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Criminalization of Indigenous journalism contradicts reconciliation | Pamela Palmater

Wednesday, September 09, 2020 @ 2:36 PM | By Pamela Palmater


Pamela Palmater %>
Pamela Palmater
What does it take to get arrested by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP)? Well, if we go by recent events around 1492 Land Back Lane, it looks like the arrest criteria include being Indigenous, an award-winning journalist and covering First Nation land defence stories. Because that is exactly what happened to Karl Dockstader, an Oneida journalist and radio host embedded with Haudenosaunee land defenders and providing daily updates via social media and video. What’s worse is that the OPP refuses to tell Dockstader what he has done wrong.

If this doesn’t make sense to you — it shouldn’t. Canada’s Constitution protects freedom of the press, the right to protest and Indigenous land rights. So what’s the problem here?

The problem is a little thing called racism; something which is widespread in the OPP — at least according to the Ipperwash Inquiry. This week marks 25 years since the OPP shot and killed unarmed land defender Dudley George in 1995. George had been peacefully occupying lands that rightfully belong to people of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. They had long tried to get the government to return those lands as originally promised, but their calls went unheeded for decades. As a result, several families relocated back on to their lands and hoped to push government into action. Instead, they were met with a hostile premier who pushed to get “the fucking Indians out of the park” and a hostile OPP who wanted to “amass a fucking army. A real fucking army and do this. Do these fuckers bigtime.” It should be no surprise that a land defender was killed.

The resulting 2007 Ipperwash Inquiry, headed by Justice Allen Linden, looked into the OPP killing of George, dispelled the myth that the OPP suffered from only a “few bad apples” and instead found racism against Indigenous peoples to be “widespread.” There were numerous recommendations for the OPP to address racism within its ranks and work on better relationships with Indigenous peoples — especially in the context of Indigenous land occupations and protests.

The OPP was also urged to do better vis-à-vis the media and ensure only verified information is reported. Justice Linden noted that most Canadians only learn about Indigenous land occupations and protests through the media and that too often they defer to official police accounts of happenings.

One of the expert findings of the inquiry was that there was no independent media account of the police killing of George. In other words, there were no media on the scene embedded with the land defenders or reporting on events. In fact, of the 92 opinion pieces written about the events, only three of the authors had ever even visited the site.

It’s no wonder most media accounts portrayed the land defenders in a negative light. Don’t forget, during the Gustafsen Lake land occupation, RCMP officials bragged about “misinformation or smear campaign” being their “specialty” against the Indigenous land defenders. That is why having independent journalists on the site of land occupations and protests is so important. Indigenous voices have long been excluded from mainstream coverage and decades of relying on police statements skews both the facts and public opinion.

So why the recent criminalization of journalists covering Indigenous land occupations?

Here we are 25 years later and what has changed since Ipperwash? We have yet another Indigenous nation, the Haudenosaunee at Six Nations, who have been seeking the return of their lands in the Haldimand Tract for many decades without success. It was only 14 years ago that the proposed Douglas Creek Estates subdivision in Caledonia on Six Nations’ land resulted in Six Nations members reoccupying their lands.

Their calls to the government to address this long-standing land claim resulted in counter protests by local residents which lasted for months. While governments subsequently made commitments to negotiate, the right of Six Nations to own, use, occupy and govern their own lands in the Haldimand Tract has not been fully resolved. It should be no surprise then that when another developer proposed to build another community known as McKenzie Meadows in Caledonia; Six Nations peoples occupied their lands and peacefully camped there to remind all levels of government that this is Six Nations lands.

One of the journalists, Dockstader, had been providing updates on social media and through his radio show for the last week until he was arrested by the OPP. Dockstader is a radio show co-host of One Dish One Mic and family man. He holds the prestigious Canadian Journalism Foundation CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2020 with his co-host Sean Vanderklis from Curve Lake First Nation.  According to Dockstader, he was not committing any crimes, posing a danger to anyone or making threats — nor was he engaged in facilitating a protest.

