Recently an astute Newfoundland blogger, who calls himself Uncle Gnarley, published a well-researched and well-reasoned argument about why Nalcor’s top executives are vastly underqualified for the important positions they hold, how neither has the high level of experience that is commonly a prerequisite for overseeing the disbursal of more than $7 billion of public money.
It did not take long for someone to provide a practical illustration of Uncle Gnarley’s point.
Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor’s vice-president in charge of the Lower Churchill Project, took time out from his busy schedule to compose a letter with the help of Dave Riffe, his manager of safety, health, security and emergency response, and send it to the newspapers. It seems the two were “quite taken aback” by a column that was critical of any more dams going onto Labrador’s Grand River — or the Churchill, as the Newfoundland government likes to call it.
This particular piece was published in July and I called it “Nalcor bedevilled by unwelcome visitors,” because I really wanted to use the word “bedevilled” in a headline. The offending column was essentially a silly rant at Nalcor for stealing the peaceful days and night skies with its noise and light, combined with a tidbit of news about how some unauthorized people were gaining access to the construction site.
However, Mssrs. Bennett and Riffe felt I intended much more. In fact, they wrote “the writer basically encouraged people to put their life at risk and, in doing so, also risk the safety and lives of others.”
“In our view, Johansen’s article encouraged members of the general public to breach the Muskrat Falls construction site with the intent of disrupting site activity.”
Their writing gets a bit confused at this point when they declare: “This has serious safety consequences and is a violation of the law.” It’s unclear who they mean is breaking the law: the breachers or the writer. Maybe both?
In Canada, “defamation” is the communication of a falsehood that lessens someone’s public reputation. The statement doesn’t have to have been made out of malice, or be proven false. A lawsuit can be defended against using various counter-arguments, including one that alleges “defamation” was charged only as a means to silence legitimate dissent, but that’s another issue. The spoken variety of the offence is termed slander, but if written down and printed in a newspaper, for instance, it’s called libel.
True or untrue
As mentioned, a person, company, or organization being sued does not have to prove that his, her or its communicated words are true, but on the other hand it would certainly help a plaintiff’s case if he, she or it can prove them untrue. That means if someone wanted to sue someone else because that other person said he broke the law (like, hypothetically, if Justin Trudeau sued Peter MacKay because MacKay said Trudeau broke the law when he toked on a joint), the plaintiff would be well ahead if no illegal activity took place.
Malice doesn’t have to be proven, either, although it also helps a plaintiff if it can be. But what is malice? Is a cabinet minister acting out of spite when he throws accusations at his biggest political threat, or is he just in fight-or-flight mode? Is a company executive acting in malice when he says a journalist is inciting illegal action? It’s difficult to prove, especially since in both cases they might be completely dispassionate, acting under orders from their superiors.
Most of all, a plaintiff must prove harm was caused to his reputation. That, obviously, doesn’t give Trudeau much of a case. If anything, the government’s alleged slander has greatly improved the Liberal leader’s public standing.
As for what the Nalcor vice-president and his safety manager printed in the papers, much the same can be concluded. Their words may not have helped this columnist as much, but neither have they harmed me.
The reason? Perhaps it’s because the vice-president’s words were not taken very seriously. If that’s the case, maybe Bennett should give up on writing letters to the editor and return to what he does best.
What’s that again, Uncle Gnarley? Oh right: he’s the cable guy.