted in three highly militarized police interventions. So the RCMP are still serving that function that they served, you know, up until 1951 when the feast ban was lifted.
So any kind of work that depicts, with accuracy and honesty and an attention to detail, the actions and functions of the RCMP on Wet’suwet’en territory is going to be criminalized. We can argue about the legality of the arrest and incarceration of journalists, just like we can argue about the legality of the RCMP’s presence and interventions on Wet’suwet’en land. There’s a title issue that the court injunction doesn’t even address, that it completely skirts around. In the decision to grant the injunction, it acknowledges that there’s an outstanding issue around Wet’suwet’en title. Well, if there’s an outstanding issue of Wet’suwet’en title, all of the actions that follow are following with acknowledgement that this issue hasn’t been resolved and it’s a completely open question of who even owns this land.
AB: The other thing about the the suppression of media around Indigenous resistance, and specific to what I’ve witnessed in Wet’suwet’en territory…the most militarized arm of the RCMP, the ones that I like to call the green guys—they’re the ones that come down looking like little army men in their helmets, and their semi-automatic rifles and all of their tactical equipment. They really do look like a military force.
It’s my feeling that they don’t like to be photographed—I don’t think that they like that image recorded. For the most part, the places where there’s more media, you do tend to see them attempting to hang back as much as possible. They’ll be present, but they’ll keep a distance. I’ve seen them come forward more when there’s either less media, or just social media recordings of what’s happening. The less observed they are, the more forward they are with that image. And I personally believe that there’s an intentional attempt to keep that image of the actual militarized arm of the RCMP out of the public consciousness. I don’t think they want to talk about it, and I don’t think they want to be observed very much.
MT: This is absolutely an established pattern of repression on Wet’suwet’en territory, specifically. This is their standard operating playbook to restrict press access. The tools they’ve used for that are detaining journalists and escorting them off of the territory, establishing exclusion zones and exclusion areas that keep journalists 30 kilometers away from whatever it is they’re trying to document and witness. You know, pointing guns at reporters—that was the experience of Jerome Turner, the Gitxsan journalist who was present for the raid on Gidimt’en territory last year.
And this year, before Amber and I were arrested and incarcerated, Melissa Cox, who’s a filmmaker, was arrested and handcuffed and removed from the territory, and then released without charge. Her experience was that she was pointed to and removed before anyone else was arrested. So it was a clear effort to take the cameras away, and to make sure that no one could witness the police action that followed, which included some violence against land defenders.
AB: There’s also the ongoing established pattern. Like, Jesse Winter and Jerome Turner—multiple people have been allowed to observe certain portions. But then, as enforcement was going to continue deeper into the territory, they were removed and not allowed to return. So they were inside the exclusion zone and they were allowed to stay in record for that day, but then they were physically removed from the territory in the back of a police car, and then not allowed to come back into the exclusion zone. So there’s an obvious interference with the role of the journalist to move freely in the territory as a non-participant, non-obstructionist third party observer—they have absolutely interfered with that in multiple ways.
We also have to remember that in the last two years, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki has, after being pressed by journalists multiple times, finally acknowledged systemic racism within the RCMP. It’s not that she was saying something that anybody didn’t know. But it was kind of historic for an RCMP leader to say that publicly. And at the same time, the behaviour of the RCMP when it comes to policing Indigenous land defence, doesn’t seem to have gotten any less racist. It could be argued that the opposite has happened.
The Narwhal published a story that the RCMP had actually been tracking you and keeping information on both of you in a database. And of course, if we go back just a few months on the Ferry Creek story, BC Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson did not renew Teal Cedar’s application for an extension of that injunction because of the way the RCMP had been enforcing the injunction. There’s some discussion now about who the RCMP is actually accountable to. How do we, as journalists, believe anything that the RCMP tells us?
AB: That’s a good question, way over my head. I have not actually encountered any institution that, like, just lies with impunity. There’s multiple things that they’ve said about this case so far that are just objectively untrue, like demonstrably untrue. And I think it’s deeply problematic that the people who are best positioned to keep them accountable, and to witness their actions and their performance of their duty, are also being the most policed by the police, right? We’re the ones who are being limited. It’s not a very good checks and balances system. I don’t think that the police have any business in adjudicating who is and who isn’t a journalist. I think that as long as somebody is a non-participant and not obstructing their ability to do their work, there’s no argument for them to remove them from the area. It’s deeply problematic, unless we really do want a police state, to allow the police to say who can record them. It’s an issue of social freedom, honestly. It really is, what kind of society do we want to live in? And if we give the police power to say who is and isn’t a journalist, we are moving very closely toward the police state.
MT: I think it’s exceptionally Canadian that the RCMP would acknowledge systemic racism within its ranks. But then double down on the way that it prioritizes public resources during a flood in which you have communities throughout lower British Columbia who are cut off from supplies that are being evacuated—that they would send hundreds of police to Wet’suwet’en territory to enforce an injunction. I also think it’s important to note the role of the C-IRG unit, the Community-Industry Response Group, which is essentially a new wing of the police that’s been created primarily to remove Indigenous land defenders from the the paths of the Trans Mountain pipeline, from preventing old growth logging at Fairy Creek, and from stopping pipelines in Wet’suwet’en territory. This is a unit of the police that works very closely with industry, and it’s a unit of the police that has a culture of violence and a culture of transgressing democratic rights and freedoms—however we want to frame the rights of the press. And this unit is a new creation, and it’s the creation that coincides with the RCMP acknowledging their systemic racism. It’s very telling that at a time when the police is acknowledging a systemic problem within itself, it is providing additional resources for the specific purpose of removing indigenous people from their lands.
Is there anything that we haven’t talked about, any more points that either of you would like to make?
AB: Just going back to the infamous Justin Brake decision, the final point in the judgment very explicitly says that particular consideration should be given to protests involving Aboriginal issues. And yet, we’re consistently seeing that the opposite is true. And the more likely that any protest or resistance involving Indigenous issues is the one that is most likely to face over-policing and limitations on freedom of the press. I think that’s very telling and needs to be addressed definitively, and vociferously, by both the press and the entire society on which we stand. It’s a major problem and a major barrier to really any conversation we want to have about justice or reconciliation, or anything that will move our society beyond this stasis that we have of the problems that we’re having.
MT: I think it’s just worth addressing the focus on two white reporters who were removed from being able to work and cover this has really been an issue of national interest. It has been on the front page of newspapers, it’s been a major story, yet the removal of Wet’suwet’en people from their lands at gunpoint has not been given the same kind of attention. And I think we’re becoming desensitized as a society towards violence towards Indigenous people—or we are already as a baseline desensitized to that violence. And that’s really important to interrogate and to challenge because this is not how a nation that is talking about reconciliation conducts itself. These actions are themselves important, and I hope that the focus shifts back where it belongs: on the actions of the police against unarmed Wet’suwet’en.