Ontario's top court heard an appeal Friday over allegedly defamatory comments made by Premier Doug Ford, which lawyers for previous OPP deputy commissioner Brad Blair argued were made to deflect criticism from the premier.
The appeal was heard nine months after a lower court dismissed a $5 million lawsuit filed by Blair in 2019 in which he alleged the premier smeared his reputation for political gain by saying Blair had violated the Police Services Act.
"This case is about resolving the question of when it is appropriate to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against the most powerful politician in the province," lawyer Julian Falconer, representing Blair, told the Ontario Court of Appeal.
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. Taverner later withdrew his name from consideration for the position, citing the controversy surrounding his appointment.
Falconer characterized Blair as a "whistleblower," and pointed out that Blair remains out of a job today while Ford remains the premier. He characterized Blair's fight against Ford as one of David versus Goliath, arguing Ford's comments that Blair broke the law would have been considered fact by virtue of his position as premier.
Ford's lawyers maintained the premier's statements on the matter were fair comment.
"A conviction is a fact," said lawyer Gavin Tighe, representing Ford. "An opinion that someone's conduct broke the law is just that — an opinion."
Tighe rejected the characterization of Blair as a "David," saying: "The only thing Mr. Blair has in common with David is that he threw the first rock," having written to the ombudsman.
Both sides have agreed to a dollar figure of $30,000, either for the appeal or the cross-claim of costs.
The court has reserved its decision for a later date.
Last December, 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.
Blair also filed a $15-million lawsuit alleging wrongful dismissal.