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Kielburger mom's defamation lawsuit against Canadaland to go to trial

TORONTO — A defamation lawsuit filed by the mother of Marc and Craig Kielburger against the Canadaland podcast and its host will head to trial after an Ontario court rejected an application to have it thrown out, finding there is reason to believe th
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A defamation lawsuit filed by the mother of Marc and Craig Kielburger against the Canadaland podcast and its host will head to trial after an Ontario court rejected an application to have it thrown out, finding the claim has "substantial merit." Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right, appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building in Ottawa, Tuesday, July 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO — A defamation lawsuit filed by the mother of Marc and Craig Kielburger against the Canadaland podcast and its host will head to trial after an Ontario court rejected an application to have it thrown out, finding there is reason to believe the claim has "substantial merit."

Canadaland, its host Jesse Brown and others involved in the podcast had sought to have the lawsuit – which centres on an August 2021 episode about the Kielburger-founded WE Organization – dismissed under legislation meant to protect people from litigation intended to silence critics or public debate.

In a ruling released earlier this month, an Ontario Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit against Isabel Vincent, a reporter who was a guest on the episode, but ruled it should proceed against Brown and Canadaland. 

The ruling by Justice Edward Morgan found there is no reason to believe Brown and Canadaland have "any valid defence," noting the episode omitted key information in a way that undermined its objectivity and Brown showed a "callous disregard" for Theresa Kielburger's reputation in an affidavit.

At the heart of the dispute are comments made during an episode of the podcast that referenced a 1996 article about the WE Organization, then called Free the Children, according to the ruling.

The article was written by Vincent and contained an allegation about the handling of funds by Theresa Kielburger on behalf of the organization, which was not yet registered as a charity at the time.

The piece, published in the magazine Saturday Night, said $150,000 pledged by the Ontario Federation of Labour in 1995 had been deposited in the family's bank account.

Kielburger was interviewed ahead of publication and said she did not handle the money for Free the Children, nor did she or her family have access to the funds, but that wasn't included in the story, the court document says. As well, both the family's accountant and the OFL's president wrote to the magazine to refute the allegation and explain where the money was deposited after the article was published.

A defamation suit was filed with Craig Kielburger, not his mother, as the plaintiff. It ended in a settlement of close to $320,000 before going to trial.

In 2021, Canadaland revisited the issue, with the allegation "repeated as a theme" for the episode titled "The White Saviors," the ruling says. The information from the accountant and the OFL was not included, nor was Theresa Kielburger contacted for comment, the document says.

Brown and Canadaland never gave Kielburger a chance to refute the allegation that she deposited large sums of money into the family's personal bank account, the judge wrote. Brown told the court it did not seem relevant to ask her to respond given that she was not a party to the earlier lawsuit, the document says.

"Whether the plaintiff was a party to the earlier action, however, is obviously not the issue; the point is that a statement about the plaintiff has to be put to the plaintiff so that she can respond," the judge said.

The judge specifically pointed to Brown's sworn affidavit, in which the podcast host said: “(W)e did not seek comment (from the plaintiff) for the same reason why I didn't seek comment from my own mother; neither of them were involved."

The statement implies that, in Brown's eyes, "the plaintiff’s feelings are worth nothing," Morgan wrote.

"The fact that he was speaking about the plaintiff, and imposing personal pain on the plaintiff by repeating an allegation about her that he was aware had been seriously contested, if not established as entirely false, was seen by him as irrelevant," he said. 

"The cynicism of Brown’s explanation not only accentuates the defamatory sting of his words, but could be considered high handed and oppressive."

Kielburger's testimony about the emotional impact of the allegation, meanwhile, was "credible and impactful," the judge said.

In assessing whether Brown and Canadaland had done their due diligence in trying to verify the allegation, the judge noted there was no mention of the letters the accountant and the OFL's president wrote to Saturday Night.

"For Canadaland to have left this important point out of its story undermines any factual objectivity that the broadcast may claim," he said.

The evidence on the record supports a reasonable understanding that Canadaland and Brown were suggesting the 1996 allegation was true and that Kielburger had misappropriated donations, Morgan wrote in the ruling.

"It is far less clear that Vincent participated in these statements," the judge wrote. "Her words were carefully chosen and she did not comment on or summarize or repeat the (allegation) the way Brown did."

The WE Charity, which is part of the WE Organization, came under national scrutiny and lost many of its corporate sponsors in 2020 amid the controversy over the Liberal government's plans to have the youth organization run a multimillion-dollar student-volunteer program.

That year, WE Charity said it would close its Canadian operations, and that co-founders Marc and Craig Kielburger — who created the organization as children — would step down once the transition to a new board of governors was complete.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2024. 

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press


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