TORONTO — An Ontario court has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by a former high-ranking provincial police officer against Premier Doug Ford in the wake of the controversial appointment of a new commissioner.
Former OPP deputy commission Brad Blair launched a $5-million suit in 2019, alleging the premier smeared his reputation for political gain by saying the officer had violated the Police Services Act.
Blair had asked the courts to force the provincial ombudsman to investigate the appointment of Ron Taverner, a long-time friend of the premier, as OPP commissioner, raising concerns about political interference.
At the time, Blair served as interim commissioner and had been in the running for the permanent position.
Ford's lawyers argued the premier's statements on the matter were fair comment, and called for the legal action to be thrown out under anti-SLAPP legislation.
In a ruling released last month, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba found the suit isn't exactly a SLAPP -- strategic litigation against public participation -- case, which typically refers to powerful entities seeking to silence more vulnerable opponents.
But the judge noted the analysis applies because Ford's comments related to a matter of public interest, and ruled to dismiss the claim.
Once the issue of public interest is resolved, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the action has substantial merit, that there are grounds to believe the defendant has no valid defence, and that the harm suffered is serious enough to outweigh the public interest in protecting the defendant's expression, the ruling said.
Belobaba said Blair failed to prove that Ford's defence of fair comment has no real prospect of success.
While that alone would suffice to throw out the suit, the judge said he also found there was no evidence that Blair suffered any personal or economic harm as a result of Ford's comments.
"There is nothing in the record that supports the plaintiff’s bald assertions of emotional or psychological harm. There is also no evidence of any resulting financial or economic harm," or that he was disciplined in any way over Ford's allegations, the judge wrote.
"The claim of a lost job opportunity because of the defendant’s (Police Services Act) allegations is also without credible support in the evidence."
Blair, who was dismissed from the OPP in March 2019, also filed a $15-million lawsuit alleging wrongful dismissal, and that case is expected to proceed.
Taverner, a former Toronto police superintendent, is a family friend of Ford and initially did not meet the criteria listed for the commissioner position. The government admitted it lowered the requirements to attract a wider pool of candidates.
He delayed the appointment while an integrity commissioner investigated the issue, but then withdrew altogether in early 2019.
Shortly afterwards, the province appointed Thomas Carrique, then the deputy chief for York Regional Police, as OPP commissioner.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press