Cartoon by Ingrid Rice.

BUCHOLTZ: Libel lawsuit a reminder of Surrey’s past

Column by Frank Bucholtz

Bruce Ralston, the longtime Surrey-Whalley MLA who is minister of jobs, trade and technology in the new NDP government, is facing a lawsuit for defamation from former BC Liberal leader/NDP cabinet minister Gordon Wilson.

Wilson was fired from his job as the provincial LNG advocate on Aug. 1, something a new government has every right to do. However, Ralston, Premier John Horgan and NDP MP Rachel Blaney all stated afterwards that he did little or nothing to earn his $150,000 annual salary. Ralston said: “It’s very difficult to see that he accomplished anything other than to cash his cheques,” while Horgan said Wilson produced “no briefings, no reports, no memoranda.” Blaney, the MP representing Wilson’s hometown of Powell River, piled on.

Unfortunately for them, a provincial government website shows that Wilson had filed 180 pages of reports, memos and updates during his first 15 months on the job.

All three have apologized, but Wilson maintains the damage to his reputation. In a statement of claim filed on Aug.17, he is asking for $5 million.

Ralston, who served on Surrey council during the 1980s and 1990s, is a longtime lawyer who is familiar with defamation lawsuits. In fact, he initiated one against a fellow councillor.

Ralston was a member of the Surrey Civic Electors slate, which held four seats after the 1987 civic election.

SCE was an arm of the provincial New Democrats, and other councillors – including some with NDP memberships – were unhappy the provincial party was playing such a direct role in municipal politics. Current Coun. Judy Villeneuve, now a member of the Surrey First slate which holds all nine council seats, was first elected as an SCE councillor.

One of those was longtime councillor Bill Fomich, an advocate for unions and working people. The lawsuit arose out of remarks Fomich made at a council meeting about Ralston. In a heated exchange over a land-use proposal, Fomich called him a “sick son of a bitch.” Fomich apologized, but he then repeated the remarks to reporters.

The case eventually wound up in B.C. Supreme Court.

In a 1992 judgment, Justice J.E. Spencer decided the words “son of a bitch” are not defamatory, that by themselves they “are not capable of defamatory meaning. They are peculiar, in that they take their meaning either from the tone of voice used or from whatever adjective accompanies them. They are a translucent vessel waiting to be filled with colour by their immediate qualifier.”

The qualifier in this case was “sick,” and that word was a problem, Spencer ruled. He wrote “the statement of claim relies upon (the word sick’s) ordinary meanings, that the plaintiff was either mentally ill, unstable or unbalanced, that he was perverted, unwholesome or morally corrupt, or that he was unfit to hold public office or to practise his profession.”

Spencer decided that by repeating that word after a council meeting, Fomich had defamed Ralston – “pouring a libelous colour into the empty words ‘son of a bitch.’”

The eventual judgment gave Ralston a modest sum, which he donated to charity.

It will be interesting to see how far the Wilson lawsuit proceeds.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for the Now-Leader and he can be reached by email at frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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