In this image Brandi Morin is being arrested by police officers and being taken away by one on either side
Brandi Morin is arrested while reporting on an Indigenous homeless encampment in Edmonton. Credit: Brandi Morin on X (@Songstress28)

 Brandi Morin’s case is a warning to all journalists

Despite court rulings, law enforcement continue to interfere with journalists reporting on Indigenous-related protests Continue Reading  Brandi Morin’s case is a warning to all journalists

Two months after her arrest by Edmonton police, the obstruction charges against the Cree, Iroquois and French journalist Brandi Morin were dropped on March 1. While this news was hailed as a victory for journalists and their right to work without interference from law enforcement, Morin’s arrest highlights a worrying pattern of harassment and intimidation of working journalists across Canada. 

When Morin was being arrested by the Edmonton Police Service in the late morning of Jan. 10, the first thing on her mind was who would pick up her daughter from kindergarten. 

The award-winning journalist was working that morning, reporting for Ricochet, on the EPS’s dismantlement of an Indigenous-led encampment at Rowland Road and 95 Street.

The City of Edmonton had begun dismantling encampments in December, with at least eight sites set to be torn down.

Morin was looking to speak with the people who were under threat of being displaced. “I wanted to profile these people. What were their stories? Why were they there? What barriers were they facing?” she says. While Indigenous people make up only five per cent of the population in Edmonton, a city council report says that they “represent 62 per cent of the population experiencing homelessness.”

The day before, she had been at the encampment when police arrived amidst a snow fall and frigid temperatures. It seemed to her that the EPS had reached an agreement with the camp residents and their Cree Metis leader, Roy “Big Man” Cardinal, where only the unoccupied structures would be taken down. Morin went home intending to return the next day to finish her interviews.

That night, however, Morin saw a video circulating on social media of a Blackfoot and Dene volunteer from the Bear Claw Beaver Hills House, a local Indigenous-led outreach group, being violently arrested for protesting the removal of the encampment.

She returned the next day, not expecting to cover a police raid but to conduct an interview with Big Man in his tipi. Around 40 minutes into their interview, the police arrived again. The EPS circled the area with yellow crime scene tape and, by the time Morin left Big Man’s tipi, she found herself inside the established “exclusion zone.”

Morin witnessed the EPS forming a line overlooking the camp on a small mound and asking to speak with Big Man. They gave the residents two options: They could leave in the warming buses or be forcibly removed. The residents and supporters stood their ground, some holding their eagle feathers up as a form of solidarity and resistance.

“Within 10 seconds, the police moved forward to start pummeling them,” says Morin, who at the time was recording everything on her cell phone. She thought it was clear they were targeting Big Man. Shortly after, chaos broke out, people screamed and snow was flying everywhere. Seconds after going after Big Man, a police officer stepped in front of Morin’s camera. The officer told Morin to go behind the yellow tape, which she says was about 12 metres away— not close enough to witness what was happening. 

Morin identified herself as a journalist to the officer and affirmed her right to be there. She wasn’t obstructing them, she said. None of this, says Morin, stopped the EPS pushing her, cuffing her, and leading her away to the police van. As she told the Guardian, she felt humiliated as she was paraded to the van in front of TV cameras. She managed to yell her mother’s phone number to a young woman at the scene and asked her to tell her to pick up her daughter. 

From the van, Morin could still hear people screaming and what sounded like chaos. “But I couldn’t do anything. I was just there in this cage,” she says. 

Morin said on the Warrior Life Podcast, hosted by Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer, author, activist, and professor and chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University that: “The police and the province had been really working through various mediums such as social media or press conferences to depict these encampments as dangerous or gang-ridden.” But in Big Man’s tipi she had not witnessed anything dangerous. She saw people smudging, sharing stories and singing. “I witnessed a community at this encampment,” she says.

A worrying pattern 

Morin was charged with obstructing a peace officer — a criminal offense with a maximum sentence of two years in jail. While her charges were recently dropped, her case is but one in a string of incidents where law enforcement has stepped in to obstruct or impede the work of journalists covering stories involving Indigenous Peoples, as the Canadian Press Freedom Project has found. 

In 2020, Karl Dockstader, an Oneida journalist and co-host of the radio show One Dish, One Mic, was reporting on the 1492 Land Back Lane demonstrations against a housing development project bordering the town of Caledonia, Ont., led by Six Nations land defenders. 

When Dockstader and his co-host Sean Vanderklis arrived at the lane, he did not understand why all the other media organizations were across the street. 

“We just crossed the road. That’s really the only thing we did differently from the other media outlets that were there. Once we crossed the road, we found ourselves immersed in what was happening and we quickly realized that we were the only people providing a sort of context to the story that hadn’t existed before,” says Dockstader. 

Dockstader recalls finding a lot of families, people singing, gardening and language exchange at the demonstration. All of that context and nuance, he says, was missing from the reporting occurring from across the street. Dockstader was eventually charged with mischief and failure to comply with an injunction for being present in the camp, which was deemed illegal. 

There have been several recent cases where injunctions have been used by Canadian law enforcement to prevent Indigenous Peoples from asserting their land rights. Injunctions can include so-called “exclusion zones” in which law enforcement limits the public’s access — including media. This allows them significant control over the narrative if journalists cannot document and report on events, often including protests. They also act as a deterrent against reporting since journalists are threatened with criminal charges for trespassing on the zones.  

