Justin Brake recalled the moment when the gate broke open.
Protesters demonstrating in central Labrador against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project passed through and marched towards the worksite. Several reporters from the CBC and other mainstream media outlets joined them briefly to conduct interviews before turning back.
Brake, an independent journalist, was the exception. He continued as the sole individual covering the story from the frontlines.
The reporter and editor with Newfoundland and Labrador’s The Independent spoke at St. Thomas University on Nov. 3 about his work and the legal challenges he is facing for covering a “story of great public interest.”
The Muskrat Falls project was launched in early 2012 by Nalcor, a crown corporation. The hydro dam is being constructed on the Churchill River, about 25 kilometres west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The waterway is part of an Indigenous land claims agreement, which included a provision allowing the Canadian government the right to construct it.
The project scraped off part of a mountain in which the Innu, a group of people native to some portions of N.L., believe a spirit lives. Many Indigenous people in the region were extremely concerned about the impact from the raised water levels and mercury pollution, Brake said.
He said the Innu didn’t understand the full environmental and health consequences when accepting the agreement.
The Indigenous-led protest movement started with four people and grew rapidly to a peak of over 400. Brake spent many weeks in Labrador last fall covering the protests.
“Elders in their 80s were telling me that they had never seen people unite to resist anything like that before,” he said.
“There was a sense of solidarity and unity that was established in Labrador during that period.”
Brake said he was the only journalist present for several major developments in the demonstrations.
Nalcor applied for an injunction and police removed people who didn’t go to designated protest zones. Brake, the only reporter on the scene, documented several violent arrests through photos, video and livestreaming. He said the footage of the incident drew uproar from the community and increased support of the movement.
“People didn’t like how people who were just trying to protect their food and way of life were treated,” he said.
Brake described one moment where 100 drumming and chanting people crossed the highway to form a blockade. Only a handful of RCMP officers were on scene, so they weren’t able to interfere or make any arrests.
“I think people realized there was power in numbers at that point,” he said.
As the protests grew and continued, the time came where Brake proceeded with protesters past the open gate. He managed to pull in a signal and started livestreaming the protestors.
The workers inside the camp gave the protesters food and hugs, Brake said.
He said the intent and peacefulness of the demonstrators would have been obscured if a journalist hadn’t been present to document it. Nalcor had tweeted that the protestors had entered the site and the situation was dangerous.
“Basically what I’m being charged for is being present to capture these important moments,” he said.
After viewing Brake’s livestream from inside the camp, Nalcor issued a second injunction based on individuals they could identify. His name was on the list.
Brake decided to leave after consulting with legal experts, and knowing that he had showed a look inside the camp and had built connections to continue reporting on the outside.
“It was a really tough decision, and I still debate whether it was the right thing,” he said.
Brake said the Innu participated in prayers and a drum ceremony to send him off as he departed the camp.
After mounting public pressure, Nalcor met with Newfoundland and Labrador premier Dwight Ball, where an agreement was made to form a mercury research committee and lower water levels.
Shortly after departing the camp Brake was charged for mischief and disobeying a court injunction.
He and his lawyer are arguing that Brake’s role as a working journalist could have influenced the court, and the judge should have been aware of that when Nalcor requested an injunction.
Brake said the case is important due to its future implications for journalists in Canada. Several press freedom groups have become involved, and Brake’s case directly resulted in the lowering of Canada’s world press freedom ranking.
“It’s a land dispute, people trying to protect their food and water,” he said.
“Those stories need to be told.”