Interview: Justin Brake shares the story behind his reporting at Muskrat Falls and how he risked arrest

Photo: Janet Cooper

When activists cut the lock on the gate to Muskrat Falls, a controversial hydroelectric project in Labrador, Justin Brake followed the story and closely documented their occupation of the workers' camp.

His coverage provided in-depth perspective and a visibility that was likely critical to the achievement of Aboriginal leaders' subsequent audience with Premier Dwight Ball -- and to wider public conversations about Labrador and the legitimacy of Muskrat Falls.

Brake left the camp when his name appeared in a court-ordered subpoena, prompting condemnation from the Canadian Association of Journalists and other groups, as well as comparisons to Amy Goodman's arrest warrant for her reporting at the Dakota Access pipeline. rabble.ca spoke with Brake this past weekend.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you tell us about the court order? What was the background, the circumstances and your initial response?

The court order was made public on the morning of Oct. 25. The occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers' camp began on Oct. 22, and on the morning of the Oct. 25 some of the people occupying saw an article on a local newspaper site that published the court order.

On the order there was a bunch of names: 22, I believe. Someone came to me and said, "Did you know your name's on here too?" I was quite shocked and surprised that Nalcor and the Supreme Court would name me on a court order -- basically a warning that people could be arrested if they didn't leave the site.

Of course, I didn't break into the site. I followed people who broke into the site and were carrying out an action that I deemed to be of great news importance. So, I followed them to report on the story and basically was forced to make a decision. I had to continue doing my job as a journalist and risk being arrested or leave the site and not be able to continue reporting from the inside, which I was the only one doing.

What was the public response to this?

For the most part I think most people have been supportive of my work, of journalism and the constitutionally protected right of a free press. There have been many instances in Canadian history where journalists have followed people onto private property in order to report important stories. But, as far I know, this is the first time that a journalist has been named specifically on a court order and threatened with arrest for doing exactly that. In fact, other reporters in Labrador have been on what Nalcor (a provincial Crown energy corporation) says is its property. It seems that that occupation of the building is what triggered Nalcor to seek a second injunction against the land protectors and against myself.

Can you talk about where things stand now?

We don't know what's going to happen next. At this point in time it's not clear whether the Supreme Court judge who granted the injunction was aware that there was a working journalist among the names that Nalcor provided them. It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court will say next month when I have to appear in court. I believe it's on Dec. 7.

Do you have any idea about the possible outcomes of the court appearance?

I don't know what all the possible outcomes will be. But I imagine two could be that Nalcor may proceed with pressing charges. Or the whole thing could be dropped. I'm not sure. I don't know what else is possible at this point.

What would the charge be? Trespassing?

It's not clear to me what a specific charge or charges could be. I believe trespassing may be one possibility.

Changing gears, what has your time in Labrador and this experience meant for you personally?

In general, on the issue of the story itself -- Muskrat Falls and the resistance to it -- that experience has been quite incredible. It's definitely been the most important story that I've reported on. And it's been quite an incredible experience because there have been bigger stories that have emerged from what began as specific narratives -- how people felt they would be impacted.

A movement took shape as that reporting was happening. And notably, members of all three Indigenous groups began uniting, as well as settler Labradorians. As someone who's not from Labrador, I don't think I immediately understood the significance of that. However, many people started to talk about it. Elders started to talk about how they'd never seen anything like this. The person behind the design of the Labrador flag was talking about how he never thought he would see it in his lifetime. What began as a story about how Muskrat Falls would impact people living downstream revealed a bigger narrative about how the people of Labrador may be beginning to realize their potential: the power of grassroots and the power of unity.

Another narrative that began to emerge was a revival in the discussion of Labrador independence. One thing I've heard from people in Labrador is that if it's possible for 50 people to shut down a $12-billion mega-project for a few days and force the changes that were made -- people began to realize that that power could also apply to seeking independence for Labrador as a territory.

I remember Jesse Brown asked you on CANADALAND if you felt supported by fellow journalists in Canada. At first you said, "I don't know." I'm wondering: has that changed much?

Yeah, there's been a tremendous amount of support from journalists and former journalists. Advocacy organizations, like Reporters Without Borders and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, have all come out in support of me. It's kind of a no-brainer: if corporations and courts can come down so hard on a journalist to remove them from the job in the middle of reporting on a story of such importance, what is the future of journalism in Canada? That's the question we should be asking.

With all this in mind, why do you think more journalists didn't enter the work site?

I don't know. You'll have to ask them. One other journalist did go through the gate, when the lock was cut off the gate by a land protector. They conducted an interview inside the gate and left the premises.

I know that journalists working for mainstream media outlets often have strict orders to behave in a certain way. And sometimes those orders may be contradictory to what they feel is the right thing to do. But why? I don't know. Maybe there's a culture of fear in journalism around getting tied up in legal processes. But I don't know that. That's speculative.

You're the editor of The Independent. Can you talk about the role of The Independent in the media landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador?

It's to tell stories like this that other journalists aren't willing to tell, or able to tell, I guess. In our province, as far I know, we're the only independent outlet that regularly offers a voice to members of the progressive community and to marginalized communities. On a provincial level we probably play much the same role that rabble plays on a national level, but with our provincial audience in mind.

For the mainstream media and media generally, what should be the central insight on covering Aboriginal issues? What should they make of your experience?

Well, as I've noted in a few other interviews, media has an ethical obligation -- of moving towards  balanced and objective coverage of Indigenous people, nations and issues. They are compelled by the Truth and Reconciliation Report to do that.

Whether we are Indigenous or not, it's quite often in these kinds of circumstances, like in the Indigenous-led resistance to Muskrat Falls, that the voices of Indigenous people aren't heard. It was evident in the reporting on various protests against Muskrat Falls leading up to this moment, where Indigenous people have been arrested. Quite often they never got interviewed. They never got asked by journalists what their concerns were. The stories were seldom put in the context of colonialism or reconciliation.

Is there a takeaway for independent media as well?

Well, since there is an apparent reluctance or lag in the mainstream media's ability to move on this and respond to the Truth and Reconciliation report, independent media has a huge opportunity now. And I think they're actually taking it.

The best journalism I'm reading right now in Canada is coming from independent media outlets. There's actually quite a lengthy list of independent news publications that are doing a significantly better job, in my opinion, than mainstream media. I think a lot of them are doing already what mainstream media can't or is reluctant to do in terms of reporting on Indigenous people and issues.

I think we'll continue to see a trend of people leaving mainstream news outlets and turning instead towards independent media outlets, which I think is certainly happening in our province. Our readership has grown significantly in the past year.

So what's next for you and The Independent?

I'm continuing to cover Muskrat Falls from afar but I may do some more reporting when I go up [to Labrador] next month. But for The Independent, we're in the process of launching a major fundraising campaign because we're currently not sustainable in terms of our finances.

We're hoping this is a point in time when people will see and understand the importance of independent media in the province -- and chip in a few bucks a month.

The author would like to disclose that he has written for The Independent, the publication for which the interview subject is editor.

Cory Collins is a writer and visual artist living in St. John's. He can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.

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