February 3, 2024
From The Real News Network

Edmonton police recently arrested award-winning Indigenous journalist Brandi Morin as she was covering their raid of a local homeless encampment. Morin, who has contributed a number of stories to The Real News, including original documentaries Killer Water and Thacker Pass—Mining the Sacred, speaks with Taya Graham, co-host of Police Accountability Report, on her arrest and the deeper systemic issues of police abuse and anti-Indigenous racism in Canada.


Taya Graham:  We all know that the incredible power we bestow upon police is easily abused. There are so many examples, it would take the entire podcast to recount just a sliver of them.

But when law enforcement overreach and journalism intersect, it’s particularly troubling for a variety of reasons. Least of all is simply the notion that if police feel empowered to arrest someone for reporting, it would be an all-too-easy way to suppress one of the most effective checks against the abuse of police powers.

And that’s why today we are talking to an incredible journalist who just experienced this type of abuse of police power. She’s someone who’s well known to Real News listeners for her outstanding work chronicling the fight of Indigenous communities against the greed of mining companies in both Canada and the US.

Her name is Brandi Morin. And she produced, in conjunction with Ricochet Media and The Real News, two outstanding documentaries, along with other pieces.

Her documentary, Killer Water, exposes the long-hidden truths of big oil’s operations on the health and environment of local First Nation communities. Her other film, Thacker Pass, exposes the efforts to mine Lithium from sacred land in Arizona, and asks hard questions about the lesser-known costs and impacts of green energy initiatives. Both films exemplify her brand of hard-hitting narrative storytelling.

But recently, while she was covering a police raid of a homeless encampment in Edmonton, Canada, she found herself in the unwelcome position of being arrested and charged simply for reporting.

At the time, she was doing what encapsulates the heart of her work: exposing the abuse of others at the hands of state power. And to discuss what happened, the consequences for independent journalists everywhere, and how she’s fighting back, we are so happy to be joined today by Brandi Morin for this special edition of the Police Accountability Report podcast. Brandi, thank you so much for joining me.

Brandi Morin:  Tânisi [hello], it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Taya Graham:  So Brandi, first let me just get right to the heart of it. Can you tell me what happened on the day of your arrest? What were you documenting at that time before you were arrested?

Brandi Morin:  Yes. So I was in the city of Edmonton in Treaty 6 territory, not far from where I live, documenting an Indigenous-led encampment that was being evicted by the city that had been doing a number of sweeps of tent encampments across the city. And police were enforcing these injunctions.

So, I had been at this particular camp for a couple of days. The police had been there the day before, and they had managed to negotiate with the Indigenous people camping there to only take down a few of the structures that were not inhabited by anybody living there.

So I’d gone back on the second day, which was last Wednesday, to do more in-depth interviews, to get the experiences of the people living there. I had been in a teepee structure, which was home to the camp leader, Roy Cardinal, he’s also known as Big Man, and was doing interviews. They were drumming and singing in there.

Somebody came in and said, the police are here. I went outside and saw that the police were putting up yellow crime scene tape around the perimeter of this approximately two-acre city-owned lot where this encampment was, and there was several of them amassing.

A few minutes later, Big Man, some other people that lived in the camp, as well as supporters, came to address the police. And the police said, we are here to dismantle this camp. We have warming buses waiting if you want to go and sit on these buses. Because it was extremely, extremely cold. And they said, you have the opportunity to leave peacefully, or you are going to be forcibly removed, and your encampment is going to be taken down anyway.

So Roy and the others, they refused to leave. Roy looked at a couple of other Indigenous men that were with him, and they were carrying ceremonial items. And he said, okay, eagle feathers up boys. And they put their hands up in the air with these eagle feathers.

So the police moved towards Roy. I was filming it with my iPhone, and chaos completely broke out. People were screaming, there was snow flying everywhere from the boots on the ground.

