Police in Canada have been collecting information about their interactions with at least two journalists in a database that tracks law enforcement investigations, an RCMP officer revealed in affidavits released in court on Monday.
The revelation adds a new twist to a case that has triggered widespread criticism, including in a scathing letter signed by more than 40 news organizations on Monday that urged the federal public safety minister, Marco Mendicino, to intervene.
The RCMP submitted the affidavits in support of its actions over the previous week on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, where officers arrested more than two dozen people, including journalists, in response to requests from a Canadian oil and gas company to enforce a court injunction so that it can build the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline project.
Award-winning photojournalist Amber Bracken, who was on assignment for The Narwhal, and documentary filmmaker Michael Toledano were among those arrested on Nov. 19 and detained for several days in custody. Both were scheduled to be released on Monday after agreeing to abide by conditions of the injunction and to be available for a future court appearance if the Crown proceeds with charges.
“On November 19, 2021, PRIME database queries were conducted on Bracken who has several police interactions in the… area since 2020,” Cst. Benjamin Laurie wrote in one of the affidavits, dated Nov. 20.
PRIME stands for Police Records Information Management Environment and it contains information related “to police investigations, the originating agency and complete police investigational reports, along with specific entity particulars such as birth dates, telephone numbers, addresses and persons associated to the event,” Laurie wrote.
In a separate affidavit, Laurie wrote he had conducted a similar search on PRIME for Toledano, noting the documentary filmmaker had “extensive police interactions” in the region as well as a “police history in Toronto.” The affidavit didn’t specify what “history” Laurie was referring to, but he noted that neither Bracken nor Toledano have a criminal record.
Police also seized the professional equipment and possessions of both journalists. The arrests prevented The Narwhal from obtaining and publishing Bracken’s photos showing what police did during arrests on Nov. 19.
The arrests were made with the use of canine units and snipers. RCMP broke down the door to a tiny home with an axe to remove land defenders and the journalists, while officers used a chainsaw to extract one of the land defenders from a cabin on the drill site.
Although PRIME-BC is primarily used by police in British Columbia, the database is linked to police systems across Canada, according to a 2017 report by the provincial auditor general. The PRIME system is managed by PRIMECorp, an organization that is governed by a board with representation from the RCMP, other law enforcement stakeholders, municipalities, as well as the provincial Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
CAJ ‘troubled’ by tracking of journalists
The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment on Monday and it is not clear why police were tracking the two journalists who have received widespread praise and recognition for their work.
“We are very concerned to learn that the RCMP was tracking Amber’s activity in an active investigations database,” said Emma Gilchrist, editor-in-chief of The Narwhal. “Amber has always conducted herself as a professional journalist and there is no excuse for the RCMP to track the activities of journalists.”
Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, added that he was troubled to learn the RCMP was logging information about journalists in a database.
“It’s one of those issues that makes me wonder what other information is being collected and what are they planning to do with that,” Jolly told The Narwhal. “Are they trying to use this to demonize Amber and Michael, for example, to tar and feather them for future reference so that they can be painted as activists or delinquents or something else? It just makes me wonder what other motives are there.”
In a statement posted online late on Monday afternoon, Eric Stubbs, an RCMP assistant commissioner, denied arresting anyone for being a journalist or doing their job.
The statement did not explain what the journalists did wrong or why they were detained for several days. But it noted police secured their personal belongings, did not interfere with these possessions and were prepared to return them after court proceedings.
“Moving forward, I remain available and willing to work with the media on ensuring there are clear communications, processes and understanding for all those involved,” Stubbs said in the statement.
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B.C. ministry won’t say if it spoke to police or TC Energy about arrests
The office of B.C. Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who is responsible for RCMP activities in the province under a federal-provincial agreement, declined to respond to questions from The Narwhal about whether he or any other ministry official had communicated with the RCMP or TC Energy about recent events, sending a general statement.
“Police operate at arms length from government and the solicitor general does not direct police operations,” said the statement, sent by spokesman Travis Paterson. “As this matter is before the courts, we will not be making any further comment.”
Farnworth’s office also declined to comment about the collection of information about journalists in the police investigations database.
If completed, the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink project would be operated by Calgary-based energy company TC Energy, which owns a 35 per cent stake in the project. TC Energy sold a majority share in a 2019 deal involving an Alberta Crown Corporation, AIMCo, in partnership with investment firms, financial institutions and pension funds in Canada, the U.S. and South Korea.
TC Energy set aside up to $3.3 billion for cost overruns
Coastal GasLink, which would connect natural gas producers in northeastern B.C. to an LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat, on the northwest Pacific coast of the Canadian province, has been mired in delays and cost overruns which prompted TC Energy to set aside up to $3.3 billion to cover increased costs, the company said as it released its third quarter results in early November.
“We respect the rights of individuals to lawfully, safely and peacefully express their point of view and our top priority remains the safety of those in the area,” said an unsigned statement sent to The Narwhal by TC Energy. “When the safety of our workforce is compromised and our ability to build our fully authorized and permitted project is stopped by individuals acting outside the law, we must rely on the authorities to ensure that the rights of all individuals are respected and protected.”
The company also declined to respond to questions about RCMP officers acting to enforce the injunction, saying that those questions should be directed to the police force.
While some local community members and elected leaders support the project, land defenders say the Coastal GasLink approval was unlawful, violating the hereditary rights of Wet’suwet’en members.
AIMCo, the stakeholder that leads the group with the majority share in Coastal GasLink, declined to comment, referring questions about the recent events to TC Energy.
Mendicino and Miller said journalists shouldn’t be detained
Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and his cabinet colleague, Minister Mendicino, both posted comments on Twitter defending the rights of journalists to cover current events in Canada.
“This right is essential to our democracy,” Miller wrote. “They should not be held or detained any longer than is necessary to verify that they are journalists.”
For his part, Mendicino also noted the Coastal GasLink project was under provincial jurisdiction.
The Narwhal and several independent media outlets recently won a separate court battle against the RCMP after successfully arguing that the police force was interfering with the rights of journalists to cover civil disobedience at the Fairy Creek logging blockades on Vancouver Island.
In 2020, charges against journalist Justin Brake were dismissed under similar circumstances related to an injunction and action by Indigenous land defenders in Newfoundland and Labrador. A provincial judge noted that officials needed to be careful not to use an injunction as a “blunt instrument” that could violate rights such as freedom of the press. The court also noted, at the time, that it was important to protect freedom of the press related to coverage of Indigenous land defenders since Indigenous communities have been historically under-represented in Canadian media.
– with files from The Narwhal’s Matt Simmons
Updated Nov. 22, 2021, at 8:20 p.m. PT: This article was updated to include a statement posted online by Eric Stubbs, RCMP assistant commissioner.
Updated, Nov. 24, 2021, at 8:18 a.m. PT: This article was updated to add additional details about the nature of the PRIME-BC police database and its links to other police systems in Canada.
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