A dispute described by Justice Robert Punnett as arising out of “divisive band politics and a conflict over who speaks for the Haisla” ended last Thursday with the BC Supreme Court judge’s decision in a libel law suit.
The law suit was launched in late October 2007 by then Haisla chief councillor Steve Wilson and council members Margaret Grant, Rod Bolton, Kevin Stewart, Ken Hall, Ellis Ross, Keith Nyce, Alex Grant Sr., Godfrey Grant Jr., and Henry Amos Sr. – the plaintiffs.
Named as defendants in the suit were Morris Amos, Allan Williams Sr., Jennifer Grant Howard, Harvey Grant Sr., Sandra Robinson, Wendy Bolton and Janice Switlo, a non-practising lawyer.
Punnett noted the action revolved around 14 “publications”, 12 of which were alleged to be libelous and two slanderous.
“Generally, the impugned words raise allegations of conflict of interest, misrepresentation, fraud, deceit, dishonesty, incompetence, corruption, breach of trust and treason, and relate to the conduct of the plaintiff council members and the band council itself,” Punnett explained in the introduction to his 148-page judgement.
After an exhaustive recounting of events dating back as far as August 2006 that led up to the law suit, Punnett got down to the meat of the matter.
On whether defamation had occurred, he noted, “Generally, expression that tends to lower a person’s reputation in the estimation of ordinary, reasonable members of society generally, or to expose a person to hatred, contempt or ridicule is defamatory.”
And found all 14 publications contained words that were defamatory.
As Steve Wilson was “the primary target” he was awarded $20,000 general damages against Switlo, Morris Amos, Allan Williams Sr. and Harvey Grant Sr.
Margaret Grant and Kevin Stewart were awarded $10,000, and the remaining plaintiffs $7,000 against the same four individuals.
Each of the plaintiffs was awarded $2,000 against Jennifer Grant Howard.
The libel claims against Sandra Robinson and Wendy Bolton were dismissed.
Referring to an earlier findings that Switlo, Amos and Williams “were actuated by express malice”, Punnett awarded each plaintiff aggravated damages of $2,000 against each of the trio.
Amos was also assessed punitive damages of $1,000 to each of the 10 plaintiffs.
Punnett also issued an injunction against Switlo and Amos prohibiting them from “making any defamatory statements concerning the plaintiffs.”
Following the release of the judgment, the Haisla Nation council issued a statement which said the plaintiffs were “delighted” by the outcome.
“The over-riding purpose of this lawsuit by the council members (and former council members) was vindication of their reputations,” it explained.
The statement continued, “It is now indisputable and a matter of public record that the hurtful accusations made against them in a series of libels and slanders in 2007-2009 are untrue.”