A freelance photojournalist who was arrested in November 2021 at a resistance camp established by opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline west of Prince George, B.C., announced Monday that she, along with the news outlet The Narwhal, have filed a lawsuit against the RCMP in the wake of the incident.
During a press event outside B.C. Supreme Court in downtown Vancouver, Amber Bracken and editorial leaders from The Narwhal said that they are suing the Mounties for wrongful arrest, wrongful detention and violation of Charter rights.
“I felt kidnapped,” said Bracken. “My role is to witness events. I have to be present.”
The Edmonton-based journalist was on assignment for The Narwhal on Wet’suwet’en territory when she was arrested, alongside multiple project protesters and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano, as police sought to enforce an injunction allowing pipeline construction to move forward.
Toledano was working on a documentary commissioned by CBC’s The Passionate Eye at the time of his arrest.
The public broadcaster is not involved in the lawsuit filed Monday.
In an emailed response to questions about if the CBC was planning any legal action of its own, and for reaction to The Narwhal’s lawsuit, Chuck Thompson, head of CBC public affairs, declined to weigh in.
“Given our publicly stated concern in December of 2021 over the arrests of Amber [Bracken] and Michael [Toledano], we were obviously relieved and pleased to hear the civil contempt charges against them had been dropped early in 2022,” said Thompson.
“This particular lawsuit does not involve CBC and, as such, it is not the corporation’s place to comment on it,” he added.
The rights of journalists are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Nov. 19, 2021, arrest of Bracken and Toledano sparked outrage among press freedom advocates.
“The lawsuit filed this morning aims to establish meaningful consequences for police when they interfere with the constitutional rights of journalists covering events in injunction zones,” said Emma Gilchrist, co-founder and executive director of The Narwhal.
She said the outlet would rather not engage in a lengthy, expensive lawsuit but that the situation left them no choice, and they are now seeking declarations from the court that Bracken’s rights were breached.
“To not move forward with this case would be to turn our backs on what’s right,” said Gilchrist, adding she hopes the move will clear a path for other journalists to work without police interference.
Gilchrist’s colleague and The Narwhal’s executive editor, Carol Linnitt, told reporters what happened to Bracken on Wet’suwet’en land is indicative of a pattern showing a lack of regard for freedom of the press by police.
She referenced the use of illegal exclusion zones by RCMP to prevent journalists from covering arrests at Fairy Creek logging protests on Vancouver Island in 2021 as another example.
“The arrest and detainment of Amber Bracken should never have happened,” said Linnitt.
She said Bracken was carrying an assignment letter from The Narwhal in her pocket during the time of her arrest and identified herself repeatedly as a member of the press to officers.
Today is a HUGE day for press freedom.<br><br>The Narwhal & Amber Bracken are suing the RCMP for violating Charter rights granted to journalists.<br><br>The CAJ strongly supports this. We hope it is yet another wake-up call to police that journalism is not a crime<br><br>📄:<a href=”https://t.co/upJ8MnH3mF”>https://t.co/upJ8MnH3mF</a> <a href=”https://t.co/EgOYPVXcfL”>pic.twitter.com/EgOYPVXcfL</a>
RCMP have acknowledged both Bracken and Toledano identified themselves at the scene as independent journalists.
Sean Hern K.C., legal council for The Narwhal, said the suit is seeking damages for Bracken for wrongful arrest and charter breaches, both of which he said are usually “fairly low” monetary awards, as well as a claim for punitive damages.
“This isn’t about gains or a windfall for The Narwhal or Bracken,” said Hern.
Members of the Wet’suwet’en established the resistance camp at a Coastal GasLink work site on Sept. 25, 2021, halting plans to drill a tunnel under the Wedzin Kwa, or Morice River.
Bracken and Toledano were released 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.
In December 2021, Coastal GasLink dropped civil contempt charges against Bracken and Toledano, according to documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court.
CBC reached out to the RCMP for comment. A spokesperson for the Mounties said that once served with a notice of civil claim, the Department of Justice will review it, and a statement of defence will be issued through the appropriate court process.
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