And one of the officers came up to me and said, move, you need to get back behind the yellow tape. And I stated that I was media, that I was there to document, that I wasn’t going behind the tape. Now, oftentimes police will create these, what they call exclusion zones for the media. But this yellow tape that they had created was too far away to be able to see and accurately document what was unfolding.

Taya Graham:  Could you estimate what that distance is? Because I’m very interested in these exclusion zones.

Brandi Morin:  Yeah. So one of them was at least 40, 50 feet away. The other one that they were pushing me towards the side was probably 30, maybe more feet away. It was pretty far.

Meanwhile, the scene is unfolding. There are other people there filming. There was no media inside. So I think that the media may have, the mainstream media, that they may have been tipped off that the police were coming to do this raid. Because before I went into the teepee, there was no mainstream media there. And then when I came out, there was some there with cameras behind the yellow tape, along with the police.

So I seen them way back there. I was already inside doing this work. And next thing I know I was handcuffed and led to a paddy wagon, and then taken to downtown police headquarters. Held for five hours, which I’m told by one of my lawyers that that’s pretty unprecedented for police to hold somebody with no criminal record for obstruction for five hours, when I should have been held for maybe a half an hour at the most.

So when I was released, they had me sign a form with a promise to appear in court and said that I was charged with obstruction.

Taya Graham:  What’s interesting to me is that, as I was doing my research for this, I noticed that the police cited that this exclusion zone, and also the city of Edmonton said this as well, that this distance is for your own protection.

So you’re arrested, you’re cuffed, and you’re given a criminal offense: obstruction. Do you feel like you were protected during this experience?

Brandi Morin:  Yeah, you know what? No. I felt like I was there doing my job. And from the people that I spoke to on the ground, who were dealing with police, they told me that they felt unsafe. Because the police had the power in this situation. The police had these weapons.

And in Canada, Indigenous people are 10 times more likely than a white person to be shot and killed by police. The violence against Native people in this country is massively high, especially in all of these different systems by police.

And again, this is not my first rodeo, so to speak. I have documented police actions on various land defense actions or blockades.

Taya Graham:  That touches on something I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned that there’s a higher rate of police brutality, police violence against Indigenous people. You’ve documented some really forceful removal of residents from these encampments. Can you describe some of what you’ve witnessed and how it’s affected those who are living there?

Brandi Morin:  Unfortunately, that day I was arrested and taken away and unable to see with my own eyes the full extent of what went down. I’d seen Big Man being jumped on by multiple officers. Afterwards, I saw footage of him being let away with blood in his mouth. He’s 51 years old.

And these are people that are experiencing a lot of different struggles. They are living in vulnerable situations, being unhoused many times, dealing with mental health or addictions and the fallouts from different traumas, especially Indigenous people — Which by the way, in the city of Edmonton, 60% of people that are living unhoused are Indigenous people, despite Native people only making up 6% of the total population.

Taya Graham:  That’s incredible.

Brandi Morin:  Yeah. Our people are very highly overrepresented in this situation, and they are roughed up by police on a continual basis.

The day before this happened, there was a young Blackfoot Dene man who was there just as an observer to support the campers. He’s a volunteer with the Bear Claw Patrol, which is an Indigenous-led organization that provides support and outreach to people living on the streets.

And he was arrested violently by police. Now, there is video footage that is circulated online about this whole experience. He had multiple officers piled on him. One officer had their knee on his neck. Very traumatic experience for him. So we know that this violence is there and we know that the potential is there for police to kill.

Even just in December, Edmonton City police shot and killed a young Indigenous man from Alexander First Nation on a wellness check. They shot him six times to death. And these are instances that are regular and the norm across the country for Indigenous people. So I felt that it’s my responsibility as a Native journalist who specializes in amplifying Indigenous experiences and stories to stay in that situation, to document what was going on.

