THE DEMOCRATIC REPORTER
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* Hazel McCallion - Mayor of Mississauga *
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Another Ontario municipality tries to muzzle free speech
The CANCER on Democracy Developing in City halls - BANNING those who are
Web posted by NUPGE - June 7 2006
Another Ontario municipality tries to muzzle free speech
Mayor Michael McHugh of Russell Township (above)
threatens 75-year-old resident with prosecution
Ottawa (7 June 2006) - The Township of Russell, about 40 kilometres southeast of Ottawa, has become the latest flashpoint in the war between citizens and municipalities over the right to freely criticize elected officials in Canada.
The new spat, like the one that occurred earlier this year in the Township of Montague, about 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, has implications for individuals — and groups like unions — who deal routinely with municipal politicians and officials.
Jacques Aube, 75, a retired airman and former school trustee, was notified by Mayor Michael McHugh last November that he has been barred from municipal offices.
Aube attended municipal meetings on a regular basis and asked a number of pointed questions about an environment ministry report on the township's master plan last fall.
McHugh accused Aube of being abusive to a township staff member and banished him from entering offices, citing Ontario's Trespass to Property Act as his authority to issue such an order. Aube denies that he was disrespectful, merely persistent in his criticism of the council's actions.
The act allows "a person who has responsibility" for any premises to prohibit another person from entering. Fines of up to $2,000 can be levied. But the act does not apply to anyone "acting under a right or authority conferred by law."
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), which also intervened in Montague, thinks the mayor and council have gone too far and are prohibiting Aube from participating in a proper way in public life.
Josh Paterson, a CCLA spokesperson, told council members at a meeting this week that citizens have a right to freely express opinions about the actions of elected representatives and to persist, badger, cajole and criticize if they wish.
"Governments have lots of ways to respond to criticism," the Ottawa Citizen quoted Paterson as saying.
He suggested the two sides try to resolve their differences through an independent arbitrator.
Montague case thrown out
In the case at Montague Township, about 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, the mayor and council sued Donald Page for libel after he criticized the competence of local firefighters in a fire that claimed a woman's life.
The civil liberties association intervened, accusing the township of infringing on Page's right to free speech as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court sided with Page and threw the case out without a trial.
Web posted by NUPGE - March 13, 2006.
Ontario Township abandons defamation case against citizen
Montague Township will not appeal Charter court ruling that gave
Smiths Falls (10 March 2006) - The Ontario Township of Montague, ruled by a haughty local council that tried to use taxpayers' money to sue one of its own residents for defamation, has finally seen the light.
Reeve Gary Doyle has now conceded that he and his colleagues will make no attempt to appeal an Ontario Superior Court decision declaring that they violated Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms by suing resident Donald Page for criticizing the performance of local officials.
A retired public employee, Page happened upon a fire (in which a local woman died) and was so upset by what he saw that he wrote a letter to the provincial fire marshall complaining about the skills of the township's volunteer fire fighters.
In a decision handed down on Jan. 31, Justice Kenneth Pedlar denounced the action taken by Doyle and his fellow council members, David Schoular, Bill Eckersley, Lita Richards and Vince Carroll.
Not only did their case violate Canada's national Charter, he said, it offended the spirit of the Ontario Municipal Act and other international precedents dealing with the right of citizens to speak out against elected governments.
'An absolute privilege'
"In a free and democratic system, every citizen must be guaranteed the right to freedom of expression about issues relating to a government as an absolute privilege, without threat of a civil action for defamation being initiated against them by that government," Pedlar wrote.
The judge found there was no need to examine the merits of statements filed by both sides in the dispute. If council members wished to pursue the matter further, they were free to do so as individual citizens, using their own money, but they could not do so collectively as an elected body, he declared.
Doyle said following a recent council meeting that he and his colleagues will "monitor the situation" but will not attempt to pursue the case further.
However, there seems little for Doyle and his colleagues to monitor, apart from the fallout of the disastrous national publicity they managed to bring upon themselves and their township, located about an hour southwest of Ottawa.
The case was so heavy-handed and anti-democratic that it attracted attention across the country and beyond.
