Priorities, Journalism, and Justice
By: Ryan Young
Maybe it’s just me, but I had a real problem when 28 Labrador Land Protectors were served charges for their parts in the protests against the Muskrat Falls hydro development on the Lower Churchill River. My issue was not with the charges themselves, although I personally think they are unnecessary. The protectors who stormed the gate and stayed on site last fall to protect their right to clean water and traditional food sources knew there was a very good chance that they would face legal consequences for their actions and they made a conscious choice to defy the court injunction and occupy the site.
What really gets my back up about this case is that just a few weeks earlier, a former RCMP officer in Labrador who was charged with child luring had his charges stayed because it took an unreasonable amount of time for the accused to go to trial. Judge John Joy noted in his decision that he was bound by legal precedent to stay the charges, and that despite exemplary work by officers and technicians, they could only operate within the limited scope of the resources of their respective offices.
So how is it that the court system in Labrador is too overworked and under resourced to properly manage a high-profile case involving a police officer in a serious breach of trust, but it can handle the load of 28 new complex cases that will use up even more resources and cash in a system already busting at the seams. Is making an example of these 28 a move to discourage more acts of the sort that we saw last October? When such an important case such as child luring against a police officer is thrown out because of a lack of resources and then a few short weeks later we see 28 names of people trying to protect their way of life added to the docket, it has many people asking just what the priorities are at the Department of Justice and Public Safety in St. John’s.
When is Journalism a Crime?
Justin Brake of The Independent is answering to charges for his role in covering the occupation of the Muskrat Falls work camp by Labrador Land Protectors last October. Brake has stated that he believed he was completely within his rights as a journalist to follow the protectors through the gate to document the real story of what was happening during a very tense time for the whole province. Brake’s reporting and live streaming of the events inside the camp often painted a different picture than was being put forth by Nalcor and the government. It allowed the world to see the protectors being welcomed with open arms into the camp and that there was never any talk of violence. While there has been precedent for such charges in the past, such as the Oka standoff in the 90's, many feel that in a case such as Brake’s where a journalist is the sole documenter of a story in the public and national interest, the rights of the journalist to cover the story must be protected.
When the powers that be in our justice system decided to go ahead with the charges against Brake, they began walking a very fine line. The story is beginning to get traction with journalists all over the world who are waiting to see what the outcome will be. Brake is officially facing charges of mischief exceeding $5000 and disobeying a court order. The charges come with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Many in Labrador feel that the charges against Brake and the Land Protectors are an intimidation tactic by the government to ensure that there are no more protests like we saw last fall. What they don’t seem to understand is that they are seeding deep feelings of resentment in the residents of Labrador that might very well inspire more action in the name of justice.
Using the court system to strong arm the people of Labrador is one thing, but when the decision was made to charge Brake for his coverage of the story, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador have opened up a can of worms that they will not be able to control for much longer. As the story gains international traction, more and more groups are condemning the government’s actions and demanding that the charges against Brake be dropped. The government, however, seems to be holding firm and letting Gilbert Bennett and the other top Nalcor brass run the show. Muskrat Falls must be protected at all costs, even if it means potentially facing years of expensive litigation against our government for failing to protect Justin Brake’s journalistic rights.
We have been talking quite a bit about justice in this province lately. From controversial verdicts, to overcrowded courts and prisons, to the need for new legislation to catch up with our modern times. There is much work to be done, and it will take more than one government to bring our justice system in line with the needs of the people. We have seen several cases where charges were stayed because the accused had not been given timely access to a trial. This has led to much discussion about the R vs Jordan decision last summer where it was ruled that there would be a ceiling of eighteen months for provincial court cases and thirty months for supreme court cases, after which time a defendant may make a motion to have the charges against them stayed. We saw this happen in the case I mentioned about the RCMP officer above, and it has been causing havoc for court systems all across the country who are scrambling to keep up with the new guidelines.
Justice and Public Safety Minister, Andrew Parsons, has said on record that the province will not be hiring any new judges to handle the caseloads, so that means that the province will need to look at other ways to find efficiencies and get cases to court in a timely fashion. It is no secret that our court system is already perilously under resourced, and with the Jordan decision adding even more pressure we can expect even more high profile cases to have charges stayed before they get their day in court.
All of that makes the decision to proceed against charging Brake and the Land Protectors even more curious. Most people I know would agree that if you break the law, you will face consequences, but how does that work when you are up against the people making the laws? It was the government via Nalcor that petitioned the court injunction that denied the Land Protectors the right to protest for their own safety and the very water that they depend on for life and culture. When an MP from town tells the people in Labrador that depend on the river that they should just “eat less fish,” it just emphasises the disconnect between the folks in fancy offices in St. John’s who only care about the economics of the project and the politics behind it and the people on the ground who feel that they are in a legitimate life and death battle with their government.
At the end of the day, the people of this province are feeling let down by their justice system. They are losing confidence in the police and in the courts and they are left to wonder just what the priorities are for this government. In Labrador, people are left to feel that their justice system is being used against them and they have lost all faith that the government is there to protect them. Where is the justice for the people of Labrador?