Taya Graham:  Something that, as an American and a criminal justice system reporter here, I have a tendency to focus on what’s happening within our borders. But I did have someone reach out to me about Taylor McNallie, who was a protester, who was imprisoned during a Calgary protest against police brutality against Indigenous people and people of color. And that she was accused of obstruction, among other charges.

And I think this protest was sparked by a horrific video of police brutality that occurred within a correctional center. I believe it was a woman of color named Dalia.

But then I also saw William Ahmo, who was forced to the ground by correction officers, I think in 2021 at the Headland Correctional Center in Manitoba. So I’m seeing these instances of brutality that are recent and are startling on video, but I can only imagine that this issue of brutality started long before then. Can you talk a little bit about this brutality that we’re seeing aimed against Indigenous communities?

Brandi Morin:  Yeah. This is something that Native people have experienced since the policing systems were established in Canada. It started with the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, that were established literally when this country was born. They were established to clear the plains of the “Indigenous problem”.

And all of these various policing systems stem from that oppressive and colonial system to enact the will of the interests of the state of Canada against Indigenous peoples, whether it was stealing Indigenous lands or porting our people onto reservations.

The policing system, the RCMP, played a role in forcibly removing Native children from their homes and sending them to Indigenous residential schools. There’s just a long and very troubled history between the police, between all of these various powers that be within this country.

Taya Graham:  I have to admit, as an American, I thought we cornered the market on police brutality, but it seems like there is a fair share in Canada as well.

So when I look at police brutality in the US, I would say, as a gross oversimplification, we see a lot of physical violence against minority communities in the cities, but we see economic violence against white folks and lower income folks in the more rural areas. So I’m just curious what police aggression and misconduct looks like in Canada.

Brandi Morin:  Wow. Okay. So when you’re saying economic, do you mean they’re more…?

Taya Graham:  So when I say economic violence, let me give you an example. In West Virginia, there’s a small town of Milton, about 2,500 people. And one of the things that was occurring was severe traffic enforcement, where people were just a taillight out, not having a license plate light over their tag, just these tiny things that were causing people to get these traffic fees.

And they would have court costs, their cars would get impounded, they might get an FTA for failing to appear, and it would just suck them into the system and bleed folks dry. Folks who maybe have $500 in their savings account now are completely wiped out. So that’s what I mean by that economic violence, where they’re pulled into the system and that they’re just constantly extracting wealth.

Brandi Morin:  From what I document and I witness, the tactics of police are more the physical violence and the rotating of people within these different systems. Like in Canada, the number of Indigenous people in the prison system is insanely high, even for women.

For Native women in Canada, they represent even more than Indigenous men in the prison system. They make up more than half of females in the prison system, but make up less than 5% of the total population. So this is a really widespread, systematic issue.

And then we have different policing systems that are tribally operating on different nations and different jurisdictional issues there, or communities trying to establish their own Indigenous justice systems.

But a lot of the violence is widespread. It doesn’t discriminate. They are targeted from coast to coast to coast in this country. From the beginning, the dominion of Canada established its army of a foreign force against Indigenous people to keep Indigenous people under its control through the RCMP and its foundational principles, which trickled out into all of these police forces under colonial rule.

Taya Graham:  That’s incredible. And I really appreciate you giving me this background, and also the folks who are listening, giving them this really important background to understand the root of this so, when we see these flashes of violence, we understand the history that lies behind it.

Something that I just couldn’t let go of, you mentioned that you were inside the tent, and there weren’t any mainstream media there. But when you popped out the tent, there was a bunch of mainstream media behind the yellow tape safely standing there. And I’m wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about the differences you might see in the narratives when mainstream media is covering the story of the encampments being torn apart versus an independent journalist like yourself, and a journalist who is from an Indigenous community, as well.

Brandi Morin:  They are doing the job that they’ve been trained to do, and they are telling these stories, a lot of the time, from that colonial status quo lens. They take, at face value, a lot of the time, the direction of police and the information from police and other authorities as to what is happening.

