April 16, 2014

Mr. Ernie Hardeman: I’m pleased to rise today to speak to Bill 83, the Protection of Public Participation Act, because this is a very important issue. This bill will amend the Courts of Justice Act to create a process to determine if a lawsuit is a SLAPP—strategic litigation against public participation—and to dismiss it accordingly. I think that’s the important part of it all, so that someone can look at it and stop this from happening. This would ensure that the time and resources of the court system aren’t wasted with these lawsuits. But more importantly, it would help to ensure free speech.

Ontario should not allow strategic lawsuits to be used in an effort to shut down debate. Our democratic system depends on public participation, from voting to petitions to the ability of the people to speak freely about their ideas and their concerns. It’s important that the voices of our people are heard.

Community participation is essential. For instance, in my riding of Oxford, we have a great number of individuals and groups who are very concerned about a proposed landfill in Beachville, near Ingersoll. We are concerned about the danger to our drinking water. It is important that we all have the ability to raise that concern publicly. The volunteers with these organizations in the community have done a great job holding events, creating petitions, launching letter-writing campaigns, appearing at town hall council and much more. They’ve expressed their concerns through news releases, letters to the editor, Twitter and Facebook, and that is a right they should have. They need to be free to communicate with the rest of the community, their elected representatives and the government without fear of a lawsuit, whether that communication is direct or through the media.

I do want to make it clear that this company has not interfered with that in any way, but it would be easy for another company in the same position to use their resources to launch a lawsuit against community groups and try to intimidate them or to bankrupt them into silence.

Unfortunately, in other communities, developers have tried to do just that. When I was deputy mayor in southwest Oxford, our entire council was hit with a strategic lawsuit for voting to continue fighting against a landfill site. It was pretty clear that it wasn’t a serious lawsuit when even the member of council who had voted against the continuation was named in the lawsuit, but it didn’t prevent the developers of the landfill site from launching the lawsuit.

I know from working with the groups in my riding that they’re all volunteers. They are working in their spare time to protect our community, and our drinking water, and I want to commend them for that. This is not something that they do professionally. They are people with full-time jobs, retired people, and stay-at-home moms who have become leaders because they are concerned about our community and the safety of our water.

I also know from working with them how limited their resources are and how difficult it would be if they are faced with a lawsuit. We need to ensure that companies with a lot of resources aren’t allowed to silence community groups simply because they don’t like what they are saying.
It’s not just the community organizations themselves that face financial threat from these lawsuits. Individuals who are named have to worry about their families and their homes. They may face huge legal costs to fight the lawsuit even though there isn’t any merit to it. Strategic lawsuits are simply meant to bully and intimidate someone into staying quiet.

Members on all sides of this Legislature said they are against bullying, and yet we now see a lawsuit being used just for that. Mr. Speaker, I don’t think we can have a full discussion about this bill and the impact of strategic lawsuits without discussing the situation that has developed in this Legislature. As we all know, several weeks ago the Premier threatened the Leader of the Opposition with a lawsuit if he did not cease his comments and questions about her involvement in the wiping of computer hard drives in the Premier’s office. Yesterday, it was announced that she is suing him for $2 million.

Bill 83 was created based on the recommendation of the Attorney General’s Anti-SLAPP Advisory Panel. According to that report, “Strategic litigation against public participation … has been defined as a lawsuit initiated against one or more individuals or groups that speak out or take a position on an issue of public interest. SLAPPs use the court system to limit the effectiveness of the opposing party’s speech or conduct. SLAPPs … intimidate opponents, deplete their resources, reduce their ability to participate in public affairs, and deter others from participating in discussion on matters of public interest.” Mr. Speaker, based on that definition, it appears the Premier’s lawsuit is, in fact, strategic litigation against public participation.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Point of order, member for Mississauga–Streetsville?
Mr. Bob Delaney: I refer the Speaker to standing order 23(g), paragraphs (i) and (ii), which constrain the member from referring to a “matter that is the subject of a proceeding … that is pending in a court or before a judge for judicial determination….”
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Order.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): You may need it if I decide to throw somebody. Order. Continue.
Mr. Bob Delaney: Speaker, the standing orders of this Legislature direct members not to refer their comments to matters that are in fact the subject of a legal proceeding, and what the member has made mention of is, in every respect, a matter that is the subject of a legal proceeding.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Thank you. I’m going take a five-minute break and decide on your request as a point of order.
The House recessed from 0948 to 0950.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Be seated.

In reference to the point of order by the member from Mississauga–Streetsville, it is true that what he had quoted is in the legislation; however, at the end of the legislation it says, “where it is shown to the satisfaction of the Speaker that further reference would create a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the proceeding.”

It’s my opinion that the member wasn’t doing that, and he may continue.
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: Mr. Speaker, can we have some of the time back that the member opposite used? Ten minutes is a fairly short period of time to speak.
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: It was running all the time you stood up.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): You didn’t lose any time, apparently, when I called the five minutes. Continue.
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: Mr. Speaker, I know the members on the other side of the House are not happy that I’m raising this issue, but it is directly related to this bill. It’s an example of exactly the type of lawsuit that this bill is supposed to deal with: a lawsuit meant to intimidate, a lawsuit meant to make someone keep quiet.
Members of the Legislature are protected from lawsuits when speaking in this chamber. Why should that change when they can use the same reference and take it outside the chamber? I don’t believe a member of—
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): I know you’re not happy with it, but at least let him have his day in court, so to speak. Thank you.
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: Mr. Speaker, I think it’s unfortunate that the Premier has chosen a lawsuit which is so contrary to the very bill that her government introduced and that we are debating here today. I hope that if it passes, this bill will help prevent that type of lawsuit in the future.
It takes courage to continue to speak out in the public interest despite the threat of litigation, whether it is concerns about a local development or questioning an individual’s involvement in deleting information on gas plants. I want to commend the Leader of the Opposition for his courage in not being intimidated by the threat of a strategic lawsuit, I want to commend him for putting the interests of the people of Ontario first, and I want to commend him for continuing to work to raise the questions in spite of the threat of litigation.
But it is not a situation that we should be putting the people into. We want an Ontario where people feel free to speak about their concerns. We want an Ontario where people can talk about issues of public interest. We want an Ontario where the Premier doesn’t sue the Leader of the Opposition. We should be able to have a free and open debate. We should be able to put forward our ideas, opinions and beliefs without threats of bullying. As the Attorney General said when he introduced this bill, “I think all members will agree that one of the greatest things about living in a fair and democratic society like Ontario’s is that we can speak out on matters that are important to us, sometimes having a difference in opinion and issues that we express from time to time.” I want to thank him for that.
Mr. Speaker, it is not enough for this government to just say people should be able to speak out, or even to introduce this bill to limit the impact of strategic litigation. To have a conversation, you have to be willing to listen to those who disagree, not just to intimidate them into keeping quiet. To govern, you need to listen to the people even if you don’t like what they are saying. Our political system works because we in the opposition ask questions, and because we point out where the government missed the mark, where the government failed. It is what our constituents sent the opposition to Queen’s Park to do.
They sent the government here to do a job too. They wanted you to focus on creating jobs and strengthening our economy, to protect health care and education. Instead, you have chosen to focus on a lawsuit.
Instead of talking to their lawyers, the members on the other side should listen to what the people are saying. Mr. Speaker—
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Thank you. Questions and comments?