Justin Brake has to appear in court on Nov. 1 after he was named in a court order along with 21 protesters.

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

When a group of protesters in Muskrat Falls in Labrador cut the locks on the gate of a controversial hydroelectric project and marched in, journalist Justin Brake followed the story. “I just continued to do my job as a journalist,” he said.

As a result, he was among 22 people named in an court order issued by the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court on Oct. 25, which, according to The Canadian Press, was issued because the protesters were violating a previous injunction barring them from the site. Brake has since been issued an interlocutory order to appear in court Nov. 1.

Brake has been a reporter and editor at The Independent, an online news outlet covering Newfoundland and Labrador, since 2012. He has been covering the protests at Muskrat Falls on the ground since mid-October.

The project at the heart of the protests, a multimillion-dollar hydroelectric dam overseen by the provincial Crown corporation Nalcor has been in the works since 2011, according to the CBC.

Brake was motivated to go in person to cover the protests, which have been increasing in frequency over the last month, because he thought there was an important part of the story that was not being told adequately—how local Indigenous people would be impacted by the project.

According to a CBC backgrounder, to complete the project a portion of the surrounding area must be flooded. However, a study undertaken by Harvard University scientists and the Nunatsiavut government, which represents the local Inuit community, has shown that the partial flooding, which was scheduled for Oct. 15, could release methylmercury into nearby waterbodies. The flooding would impact land used for traditional hunting grounds used by the three Indigenous groups who live in the area.

“I think I was able to tell an important part of the story,” he said, adding that he wanted to show people’s anxiety and fear over the impending flood. “There was also anger that was very palpable on the ground here.”

The protests, which have all been peaceful, have escalated from rallies to marches into the construction site. Brake said they grew “fairly significantly” the closer the Oct. 15 flood date came.

“Organizers decided to hold a protest at the main gate and that protest turned into a blockade,” Brake said. Nalcor applied for an injunction Oct. 16, which was delivered to the blockade that same night. In the early hours of Oct. 17, several people were arrested.

“I was able to be there to document that arrest, which I think triggered a response from people,” Brake said. In addition to writing numerous articles from Muskrat Falls, Brake has also thoroughly documented the protests on Twitter.

On Oct. 22, protesters once again gathered outside the gates in defiance of the injunction and cut the lock off the gate. People walked and drove up into the construction site as far as they could possibly go—the main workers’ camp, which they occupied for four days. Brake went with them. There were more people than could possibly be stopped by the police present at the site. But three days later, the court order was issued.

After the court order was issued, Brake had to take stock of his situation, consulting with both lawyers and groups that support journalists. But as an independent journalist, he lacks the resources to fight a lengthy court battle. He left the camp after making arrangements to maintain regular contact with those inside so he could keep reporting.

On Oct. 26, The Telegram reported that Indigenous leaders from Labrador had worked out a compromise with the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, and asked protesters to “go home.”

But Brake still has to deal with the consequences of what was a difficult decision for him to make as a reporter. “I felt guilty once I got outside the gates,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a decision that a journalist in Canada should ever have to make—or anywhere really.”

H.G. Watson can be reached at hgwatson@j-source.ca or on Twitter.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.