I do a lot of in-depth reporting. I was there inside with the experience of the people having an understanding of the culture, having an understanding of the discrimination and the different experiences that they are living through.

Honestly, though, when this was all going down, when I was inside, and arrested, the mainstream cameras, some of them were pointing at me as this was going down. Meanwhile, all of this chaos is happening with a group of people that are having this confrontation with the police, and people are being roughed up and taken down. And I was horrified and embarrassed and humiliated.

My dad called me later that night and said, hey, what’s happening? I saw you on the news and I saw them hollowing you away. What’s going on? What are you doing? I felt like I was some sort of renegade, and yet I felt that what I did in that moment was the right thing to do, that I wasn’t standing outside and behind these yellow lines to document from afar what was going on. But I was in there helping to give voice to the actual situation up close and not trying to focus in from afar.

But honestly, I heard from other journalists that had been covering these sweeps of the encampments that the police had previously been doing over the last couple of months, and they expressed frustration with the police for setting up these exclusion zones so that they couldn’t document what was happening.

Taya Graham:  It’s interesting, because you mentioned the camera focusing on you, you being taken away, and to me it sounds like, what I’m getting is sort of the sense that this was humiliating, that this was —

Brandi Morin:  Oh, absolutely.

Taya Graham:  So that disappoints me and surprises me a little bit because, usually, even mainstream media will acknowledge, hey, one of ours, a journalist got taken in by police. We’ve all had the experience — Or well, maybe it’s just independent journalists who’ve experienced this, of getting yelled at for having a camera out or trying to ask a question, be told to be pushed back, had our First Amendment rights infringed upon.

So I’m curious, do you feel like, when they reported on you, it was in the lens of solidarity, or do you think they were just simply pointing at you?

Brandi Morin:  It was pointing, and I honestly did feel like a criminal. However, that was happening on the scene. I have received an enormous amount of support from my colleagues at the Canadian Association of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other organizations.

One of my good friends and colleagues who I’ve done extensive work with, by the way, we’ve won huge international awards for the work that we do, her name is Amber Bracken. Now, she had been embedded with Wet’suwet’en land defenders in November of 2022 and was arrested when the police came in there with assault rifles and attack guns to remove the land defenders. She was arrested and jailed for four days, and charged. This is something that she had experienced as well.

But it’s been a lot of different emotions. For me, I didn’t have the chance to go and take a breath. I needed to go back out there and finish the job that I was doing and chase the story and find out what was going on and happening with these people. I didn’t have a chance to unpack the experience.

And it hit me, it hit me days later, and I’m still dealing with it. It’s not fun, and I just want it to be behind me. I want to be able to do this work and be clear headed mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to be able to do it. And I wasn’t expecting to be affected as much as I have been by the situation.

Taya Graham:  I do absolutely understand that. A lot of time as journalists, we absorb things, and we keep absorbing them, and we don’t realize the full impact that they’re having upon us and on our spirits. That’s something that I’ve been recently dealing with because, for my line of work, I consume a lot of body camera footage, and also autopsy reports, and that’s something that I am still learning how to process.

But that brings me to another question I had about being an independent journalist, which is, as independent journalists, we have a different set of tools at our disposal than the mainstream media does. We may be small, but we’re nimble. We have connections to the community that they don’t.

So I’m wondering, we do have some things in our corner, but do you think the tools that you have as an independent journalist, do you think they’re working? Do you think it’s having a meaningful impact on the national conversation around these issues? Or do you feel that the mainstream media is still dominating?

Brandi Morin:  That is my hope. I’ve questioned a lot over the past week about the work that I do because I am extremely passionate and dedicated to this work. I’ve been doing it for 13-plus years. And I just called Amber last night, who had been arrested and jailed and went through this.

