The Wilderness Committee has won a landmark defamation case brought against it by Taseko Mines Ltd. but, despite the win, the non-profit environmental group will suffer financially after fighting the company in court for five years.
The case is being held up as a textbook example of why anti-SLAPP legislation is needed in B.C.
“We are very proud to have stood our ground, but B.C. very much needs anti-SLAPP legislation. We were completely innocent and yet this company was able to keep us in the courts for five years — and their pockets are much deeper than ours,” said Wilderness Committee national campaigner Joe Foy.
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases are usually launched by companies trying to silence their critics. B.C. briefly had Canada’s first anti-SLAPP law which was brought in by the former NDP government, but repealed by the BC Liberals who feared it would lead to a “protest culture” shortly after their election in 2001.
Ontario and Quebec are currently the only provinces with such legislation.
ICYMI: Laws Needed to Protect Citizens from Industry, Government SLAPP Suits: B.C. Civil Liberties Association
Now Foy says it’s time to bring back a law to stop deep-pocketed companies like Taseko Mines from dragging Canadians through the courts because the company doesn’t like what is being said about their project.
“The company didn’t like what we said about their risky, environmentally destructive open-pit mine proposal — so they took us to court,” he said.
“Some industrial projects should be stopped and people need to be able to say that without fear of getting sued.”
The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the B.C. Supreme Court decision that the company’s lawsuit — which was seeking actual and punitive damages — was launched “to silence critics on a matter of public importance.”
“We are very proud to have stood our ground, but B.C. very much needs anti-SLAPP legislation. We were completely innocent and yet this company was able to keep us in the courts for five years — and their pockets are much deeper than ours.” https://t.co/AqDhiuHNBE
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) December 17, 2017
However, the lower court award of special costs to the Wilderness Committee, ordered because the judge agreed the company had unduly dragged out the court case, were struck down by the appeal judges.
The Wilderness Committee has insurance that will help cover many of the costs, but the group will still be in the hole for about $20,000, plus staff time and effort, and the increased cost of insurance will be an ongoing expense, said Foy, who added that the cost would have been huge without insurance.
The threat of such suits inevitably has a chilling effect when people want to speak out against a project, said Foy.
“It could be someone speaking at a public meeting and the next thing, you have papers served and, before you know it, you have ferocious lawyers breathing down your neck,” he said.
The provincial government has not made any commitment to bring in anti-SLAPP legislation since coming to power, but a spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General said anti-SLAPP legislation is under consideration.
“Government is looking at SLAPP lawsuits and exploring legislative options that are fair for the people of British Columbia,” he said.
Other groups pushing for the legislation include B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Union of B.C. Municipalities and Ecojustice.
The Taseko saga started in 2012 when the company claimed the Wilderness Committee had defamed the company in comments on the Wilderness Committee website about Taseko’s proposed New Prosperity open-pit copper and gold mine near Williams Lake, in Tsilhqot’in Nation territory.
The controversial project, bitterly opposed by the Tsilhqot’in Nation, was approved by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Agency, but twice rejected by the federal government.
The initial plan involved draining Fish Lake — considered sacred by the Tsilhqot’in — to store toxic tailings. The second incarnation, after the proposal was rejected by the federal government, came up with an alternate plan for tailings, but the federal Environment Ministry determined that the seepage would be toxic to fish in nearby waterways.
In addition to the Wilderness Committee decision, this month, Taseko Mines has lost two judicial review applications made to the Federal Court of Canada. Both were asking for reviews of federal decisions, claiming a lack of procedural fairness.
The court dismissed both applications and ordered Taseko to pay the court costs of the Tsilhqot’in Nation and the federal government.