“In a free and democratic system, every citizen must be guaranteed the right to freedom of expression about issues relating to government as an absolute privilege, without threat of a civil action for defamation being initiated against them by that government.” – From a 2014 ruling by Ontario Court Mr. Justice Kenneth E. Pedlar, in favour of a citizen sued by the Township of Montague, Ontario for circulating a letter critical of the Township emergency response operations.
A Commentary by Doug Draper, publisher, Niagara At Large
Posted January 6th, 2017
I began here with a quote from an Ontario court judge who dismissed a defamation suit a municipality filed against Donald Page – a Montague township resident who was exercising his right as a citizen to raise questions and concerns about that municipality – for a reason that every one of us who believes in the democratic right of citizens to speak out and to hold our government to account should take to heart.
I began with this honourable judge’s quote because the legal harassment that was unleashed on Donald Page – quite wrongfully as the judge so eloquently pointed out – could be unleashed on any citizen who exercises their right to hold our government to account.
In fact, this form of legal harassment or thuggery – what has come to be known in the legal game as a “slap suit” designed to make an example of any citizens who dares to raise questions and concerns so that the rest of us know to go home and keep our mouths shut – has been threatened against a Niagara, Ontario citizen named Ed Smith – a St. Catharines resident 25-year, retired career officer in the Canadian Armed Forces – for raising questions and concerns about hiring and firing practices, about the awarding of contacts, about land deals and a host of other matters involving the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority – a government body run by a board and managers that growing numbers of citizens across Niagara and Hamilton have lost trust in.
Ed Smith was served a letter last November, authored by lawyers for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), accusing him of circulating some material around these questions and concerns that was defamatory, and setting a December deadline for him to, among other things, issue a “full unqualified apology” for distrusting the material and turning over to the NPCA the names of any other authors of the material.
To these demands, Smith stood up this past November 30th at a press conference and said the following –
“I wish to respond to this list of demands from the NPCA in the strongest of ways,” he said. “My response is ‘NO’. In fact, I wish to assert loudly the right of any Canadian citizen should expect – the right to challenge my ‘elected taxpayers’ – a term quoted from (NPCA chair) Bruce Timms – and to hold any elected or appointed officials accountable.”
“A robust democracy demands this level of guarantees for all of its citizens,” continued Smith. “I view this letter from the NPCA as a blatant attempt to intimidate and threaten me in order to silence a voice of dissension.”
Ed Smith is right.
What the upper managers and the majority of those sitting on the board of directors of the NPCA (many of them elected members of Niagara municipal councils) are doing with this legal action is an assault on good citizenship and on a system of democracy that countless tens-of-thousands thousands in this country have fought and died for in wars.
It is also an ugly, bullying act and a vulgar misuse of the millions of our tax dollars this Conservation Authority receives each year – tax dollars that should be devoted to programs that protect and preserve what remains of this region’s natural heritage.
We are now waiting for what news Ed Smith receives next in the wake of this lawsuit threat.
In the meantime, Niagara At Large wishes to do something here that Ed Smith would probably not invite and may not welcome because he has always stressed that what he is trying to do around getting answers to questions and concerns over the NPCA’s operations and the abuse he has received in response is not about him – and that is true.
Nevertheless, NAL wishes to pay tribute Ed Smith’s actions by naming him our person of 2016 in Niagara because the questions and concerns he has been raising about the NPCA are shared by growing numbers of us across this region, including six Niagara municipal councils and the council of the City of St. Catharines – all of which have called on the province to launch a forensic and/or value-for-money audit and a full investigation of the NPCA’s operations.
Ed Smith also deserves our recognition and support for the courage he has shown to persevere in the face of legal threats and insults to his character by individuals as high up as Niagara regional chair Al Caslin (through a letter of apology Caslin sent to the NPCA board last spring over a presentation Smith made to regional council last spring, asking for an audit of the NPCA).
“I willfully dedicated 25 years of my professional life fighting for the ‘ideal’ of Canada,” said Smith during that press conference last November 30th .where two Second World War veterans cane out to join those who supported him. “Countless others have sacrificed much more than that, and there is nothing that will divert me from doing right by them.”
I urge each and every one of us to support Ed Smith at a time when the worst of the lot at the NPCA and regional government level in Niagara are doing what they can to break him and make him back down.
If they win, it is not just Ed Smith who loses, but each and every one of us who may one day find ourselves in circumstances where we need to raise questions and concerns about government actions that impact on our lives, as well as the lives of our family, friends and others in our community.
Once again, Ed Smith is right.
This NPCA fight, or whatever one wishes to call it, is not about him. It is about the democratic rights of all of us as Canadian citizens to hold our governments accountable to we, the people.
What the NPCA and its political allies on the Niagara regional council are trying to do to Ed Smith should both anger and inspire all of us to join this fight and to use it as an opportunity to stand up for our rights as citizens.
To learn more about the defamation suit filed against Montague Township resident Donald Page and Mr. Justice Kenneth Pedlar’s ruling in that case, click on – http://www.cyberlibel.com/?p=1089 .
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