A former West Vancouver MP, Blair Wilson, has been awarded $125,000 in damages for a Province newspaper article that contained a defamatory statement about him, published nearly a dec-ade ago.
Wilson, who represented the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast- Sea to Sky Country riding from 2006 to 2008, suffered “emotional distress, humiliation and the loss of standing in the West Vancouver community and with his colleagues in Ottawa. His tarnished reputation is a significant factor in the assessment of damages,” wrote B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jane Dardi in her ruling on the long-running legal dispute, handed down Aug. 3.
Wilson launched the lawsuit after The Province published a prominent front-page story that called into question his past success as a businessman, and pointed to the role of Wilson’s wealthy in-laws in assisting him and his wife financially. The article also pointed to alleged irregularities in the way expenses were accounted for during Wilson’s election campaign.
Dardi awarded Wilson the damages for statements in the article made by Wilson’s father-in-law Bill Lougheed claiming Wilson had asked Lougheed’s wife for what the judge described as a “deathbed loan” a month before she died in 2007.
That assertion in the article carried “a sense of exploitation and that (Wilson) was a callous person who lacked a sense of morality,” wrote Dardi.
But the information about a deathbed loan wasn’t true, wrote Dardi, and wasn’t investigated with sufficient diligence by the paper.
The other claims of defamation against The Province and its parent company Canwest Publishing Inc. were dismissed by Dardi, who ruled that other statements about Wilson that tended to lower his reputation were either substantially true or had been properly investigated by Province reporter Elaine O’Connor.
Among her findings, Dardi ruled that there had been infractions of the Canada Elections Act during Wilson’s 2005 election campaign for the federal Liberals and that Wilson “had a history of business controversies and he exaggerated his past business success during his campaign.”
Dardi found the newspaper had truthfully reported that Wilson and his wife Kelly were “indebted to financial institutions for approximately $1.8 million” at the time and that Kelly owed her parents “some $812,000 as of the date of her mother’s death in May 2007.”
Wilson was elected as the Liberal MP in West Vancouver in 2006, by a narrow margin of less than 1,000 votes, in what had previously been considered a Conservative stronghold.
The first front-page article, which was the subject of the defamation case, Family Exposes MP’s Trail of Debt, was published by The Province on Oct. 28, 2007.
After the stories came out in The Province, Wilson resigned from the Liberal caucus. He ran in the 2008 federal election as a Green Party candidate, but lost to John Weston of the Conservatives.
“Central to this case are the contours of what constitutes ‘public interest’ and the limits of the ability of the press and concerned citizens to engage in critical commentary of elected representatives,” wrote Dardi.
Dardi wrote that Wilson’s “fiscal integrity and past business affairs were clearly relevant” to the public interest as he had been appointed national revenue critic. “Further he had campaigned on his fiscal responsibility and success as a businessman,” the judge wrote.
Dardi wrote that O’Connor was a “conscientious investigative journalist who spent significant time researching the story” and speaking to numerous sources.
“She approached her research diligently and with integrity,” the judge wrote.
Wilson named several other people in the lawsuit, including Lougheed, and blogger Steve Janke, who published an anonymous complaint letter to Elections Canada about Wilson on his political website Angry in the Great White North.
The lawsuit also named former politician and Liberal party member Judi Tyabji, and Mark Marissen, who at the time of Wilson’s ouster from the Liberal Party was national campaign co-chair.
Wilson alleged during the trial that Marissen and Tyabji had colluded in a political smear campaign against him and suggested that Tyabji launched that in return for Lougheed investing $185,000 in her business, Tugboat Enterprises.
But Dardi ruled the evidence did not support those claims.
According to the judge’s decision, Tyabji went to Marissen to warn him that damaging information about the Liberal MP may be coming out only after she and her husband Gordon Wilson, a former leader of the provincial Liberal party, were tipped off by Gordon Wilson’s friend, Conservative political heavyweight and former riding MP John Reynolds.
“The evidence clearly established the negative campaign was instigated by Wilson’s political rivals,” the judge wrote.
The judge noted Neil McIver, Conservative campaign manager for Weston, was revealed during the trial as the source who provided O’Connor with the anonymous letter to Elections Canada.
Wilson later launched a separate lawsuit against McIver which has yet to go to trial.
Dardi ordered Janke to pay $15,000 in damages to Wilson for publishing the entire anonymous complaint letter, along with his own commentary about it, on his blog without giving Wilson a chance to respond.
Dardi rejected Wilson’s argument that any of the defamatory statements had caused him to lose his political career. Wilson was rejected by the Liberals because he hadn’t provided the party with “full and frank disclosure” of various legal claims he had been involved in, the judge wrote. “It was his ouster from the Liberal Party and not the defamation that determined (Wilson’s) political fate,” she wrote.
Jay Straith, lawyer for Blair Wilson, said his client has mixed feelings on the decision. “There were parts we’re pleased with and parts we were not pleased with,” he said.
Straith said the case highlighted the court’s views of what constitutes “responsible communica-tion” for journalists.
Dan Burnett, lawyer for The Province, said in an emailed statement the newspaper is “gratified to have been vindicated in its responsible overall handling of the articles. The court found the reporting was diligent and in good faith.”
Burnett said his clients are “considering their position” regarding the ruling on the part of the article found defamatory.
The lawsuit ground through the courts for many years, culminating in a 59-day trial between October 2015 and July 2016. Marissen settled out of court with Wilson shortly after the trial started. Lougheed died part-way through the trial.
Wilson has since moved to Kelowna and owns a commercial apple orchard with his wife.