Wanderings – Protests, pipelines, and rules

Amber Bracken is an award-winning photojournalist based in Western Canada. Her photography has been published widely in The Globe and Mail, the New York Times, Reuters, Canadian Geographic, and by numerous publications that are members of the Canadian Press or of Postmedia’s newspaper network.

Bracken’s journalism work has covered everything from environmental issues to Indigenous protests.

Journalists are supposed to cover the news – observe, document, and report. They are not supposed to be news – but sometimes that happens.

Last November, Bracken and Michael Toledano – a documentary film maker under contract with the CBC – were arrested along with 13 Wet’suwet’en land defenders by the RCMP. Bracken and Toledano were documenting the Wet’suwet’en in their defence against the TC Energy Coastal GasLink pipeline being built across their hereditary and unceded land in British Columbia.

When the RCMP enforced an injunction in place against the Wet’suwet’en, they did so in full SWAT tactical gear. Bracken detailed her experience in The Narwhal, which can be read online.

The arrests made international headlines, which again is not the attention any journalist wants to have on them. The story should always be about what you are reporting on, not the reporter.

It’s not the first time a journalist has been arrested when covering the news. There are many cases in Canada where this has happened. It is more common place than you’d think, especially when covering protests, blockades, and standoffs where a minority group stands up for its rights over a majority group.

Rereading Bracken’s story and watching the events of the past two weeks in Ottawa, I think there has been a shift and it may actually be for the good.

In Ottawa there is a minority group which has taken over the downtown core and Parliamentary precinct. The group is protesting vaccine mandates and restrictions relating to the pandemic.

Let’s forget the basic civics lessons which those protestors seem to have forgotten about federal and provincial responsibility/jurisdiction and focus on the response to the protests.

For days, there was no response from police. None. Roads were blocked, horns blared for hours at a time in the downtown, and there was little police response. A weekend protest became a week long encampment.

Only days later did the police begin to release footage in an attempt to enforce laws and bylaws.

There was no SWAT team response. No heavy-handed “arrest them all and we’ll figure it out later” action by law enforcement. Protest as you wish.

Profanity laden flags with anatomically impossible suggested positions for the Prime Minister and symbols of hate flew around downtown without a response, except public condemnation. Municipal bylaws were left unenforced, except when residents stood up for themselves.

Ottawa police only stepped in when a stockpile of propane tanks was discovered on federal land.

Could this change in how protests are dealt with be progress? Is this the new police model, to let the protesters protest and not arrest?

No, it is not. This is – again – the case of separate sets of rules for different people. It’s not difficult to figure out what characteristics are used to decide who gets which playbook.

It is a sad tale that one group can do as they please, and the other gets a pair of silver bracelets for the same.

Originally published in the February 9, 2022 edition of The Leader.