Starla Myers, a Mohawk journalist from Six Nations of the Grand River, was also charged for reporting on 1492 Land Back Lane demonstrations with two counts of mischief and one count of disobeying a court order

“This is my community, this is where I’m from,” says Myers. “We continue to see high rises in abuses on the land surrounding us. But historically, we’ve never been able to respond to that. So it’s important for me to tell that story.” The charges against both Myers and Dockstader were eventually withdrawn.

In 2016, Justin Brake, editor-in-chief of the Independent, who is not Indigenous, also spent weeks covering rallies, protests and doing interviews with land defenders in Muskrat Falls who were protesting the hydroelectric dam on Churchill River in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Similar to what other Indigenous journalists have highlighted about their role covering protests, which focuses on breaking negative stereotypes, Brake says that “People were following us [on social media] and becoming familiar with a side of the story that they hadn’t really heard around Muskrat Falls.” 

On Oct. 22, 2016, Brake was present when the lock on a gate was cut and the protesters occupied the Muskrat Falls job site. Brake continued to report on the demonstration by following the protesters. He found that there was an appetite for the coverage he was doing, noting that “tens of thousands” of people were tuning into their Facebook live. 

He later found out he was named in a court order that accused him of trespassing. “They named me on their injunction order to the judge, and they didn’t tell the judge that I was a working journalist,” says Brake. “That left me with no choice but to comply or face being taken out of there in handcuffs. So I had to make the really difficult decision. I basically had to stop reporting.” 

This incident led to a four-year court case before charges against Brake were dropped in 2019 at the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeals. The court reaffirmed that when an injunction is in place, special considerations apply to journalists who are working in good faith on topics of public interest.

Despite this ruling, similar incidents of obstruction and harassment have continued. 

While reporting on the opposition to the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in Wetʼsuwetʼen territory, RCMP officers reportedly threatened, harrassed and detained journalists Jesse Winter, Jerome Turner, Melissa Cox and Dan Loan and arrested photojournalist Amber Bracken.

The RCMP later claimed in a court filing that Bracken was not working as a journalist at the time of the arrest, without citing evidence to support this. While the charges against her were dropped, Bracken and The Narwhal are suing the RCMP to establish consequences for law enforcement that interfere with the constitutional rights of journalists reporting in injunction zones, which include journalists’ rights to liberty and the freedom of the press as is protected by section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In 2021, the Fairy Creek blockades began in response to the approval of Teal Cedar Products logging permits to cut timber including old-growth trees. The largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history resulted from protesting an injunction that sought to stop anti-logging protests. 

While the courts had originally granted the injunction to Teal Cedar Products, a major effort by media professionals saw the Canadian Association of Journalists, Ricochet Media, The Narwhal, Capital Daily, Canada’s National Observer, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, The Discourse and IndigiNews joining forces to ask the B.C. Supreme Court to modify the order. They asked the court to instruct the RCMP to grant full media access to Fairy Creek unless there was a genuine safety or operational reason to restrict access.

The effort paid off, and the request was granted by the court. However, CAJ president Brent Jolly says that, despite this ruling, law enforcement officers still detained journalists reporting on the blockades.

“In a lot of ways, it kind of feels like a game of Whac-a-Mole, where you’re repeating over and over and over the same point,” says Jolly. 

Time and again, court decisions have reaffirmed the importance of having journalists witness, record and report what is happening to the public. “This is not acceptable behavior for law enforcement to arrest or detain journalists for the simple act of collecting evidence and taking photos and documenting,” says Jolly. 

An added layer of trauma

Immediately after Morin’s arrest, multiple organizations including the Coalition For Women In Journalism, Women Press Freedom, the CAJ, Amnesty International and the Indigenous Journalist Association and Journalists for Human Rights expressed their support and demanded that the Emonton police drop the charges. 

“When you censor Indigenous journalists, you’re basically committing a human rights violation, in the sense that there are things that protect the inherent right of storytelling,” says Muscogee member Angel Ellis, chair of the  IJA’ s Press Freedom Committee. “Shutting down an Indigenous journalist is extra complicit to endangering the Indigenous communities.”

In the end, arrests and charges like these are meant to intimidate and send a chilling message to others wanting to cover protests involving Indigenous Peoples. 

“There’s still this part of me that carries the shame of being arrested, even though I didn’t do anything wrong,” says Dockstader.   

Myers explains that the restrictions that came as a consequence of her arrest effectively ended her career. She found it depressing to not be able to continue her work as a member of the community and a story curator. 

Brake recalls his own court case being stressful for him and his family. “I didn’t want to be leading this charge in the courts to protect press freedom,” he says. “I just wanted to be doing my job as a journalist, but then that became part of my job.” 

For Indigenous journalists in particular, there’s an extra fear of being associated with the criminal justice system and confirming negative stereotypes. 

“I felt the heaviness of being criminalized,” says Morin, who was dreading returning to the police station to get fingerprinted.“I didn’t want to be in their system, because I knew once I was in their system, that I’d be in there forever.”

Despite this, Morin reminded herself of the legacy of her work and recognized that the goal of these authorities is to silence and intimidate Indigenous voices. 

In the end, these types of charges and threats not only suppress the media and traumatize journalists. They detract from the real stories that need to be told. The nature of media coverage changes when a journalist is arrested, as they become the focus of the story. As Ellis explains, this puts reporters in the position of fighting for their own freedom and fighting to tell the story of others at the same time. And while this is a win for those trying to suppress important stories, we are all left poorer for it.  

Sahaana is a final Master of Journalism student at TMU. She’s an assistant reporter at the Investigative Journalism Bureau, producer for two podcast shows, Beyond the U and Reviewed. Her reporting has been featured in TVO, The Otter, and The Review of Journalism.