Justin Brake: A Journalist Warranted for Arrest Speaks on Freedom Of The Press

"I wasn’t really thinking about the law, my right as a journalist to cover these things is constitutionally protected, freedom of the press is constitutionally protected."

On Sunday, October 23rd, Nalcor got a court order to arrest land protectors occupying the Muskrat Fall site. These land protectors are part of a province wide, Indigenous-led movement urging the province to address concerns about the danger of Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project subjecting residents of the Lake Melville area to dangerous levels of methylmercury.

Justin Brake, a journalist with The Independent, who had been documenting the peaceful occupation of the site, via Facebook Livestreams,was named in the court order.

For the many thousands of viewers watching the Livestreams and for other media outlets who contacted Brake for information, Brake’s coverage of the Make Muskrat Right movement has been crucial for understanding what has been happening on the ground in Labrador over the past couple weeks.

The court order for his arrest is a frightening infringement on the freedom of the press that has sparked outrage across the Canada. We spoke to Brake about the important work he has been doing to document the Make Muskrat Right movement in Labrador. 

Why did you decide to go to Labrador to cover the Make Muskrat Right movement?

I decided to come up here because as I was watching the narrative around Muskrat Falls unfold in public discourse, there was a significant part of the story that I felt was being left out or not adequately addressed.

That was the issues around indigenous rights and human rights, particularly with respect to the projections that methylmercury levels would increase in the reservoir and bioaccumulate in the food chain downstream in Lake Melville where thousands of people harvest fish and seal and other animals from that area.

Did mainstream media outlets contact you for information about what was happening at the Muskrat Falls site?

Several media outlets contacted me, particularly after the blockade began, almost two weeks ago. After that happened, and particularly after the nine arrests were made, that’s when media began reaching out to me. Some of them wanted me to file reports for them and some of them just wanted information or photos and video.

At that point, because my objective was to get the story out, I did share some footage of the arrests with some media outlets.

It is a legal right for protesters to have their arrests filmed. How did it feel to film people’s arrests?

It didn’t feel good, I was covering the story because I felt it was important to document the Indigenous-led resistance to Muskrat Falls and make sure that the voices that were resisting the project were heard, in terms of their concerns and fears that the project would severely impact their ability to continue feeding their families and preserve their way of life.

So when the arrests happened, it certainly wasn’t enjoyable to be witnessing that and documenting it, but it was definitely a really important moment in the on going coverage of the movement.

I think that footage had a pretty big impact on how things unfolded in the couple of weeks since then. I think it triggered a response in people across the province and probably across Canada, but particularly for the people in Labrador who knew people were participating in the blockade to protect their food and their way of life.

What did it feel like to walk onto the Muskrat Falls site? Did you believe you were breaking the law? Do you think there are appropriate times to break the law as a journalist? 

There wasn’t much time to think about it, that day there was a rally being held by Nunatukavut. It all happened very suddenly, someone cut the lock and people flooded through the gate. My immediate thought was as a journalist I have to document whatever is going to happen inside the gates.

I wasn’t really thinking about the law, my right as a journalist to cover these things is constitutionally protected, freedom of the press is constitutionally protected. So I continue to do my job with the confidence that Canadian law protects my ability to be a journalist and do the work I have to do.

Why do you think Nalcor named you in the court order to arrest land protectors occupying the Muskrat Falls site? 

I can’t say for sure, but I can speculate and I believe my presence inside the occupied workers camp and the coverage, the Livestream that I was able to put out via Facebook, really impacted the public perception of what was going on.

There were points when language was used by people on the outside, by the government, Nalcor, and the RCMP, about there being concern for the safety of the people in the camp, workers, and land protectors.

By documenting what was actually going on inside, I think was able to show the people of the province that it was a peaceful action, a peaceful occupation. That in fact, workers and land protectors were mingling and speaking with each other, shaking hands and hugging each other. Workers were dropping off food and clothing for the land protectors.

I think the coverage shifted the public perception and as a result it made it more difficult for the RCMP and Nalcor to remove the land protectors using police force as early as they would have liked.

Nalcor has said that work stoppage on the site costs them approximately three million dollars a day. They had deadlines to meet as the snow was falling and the frost was setting in. There was an urgent need for them to remove the land protectors, but I think the coverage shifted public perception in a way that made it more difficult for the police to move in and justify using any kind of force against the land protectors who included youth and elders.

What was it like to leave the site facing arrest? 

I was sad that we have reached a point in our history were we have evolved and progressed so much that we could have a journalist with so few resources be able to broadcast live from an important event; that we’ve gotten to that point, but at the same time, we seem to have regressed by virtue of the fact that a Crown Corporation and the Supreme Court could imply that a journalist doing their job was potentially participating in some kind of criminal activity.

What do you think about the agreement reached between Indigenous leaders and the Liberal Government on Wednesday morning? 

I don’t know what my own opinion on that is yet. I’m in the midst of interviewing some of the land protectors and elders now that they’ve had some time to be exposed to more information from that agreement.

What I’m hearing so far, including outside the gate yesterday when the land protectors inside the site came out, is that very few people are happy about the decision in the grassroots in Labrador.

A lot of the Labradorian sI’ve spoken with since the announcement have expressed concern because their goal was to prevent any water from going into the reservoir until all concerns were addressed. This agreement allows for water to go into the reservoir, although there is need in the agreement for Nalcor to prove that it’s necessary and there are apparently mechanisms in place to insure that monitoring will happen on a regular basis.

One thing I know is that everybody in Labrador is happy that the hunger strikers are eating again.

It seems to me from the interviews that I’ve done that there’s a lot of mixed feelings here in Labrador about the agreement. People are happy that the hunger strikers are eating, but they’re unsure of, or outright opposed to the agreement because they don’t want to see any water going into the reservoir yet.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s been more than a year since federal and provincial elected leaders have committed to building nation to nation relationships with Indigenous people and committed to following the calls to action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

There’s a strong feeling on the ground here in Labrador that the way governments have handled the concerns around Muskrat Falls has been going in the opposite direction of reconciliation, that’s been said by members of the grassroots and two of three Indigenous leaders here in Labrador.

The Truth and Reconciliation Report also compels me and all journalists in Canada to do fair and adequate coverage of important issues and struggles that Indigenous peoples are engaged in, it’s called Action 84. Even though it’s not all Indigenous people that are engaged in this struggle, it is led by members of the Indigenous community.

Part of the responsibility that I felt to cover this issue was related to the responsibility I felt as a journalist to participate in the calls to action and to actively make decisions that facilitate decolonization and the Indigenization of the media.

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