RCMP arrest a filmmaker and a photojournalist covering conflict on Wet’suwet’en Territory

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RCMP at Wet'suweten
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WET’SUWET’EN TERRITORY/HOUSTON, BC, CANADA – Award winning documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano, and internationally acclaimed photojournalist Amber Bracken, were arrested while covering the ongoing conflict in Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia, Canada. Michael Toledano has been filming the documentary film “YINTAH” for the past 3 years, and Amber Bracken was on assignment for The Narwhal.

Michael and Amber were inside a tiny home, along with eight or nine Wet’suwet’en land defenders and their supporters, when police broke down the door with an axe and forced their way inside with guns drawn, attack dogs in tow, and assault rifles trained on the doors and windows. Both Michael and Amber identified themselves as members of the media, and were clearly photographing the events, but were arrested none-the-less.

“The government of Canada does not want the world to witness the violence that police bring to Indigenous people”, says YINTAH Producer Jennifer Wickham. “Michael was the third member of our team detained or arrested this week, and the RCMP have seriously sabotaged our documentary work.”

Jennifer along with YINTAH Producer Brenda Michell, Chief Geltiy, are Wet’suwet’en and the documentary production is being conducted with guidance from the different House groups depicted in the film.

“This is yet another instance of the Canadian government trying to silence Indigenous people.” Wickham added from her home in Smithers, BC.

Following the arrest of one of our cinematographers on Thursday, our team sent a letter to RCMP Communications alerting them of Michael and other media persons’ location in the area as well as their identification as press.

For the last decade, “Wet’suwet’en members have been fighting to stop several pipelines from crossing their territories. One key element they are trying to protect is Wedzin Kwa, their sacred headwaters. The tiny house where Michael and Amber were arrested stood at the site where Coastal GasLink, a fracked gas pipeline, is set to tunnel under the river.

A total of 15 people were arrested on Friday including Gidimt’en Cas Yikh member Sleydo’ Molly Wickham. The violent raid ended a 56 day Indigenous reoccupation of the drilling site. The cabin has now been burned to the ground by cleaning crews monitored by the RCMP, and Coastal Gaslink is resuming their work.

Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) commented, “It’s completely and utterly shocking the extent to which the RCMP are going to prevent journalists from covering events that are happening in the public interest.”

Many journalists have been arrested while covering protests in B.C. over the last several years, which led to a court case being brought by a coalition of media outlets including: The Discourse, IndigiNews, The Narwhal, Capital Daily, Ricochet Media, APTN, Canada’s National Observer, and the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). In July 2021, the media coalition won the ruling allowing journalists to cover police activity instead of following the RCMP’s use of “exclusion zones” where media is placed far away from police arrests thus preventing any real coverage of events. Moreover, the Fairy Creek precedent states that while enforcing an injunction “the Police will not impede, curtail, delay, or interfere with access to any part of the Injunction Area by members of the media who are attempting to gather information and obtain photographic and video evidence for their respective publications…”

Freedom of the press and other media of communication is a fundamental freedom protected by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In March 2019, a landmark decision by a Newfoundland and Labrador court known as the “Justin Brake Case” reaffirmed that even when an injunction order has been issued, special considerations apply to journalists working in good faith and reporting on matters in the public interest. The decision states that: “To achieve the goal of reconciliation, better understanding of aboriginal peoples and aboriginal issues is needed. This places a heightened importance on ensuring that independently-reported information about aboriginal issues, including aboriginal protests, is available to the extent possible.”

The arrests of Nov 18th and 19th show that the RCMP do not want the world to see what they are doing on Wet’suwet’en territory.

Michael Toledano is the director of YINTAH.

Amber Bracken is a photojournalist recognized by the Canadian Association of Journalists with an award for her “moral courage” in recognition of her work documenting the Wet’suwet’en water protectors, and with the World Press Photography award for Contemporary Issues.