SooToday.com has received the following letter from Julee Boan, boreal program manager for Ontario Nature in Thunder Bay, in response to a release posted earlier.
Response to “Northern municipalities concerned about private members bill” (Tuesday March 4).
In 2010, two municipal councillors from Thornhill, Ont., advocating for the protection of prime farmland in their community, were sued by a developer who accused them of trespassing on his land.
The developer seemingly forgot that he had leased the land to a local farmer who had given the councillors permission to hold a news conference on the side of the road at the farm.
The lawsuit was, of course, dismissed as nonsense by the courts.
But it took two years and substantial lawyers’ fees to resolve.
In response, one of the councillors said, “To us, this looks like an attempt at intimidation and bullying … In my opinion, this is a SLAPP suit.”
A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) is a lawsuit initiated against one or more individuals who speak out on an issue of public interest.
Last year, Bill 83, the Protection of Public Participation Act, was introduced at the urging of many concerned citizens who have seen and felt the corrosive effects of deep-pocketed interests suing citizens for speaking their minds.
The purpose of anti-SLAPP legislation is: to encourage civic engagement on matters of public interest, to discourage the use of litigation that unduly limits expression and to reduce the risk that public participation in debates will be hampered by fear of legal action.
The bill is designed to deter only meritless lawsuits that are clearly intended to tie opponents up in costly legal knots with little chance of ultimate success.
If Bill 83 is passed, the anti-SLAPP process would be fair and impartial.
If someone feels they have been served a SLAPP, they would file a motion to dismiss to be addressed within 60 days.
This would expedite the process so litigation costs would not keep piling up.
The judge would not dismiss a lawsuit if there are grounds to believe that the proceedings have merit.
Many jurisdictions, including California, Minnesota, Arizona and Maine — in fact the majority of US states — have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation.
Where such legislation is in place, such as Quebec, courts are very cautious in dismissing cases.
Many more cases proceed than do not.
In a recent article in SooToday, some northern mayors claimed that “there is no need for Bill 83.”
The Ontario Bar Association, Council of Canadians, Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression disagree.
In fact, the Ontario Bar Association has stated that they have “long called for this type of legislation” and that Bill 83 “very closely reflects the recommendations [their] organization made.”
The Bill is supported by over 140 unions, journalists, free speech associations, and yes, environmental groups.
Environmental groups such as the one I work for, Ontario Nature. Established in 1931, we represent over 30,000 members and supporters, including people from across northern Ontario.
Collectively, we stand behind this law.
Yet, these mayors have distilled an important piece of legislation to one, ongoing legal battle between Greenpeace and Resolute Forest Products.
(Note: According to Resolute Forest Product’s annual reports the corporation has averaged more than $4.6 billion in sales each year from 2010 – 2012. Surely, we have entered a truly bizarre debate when Goliath is now called David!)
Regardless, it appears to be the proverbial “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”
What happens when municipal officials decide to speak out against property taxation, labour records or sustainable use of public resources by industrial giants?
For small northern communities already facing serious fiscal constraints, even the threat of a lawsuit could be enough to silence them.
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