The WE organization has announced its intention to sue CANADALAND for defamation in the province of Manitoba — a jurisdiction that, unlike Ontario, does not possess “anti-SLAPP” legislation.
Both CANADALAND and WE are headquartered in downtown Toronto.
In a letter sent to CANADALAND’s counsel last Friday and posted to WE’s website earlier this week [pdf], Winnipeg-based lawyer Robert Tapper states he has been retained to initiate a lawsuit against CANADALAND, alongside Toronto-based lawyers Peter Downard and William McDowell.
“Like Canadaland, WE Charity is a national organization,” he states, and the “predominant defamatory sting” of CANADALAND’s publications was delivered in the days preceding WE Day Manitoba on October 30.
“In addition to your clients’ initial crowdfunding efforts on October 15, they continued to promote their defamatory statements to solicit funds on five additional podcasts leading up to WE Day Manitoba,” Tapper writes. “In addition, countless re-postings on social media leading up to WE Day Manitoba were accompanied by the University of Manitoba station (UMFM) broadcasting both defamatory Canadaland podcasts over radio in Manitoba.”
CANADALAND’s first article and podcast — respectively titled “Craig Kielburger Founded WE To Fight Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made By Children” and “The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement” — were published on October 15. On November 6, WE delivered a notice of libel [pdf] alleging that the article and podcast contained “false and malicious claims” that served to “erode the public’s trust” in the organization and were “causing serious measurable damages.” CANADALAND subsequently appended two clarifications to the podcast but has stated that it stands by its reporting.
In his letter, Tapper additionally cites the 450 Manitoba schools and youth groups participating in the WE Schools program, as well as “WE Charity’s largest individual donor(s) residing in the province,” as reasons for selecting Manitoba as the location for its action. He says WE will also “be relying on key witnesses relevant to the case who reside in Manitoba” and “key documents stored in the province.”
In 2015, Ontario’s Liberal government adopted the Protection of Public Participation Act, whose stated goals include discouraging “the use of litigation as a means of unduly limiting expression on matters of public interest.” Under the so-called anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law, a judge must grant a request to dismiss a lawsuit if it arises from a communication relating to “a matter of public interest” and for which there would be a valid defence. (A court doesn’t have to specifically conclude that a plaintiff had initiated a suit as a means to limit expression, and indeed a case may have merit.) Defendants who are successful in having a suit dismissed in this manner are entitled to full costs, unless a judge determines otherwise.
The government of British Columbia has introduced similar legislation that, if passed, would take effect retroactively, as Quebec’s did when adopted in 2009. CANADALAND’s second article and podcast about WE, looking at the organization’s relationship with the media over the decades, were published on November 19, shortly ahead of WE Days in Vancouver on November 21 and 22. (In between the Manitoba and Vancouver events, there was also a WE Day in Ottawa on November 14.) WE sent CANADALAND a second notice of libel [pdf], concerning these new publications, on the afternoon of Friday, December 21. CANADALAND subsequently issued a correction to the podcast and appended a clarification to the article concerning the nature of a special WE section published annually by The Globe and Mail.
In response to a question about whether their lawsuit is a SLAPP intended to dissuade CANADALAND from further reporting, Tapper responds, “An informed view of all legal merits of the case would lead to the clear conclusion that Manitoba is the most relevant and appropriate jurisdiction in Canada. Furthermore, SLAPP is irrespective on this matter because Canadaland’s conduct was so egregious in publishing knowingly false statements, digitally altered documents and manufactured evidence, and failure to appropriately retract, that the legal outcome of the case will be ruled the same in all regions of Canada.”
We stand by our journalism and will defend it in any jurisdiction, including Manitoba, a province containing less than 5% of our readership. (Ontario and BC are where the overwhelming majority of our audience resides. Ontario has anti-SLAPP law, and BC has an anti-SLAPP bill).
— CANADALAND (@CANADALAND) January 17, 2019
While it is believed that this would be the first time that WE has commenced a lawsuit against a news organization, founder Craig Kielburger has done so twice in the past. In January 1997, he sued Saturday Night magazine in response to a feature profile of him and his work, and two weeks later launched a second lawsuit against the Ottawa Citizen for citing allegedly defamatory passages from the Saturday Night piece, including in a news report on the Saturday Night suit itself. Kielburger was 14 years old at the time.
In the November 6 libel notice to CANADALAND, lawyer Peter Downard wrote that CANADALAND had shown “malice by representing our clients as litigious,” stating that the suit against Saturday Night “represents our client’s one and only lawsuit against media.” After CANADALAND brought the Citizen suit to his attention, he explained the apparent discrepancy: “Our clients’ notice of libel to the Ottawa Citizen, more than 20 years ago, related to the Saturday Night libel, which the Citizen republished. It would be inaccurate for Canadaland to report that our clients have delivered a notice of libel relating to a libel in addition to the Saturday Night libel prior to our clients’ delivery of their libel notice to Canadaland.”
Saturday Night settled the lawsuit for $319,000 but did not retract or apologize for the article; Kielburger said he intended to use the money to cover his legal costs and set up a trust fund for his organization. The Citizen settled for $18,547.71 and agreed not to republish the offending statements or other excerpts from the Saturday Night piece in the paper or online; a later article described the matter as having been resolved “following an apology and a donation” to the charity.
In addition to suing CANADALAND as a company, Tapper indicates that WE intends to sue publisher Jesse Brown, deputy news editor Jaren Kerr, and news editor Jonathan Goldsbie as individuals, as well as an anonymous source.
When CANADALAND shared news of WE’s jurisdiction selection on Twitter on Thursday, among those who weighed in was Charlie Angus, member of parliament for Timmins–James Bay and the NDP’s ethics critic:
My daughters were members of Free the Children.
I listened to report on @WEMovement and found it hard but fair.
Their SLAPP suit against independent journalism stinks of corporate bullying.
I have lost respect for Keilburgers.
I will be donating to @CANADALAND and not We. https://t.co/EdhFfaO66n
— Charlie Angus NDP (@CharlieAngusNDP) January 17, 2019
Top image from CBC footage of Craig Kielburger announcing his intention to sue Saturday Night magazine in 1996, as shown in the documentary It Takes a Child.