I called her. I was crying, and I said, is this worth it? Is this work even making a difference? Does anybody even give a crap? And she said, Brandi, just check your ego. Just, you got to step back and let the work speak for itself, and put it out there. I hope that it’s making a difference. I hope that this work is taken seriously, and I hope that me, as a journalist, and the work that I do is taken seriously, because I worry about the impact that this has had on my reputation and the work that I do.

Taya Graham:  As I was thinking about mainstream media, one of the things that mainstream media does well is they repeat, sometimes word for word, press releases or the word that comes down from City Hall. So in this case, Edmonton’s mayor has said that there should be a declaration of an emergency around homelessness.

And I would say, well, considering that there’s freezing temperatures, people could literally die from exposure, I think it’s fair to say that there should be an emergency. That’s an immediate crisis. But what do you think the actions of the city should be? Because the declaration of emergency that’s coming from your mayor may continue to take the actions of encampments being torn apart, people taken only to temporary shelters. What would you like to see your city do to help the unhoused folks of Edmonton?

Brandi Morin:  Yeah, I interviewed the grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six just a couple of nights ago, and he was speaking to the intergenerational trauma that a lot of our people experience, and how important it is to address the crisis of the fallout of the Indian Residential School system and all of these different systemic injustices that our people continue to experience, and how the focus needs to be on providing the resources and Indigenous-led solutions for the healing of our people.

One thing that he said to me that really stood out was, how can we heal when we still have tears in our eyes? I think it would be helpful if a lot of these root issues were addressed, as well as the inadequacies in affordable housing and all of these complex intricacies in regards to funding shortfalls and such that are also service barriers.

Taya Graham:  Affordable housing is an issue that we have been struggling with in my city, Baltimore, as well. I remember speaking to Jeff Singer, who was the director of Health Care for the Homeless here, and a great advocate for the community.

I said, well, Jeff, what do we need to help the homeless in our city? He said, put them in homes. He said, and not shelters — Homes, permanent homes. That’s what you can do. Don’t create these barriers to entry. Give them the housing and the rest can follow. The getting well, the healing of various issues and various traumas that people have to process.

If you didn’t have trauma before you were on the street, you’ve got trauma now that you’ve lived on the street. You need time to process that. So he said, just get them into homes. The rest will follow and I’ve always remembered that Dr. Singer said that to me.

You mentioned the trauma of being jailed, being held, and you didn’t know when you were going to be let go. Having your power taken away by that is an incredibly dehumanizing experience. I know your first court appearance, I believe, is in February. What are you hoping for the outcome, or rather, what are you expecting to be the outcome from this process?

Brandi Morin:  Well, I’m hoping that the charges will be dropped and that I won’t have to go to court. I don’t want to show up to get fingerprinted before then and have my prints in their system. I am hoping that this will all be resolved so that I could just keep doing this work with a clear head.

Again, I don’t know. I don’t really know where they’re at, if they are planning to make an example out of the situation, or whether a prosecutor will look at this on his desk and say, well, this is not in the public interest to pursue these charges against a journalist, and throw it out, which I’m hoping will be the case.

Taya Graham:  Well, I know we’re hoping that will be the case as well. I just wanted to thank you so much for your time and for the incredible work that you’re doing helping to highlight voices that are not just often ignored, but are actually suppressed. I just want to thank you for doing that with so much strength and with so much eloquence.

For anyone who’s listening right now, please make sure to read Brandi Morin. Don’t just watch her documentaries, which are beautiful, but also read her. You’re an incredibly eloquent writer.

Brandi Morin:  Well, thank you. The first feature from the incidents that unfolded this last week is going to be published tomorrow, so please check that out. I bring you inside of the encampment, and you’ll get to know the people and be brought into the scenes of what went down there.

Taya Graham:  Thank you so much. I’m looking forward to reading it. And I want to thank you for sharing your experience that also shows the value of this journalistic freedom of independent journalism. We’re going to continue to follow your story, and we, of course, wish you the very best in your upcoming court appearance.

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