KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – “This is is more than an attack on my right to be a journalist, this is an attack on all journalists everywhere,” says Justin Brake, a reporter at Newfoundland and Labrador’s The Independent.
Brake faces both civil and criminal charges for reporting on the indigenous-led occupation of Nalcor-owned property at the Muskrat Falls development site in October of last year. The maximum penalty is ten years in jail.
“What is at stake is journalists’ ability to cover important stories that continue on to private property, says Brake.
“Nalcor and the RCMP have both acknowledged that I didn’t engage in any kind of criminal or destructive behaviour. All I am guilty of is being physically present where the story was. I do find it deeply disturbing that the RCMP has charged me,” says Brake.
Not just Brake
Brake is not alone. 27 land protectors who were part of the occupation, and altogether 50 to 60 people who were involved in protests in some shape or form, are now caught up in the legal process. Although some of these face civil rather than criminal charges, with generally lighter penalties, others may well end up spending a long time in jail or paying substantial fines.
The protesters assert that flooding without fully clearing the reservoir will cause unsafe levels of methylmercury downstream, affecting traditional foods and ways of life. A report by researchers of Harvard and Memorial University suggests their fears are warranted.
The prosecution of the land protectors and others is based on a rather selective interpretation of law, said Mi’kmaw lawyer Dr. Pam Palmeter in an interview with the Independent published late last week.
Federal and provincial governments “are not even following Canadian law — they’re not respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and all of our liberties. They’re not respecting Section 35 and the right of people to protect their land and territories,” said Palmeter.
And these governments are also not recognizing that Indigenous laws predate any Canadian laws, and that Indigenous laws are still in effect.
“Nothing has been done to extinguish those laws, and the Supreme Court of Canada has long realized that we were here with our own governments with our own laws, and there’s nothing to say that Indigenous laws can’t work alongside the imposed Canadian laws,” said Palmeter.
Land protectors charged, but RCMP officer goes free
People in Labrador are particularly upset that while protester face prison time and fines, charges against a Labrador RCMP officer accused of child luring have been stayed. The case was halted after a judge ruled it took an unreasonable amount of time for the accused to go to trial.
The courts in Goose Bay are so jammed up because they are understaffed and overwhelmed by the number of cases, says Brake. “The indigenous people who are charged for protecting their water and food and way of life are seeing an RCMP officer being let off the hook, even though he was charged with what many consider a far more serious accusation.”
All Canadians have a stake in this
All Canadians have a stake in what is transpiring in Newfoundland and Labrador, says Brake.
“As Canadians, do we want to live in a country where journalists can’t tell important stories like the Muskrat Falls occupation,” asks Brake. “If there is a dispute and the government has handed that land to private interests without indigenous consent, than journalists have an obligation to tell those stories, just as Canadians have a right to hear these stories.”
Brake is encouraged by the support he has received. An international coalition of major press freedom organizations has condemned the criminal charges brought against Brake.
“There is a lot of interest, and much of it is supportive. I feel empowered. There are a lot of people standing beside me.” says Brake.
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