He was simply doing his job as a journalist by going into Haudenosaunee territory, embedding himself within the camp over a matter of days and reporting about what was happening on the ground at 1492 Land Back Lane. That is exactly the kind of relationship building and in-depth contextual reporting that media should be engaged in when it comes to better understanding Indigenous land occupations and better representing Indigenous voices.

This should have been one of the lessons learned from the Ipperwash Inquiry. Yet, there have been no less than three arrests of journalists trying to cover Indigenous land occupation stories on the ground. Melissa Cox was covering Wet’suwet’en solidarity actions in B.C. when she was arrested and charged by the police. Thankfully, a court later threw out those charges.

Similarly, Justin Brake was another journalist who also embedded himself with Indigenous land defenders protesting Muskrat Falls in Newfoundland and was charged criminally and civilly by police. The Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal ultimately reaffirmed the right of journalists to report on matters of public interest — especially when it involves Indigenous issues and the media’s role in reconciliation. We all watched as heavily armed RCMP removed journalists from the scene when they moved in and removed peaceful Wet’suwet’en peoples from their lands. Similarly, the OPP pushed back journalists when they were about to arrest those engaged in Wet’suwet’en solidarity actions at Tyendinaga.

Given that freedom of the press is not only constitutionally protected but has been upheld by courts for decades; these moves by law enforcement appear to be abuses of power that undermine Canada’s so-called “rule of law” rather than enforce it. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has announced that it will support Dockstader if the matter proceeds to court. The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression have also strongly condemned the OPP’s arrest of Dockstader.

CAJ president Brent Jolly stated: “The OPP are well aware that journalists have an established constitutional right to be present and cover matters of public interest. Attempting to prevent a journalist from documenting a moment of contentious action is impermissible in a country like Canada. Journalism can never be silenced.”

Similarly, the president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Phil Tunley said: “It is particularly disappointing at this time to see another police force not only exceeding its powers, but undermining the efforts of Canadians and their governments to pursue reconciliation with our First Peoples.”

Even St. Catherines, Ont., Mayor Walter Sendzik took to Twitter expressing serious concerns over the OPP arresting Dockstader.

In addition to not providing Dockstader details on what he is alleged to have done wrong, the OPP has imposed conditions on him that prevent him from going back to 1492 Land Back Lane and also from contacting the site’s proposed developer Foxgate Developments. This means that as a journalist he cannot do his job. This is literally the opposite of what the Ipperwash Inquiry and other inquiries and commissions have recommended since then. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made a specific call to action to ensure dedicated news coverage and online public information on issues that concern Indigenous peoples and Canadians.

The more recent National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls also called on Canada to ensure Indigenous representation in the media and for the media to ensure Indigenous perspectives are included in their coverage.

The OPP’s actions run counter not only to well-established constitutional law protecting freedom of the press but serve to frustrate reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Arresting and charging an Indigenous journalist for reporting on Indigenous land occupations through Indigenous voices feels very much like systemic racism.

Further, the land defenders at 1492 Land Back Lane have stated that they feel this is an escalation of violence by the OPP designed to intimidate their supporters. The conditions which serve to keep Indigenous journalists like Dockstader, researchers like Courtney Skye and other Indigenous allies away from the site serve to stack the deck against the Haudenosaunee and prejudge their land claims before getting their day in court. It also serves to criminalize journalists and land defenders alike in protecting their constitutionally protected rights. 

It’s long past time that the OPP stopped criminalizing Indigenous peoples and the media covering Indigenous stories and got its own house in order. Calls to defund the police continue to get louder and the OPP’s most recent actions show why.

Dr. Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of Eel River Bar First Nation. She has been a practising lawyer for 18 years specializing in Indigenous and human rights law and currently holds the position of associate professor and chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University. She maintains her own political blog at www.pampalmater.com.

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