It was followed closely by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) because of its potential impact on all individuals and groups, including unions, who deal directly with municipal councils and other levels of government.
Web posted by NUPGE - February 5, 2006.
'In a free and democratic system, every citizen must be
guaranteed the right to freedom of expression relating to
government as an absolute privilege.' - Justice Kenneth Pedlar
Smiths Falls (5 Feb. 2006) - An Ontario judge has thrown out a defamation lawsuit launched by Montague Township, about 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, against a citizen who complained about shoddy performance by the local volunteer fire department.
The case focuses on a blaze that claimed the life of Danae Vassilounis, a 68-year-old woman, on Dec. 12, 2004.
The decision has important implications for all individuals and groups, including trade unions, who deal with municipal councils and other levels of government. It has been followed closely by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).
Justice Kenneth Pedlar of the Ontario Superior Court said the suit violated free speech provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He also said his ruling was influenced by the Ontario Municipal Act and by international precedents affecting citizens who speak out against elected governments.
"In a free and democratic system, every citizen must be guaranteed the right to freedom of expression about issues relating to a government as an absolute privilege, without threat of a civil action for defamation being initiated against them by that government," Justice Kenneth Pedlar of the Ontario Superior Court wrote in a judgment released on Jan. 31.
Pedlar said there was no need to examine the merit of statements filed by both sides in the dispute. If the elected officials wish to pursue the matter further, they are free to do so as individual citizens. But they cannot sue collectively as an elected government, he ruled.
Township of Montague vs. Donald Page
Members of the council are Gary Doyle, a drywall business operator from Smiths Falls who has been the township reeve for more than a decade and who also sits on the Lanark County Council; David Schoular, a business consultant who is the deputy reeve; Bill Eckersley, also a businessman; Lita Richards, a member of the Montague Public School Council, and Vince Carroll.
Donald Page, a retired public employee who witnessed the blaze, rescued a dog with the aid of another area resident before being ordered back to the street by firefighters. The woman's body was discovered later inside the gutted house.
Page later wrote a letter to the Township in which he complained that the fire department was poorly trained, under-equipped and did not make adequate efforts to enter the house. He copied the letter to the Ontario Fire Marshall and the Town of Smiths Falls, which had also dispatched firefighters to the blaze.
After the letter was written on Jan. 13, 2005, the reeve wrote Page a letter on behalf of the township accusing him of "legal slander" (apparently meaning libel) and demanding an apology and retraction within two weeks, "failing which we will commence immediate legal action."
When Page refused to back down and took his case to other high-ranking Ontario officials and to the media, Doyle and his Township colleagues filed a $50,000 defamation suit, accusing the retired engineer of "willful vilification" and "innuendo" concerning the role of the firefighters in the woman's death.
Not involved in the court proceedings, but at the centre of ongoing debate in the township, is another death, the unsolved murder of Debra Himmelman, a 49-year-old mother of four. She had been active in school board politics and had once complained about the fire service at a council meeting. At a subsequent council meeting the normally empty chamber was filled with firefighters.
The experience led Himmelman to help form the Montague Ratepayers' Association in the spring of 2004 and to become its interim president. Three months later she disappeared. No link between her political activities and her death has been established. Her body was discovered face down along railway tracks not far from her home. The death remains unsolved.
Page, 76, who became the spokesman for the association following Himmelman's death, but who has since stepped down, first appeared in court on Dec. 22, four months after the township filed its suit against him.
When Pedlar released his decision last week, (less than six weeks later), Page said he was relieved. "To have an elected council being able to sue a taxpayer with the taxpayer's own money, it was quite incredible from the start," he said.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which intervened in the case after being denied an opportunity to address the council, lauded the decision for setting an important precedent.
"It's a decision that recognizes the fundamental importance in a democracy of citizens being able to criticize their government," said CCLA spokesman Josh Paterson.
Still to be settled is a $50,000 claim by Page against the township for legal costs. The judge said that if the parties fail to settle on their own, he will accept written submissions over the next 30 days and decide the matter for them.
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