Editorial: $5M lawsuit against environmentalists goes too far

A legal battle is brewing in Guelph, Ont., where the municipal government and a developer are taking five people to task over an environmental protest last year with a $5-million lawsuit.

It was last summer that protesters entered the Hanlon Creek business park lands, which environmental groups say are in need of protection due to concerns such as preserving old-growth forest and endangered species.

The move halted construction, and while city staff estimated damages from the occupation to be about $150,000, it has since upped that amount to the $5-million figure to account for future damages, according to a report in the Guelph Mercury.

The legal action has the defendants crying foul. At a recent news conference, they said that given that they live below the poverty line, there’s no way they’ll be able to cover their costs should they lose. Moreover, they argue the case amounts to a strategic litigation against public participation suit.

The lawsuit comes after the Ontario Superior Court ruled in the environmentalists’ favour last year in granting a 30-day injunction on further work at the site. In doing so, Justice Douglas Gray noted that if “it turns out that the project must be delayed for a year, so be it.

The policies enshrined in the Endangered Species Act, 2007, must prevail in these circumstances.”
In light of that ruling, it seems the defendants make a pretty good case that the latest lawsuit is an unfair
attack on their right to stand up for environmental concerns.

While the city and developer have a legitimate complaint over the costs of delay, the public’s ability to participate in key policy matters is equally important. In this instance, in fact, Gray also issued an injunction against protesters ordering them to end their occupation.

In doing so, he noted the danger of people taking the law into their own hands. But for the city and developer to now throw a lawsuit at them - particularly one claiming $5 million in damages - is taking that issue too far.

It’s interesting to note that the case comes from an area of the province that has another high-profile litigation matter ongoing involving the government and a citizen. In that instance, Wellington County has come under fire for helping cover the legal bills of the two plaintiffs, Coun.

Brad Whitcombe and chief administrative officer Scott Wilson. The pair are alleging local blogger and senior Bill Manderson libelled them, but the county’s assistance in the case has prompted concerns it’s circumventing laws that prevent governments from suing and thereby silencing their own citizens.

So we have two instances where municipal governments in the Guelph area are taking action against residents participating in public matters. Taken together, they’re troubling developments that make one wonder whether officials there have a problem with citizen
engagement.
- Glenn Kauth

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