Between January 7 and January 11 this year the RCMP blocked journalists from gaining access to the Gidimt’en checkpoint in northern B.C., making it near impossible for them to properly and fairly cover the protests happening on the territory. Members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and many Canadians around the country protested the construction of a pipeline passing through their territory — a decision that was made without proper consultation or consent from those living on that land.
Multiple news outlets reported that the RCMP allegedly arrested 14 people at the Gidimt’en camp checkpoint for violating an injunction issued by the Supreme Court of British Columbia in December, which prohibited any physical intervention targeting GasLink pipeline employees for doing their jobs. Furthermore, it ordered that no one could come within 10 metres of any person or vehicle related to the project. The RCMP, however, used the court order to restrict access to everyone—including journalists— preventing them from coming within 17 kilometres of the Gidimt’en camp, the location of the protests, which they labelled an “exclusion zone.”
Karyn Pugliese, director of news and current affairs for Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN), believes that having a media presence would not only benefit the Indigenous communities and Canadian public, but the RCMP as well. She points to the case of Justin Brake, a reporter who was charged in 2016 for violating a court order and following land-protection protestors into the Nalcor Energy construction site at Muskrat Falls. Nalcor Energy expressed its concern for the safety of its employees upon interaction with the protestors, but because Brake was reporting from inside, he was able to reassure the public that there had been no violence and everyone inside was safe. Not only did his reports and tweets soothe the nerves of the company, the public and the families of those inside, but they also helped inform the police of what action needed to be taken.
The RCMP has a track record of violent treatment of Indigenous peoples, including aiding in the the forceful removal of children from their homes to attend residential schools and the forced assimilation of young children into white families during the Sixties Scoop. The Canadian education system has failed to tell these stories as part of the historical record, as has media coverage of this reality. In light of this history, blocking journalists’ access to the protest site challenges the government-supported process of reconciliation.
A January 7 press release from the RCMP indicates that the officers are impartial and recognize the individual’s right to protest. In its defence the RCMP stated the decision to keep journalists away from the Gidimt’en camp was for their own safety. But Pugliese says it is her own responsibility to train her reporters to act safely, not the RCMP’s job to restrict their access. She feels that the police could have created a media space 20 metres away from the camp, far enough to stay out of their way but close enough to still observe what was happening. Without third-party witnesses on site, there is no one to mediate the truth, and the word becomes the RCMP’s versus that of the protesters.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has called on all Canadian journalists to fairly cover more Indigenous issues, but the question must be asked: Did the RCMP prevent the media from fulfilling these obligations when it blocked journalists’ ability to report from the site of the protest?
Jim Jeong, a freelancer for The Globe and Mail at the time, told the Ryerson Review that he was not permitted past the roadblock set up by the RCMP at “Kilometre 27” on Morice River road, where the reporters he was with were unable to contact the media liaison, Madonna Saunderson, due to poor cell service. The Gidimt’en checkpoint, located at “Kilometre 44”, 15 kilometres in, was created in response to the injunction order by community members protesting the pipeline, and where protesters were arrested. The actual construction site at the Unist’ot’en camp is located at “Kilometre 64”, where pipeline construction had begun.
Saunderson was unavailable for comment, although Janelle Shoihet, media liaison for the lower Mainland district stated, “the RCMP was given discretion to create an exclusion zone that “we deemed to be as small as possible and as brief as possible in the circumstances, based on police security and safety needs” in an email response.
Jeong was on the territory for four days from Tuesday to Friday. On the Friday—January 11—RCMP officials opened up the checkpoint (27) but blocked access to the actual construction site at checkpoint 44, despite assurances from the RCMP that he would be able to reach the construction site at the Unist’ot’en camp.
The RCMP’s refusal to allow journalists to bear witness to events unfolding between January 7 and 11 beyond its established checkpoint raises concerns about a lack of transparency and ultimately, suspicion about its actions.
That’s especially so because of the problematic historical record of the RCMP with Indigenous people. That sentiment is felt by those in the community where Jeong was reporting. “…[T]hinking that the police is not going to harm them is a very privileged way of thinking,” Jeong says, recalling a conversation he had with an Indigenous woman at a Wet’suwet’en camp. “ So having media there, at least it’s a way of preventing that, and keeps everyone in check. That’s another good point that she made, is that having media there not only covers the story but… RCMP will be a little more careful with what they do.”
Karyn Pugliese shares a similar sentiment, “ …[W]e live our lives being transparent,” she says, “I think the police should as well, because they’ve got guns.”
“If you’re not in there, what happens?” asks Pugliese. “Well, the police are going to have to go in expecting the worst-case scenario. It is going to up the chances for violence.” She says APTN has received intervener status on Brake’s case, who is now employed at the network and is arguing that his case not only challenges press freedom, but Indigenous rights as well. It is particularly imperative to have media present in situations involving Indigenous issues, she says, because media has been encouraged to produce more Indigenous coverage and in doing so the situation becomes less dangerous. “Media are the people who keep democracy working,” Pugliese says. “When we go out and we put ourselves on the line and we’re there to observe and give the Canadian public information that they need to know about how their democracy is operating, we’re the good guys of democracy. Let us do our job. If you’re not letting us do our job, I’m sorry you’re the bad guys of democracy.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Justin Brake was arrested in 2016. He was charged criminally and civilly. The Review regrets this error.