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Daniel D. Veniez Headshot

Are Canadian Politics Getting as Ugly as U.S. Politics?

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Last year I ran for public office for the first time. About two weeks before the end of the campaign, election workers for backbench MP John Weston, the Conservative incumbent, distributed a video and emails containing vicious lies about me. They focused on my ownership and tenure as president and CEO of Skeena Cellulose Inc., a large and shutdown forest products-company that my partner George S. Petty and I bought out of bankruptcy protection.

I asked Weston for an apology. It took an action that I initiated in the Supreme Court of British Columbia -- and a full year -- to finally get one last week.

Think back for a moment at the dying days of the last general election campaign. News had somehow mysteriously surfaced that Jack Layton had visited a massage parlor in his Toronto neighborhood many years before which provided "value added services." That was clearly work of political operators who wanted to stop the "Orange Crush." It was a desperate and disgusting move. We don't know who was behind that, but all the hallmarks of a political hatchet job were in evidence. Hurting Layton's wife, kids and grandchildren were obviously not a consideration; neither were the facts. Insinuation and innuendo are all that matter to plant the seeds of doubt in people's minds.

I am appalled by our rapid descent into the anesthetizing hollowness of U.S.-style politics. Ideas matter, and so do character, experience, insight and knowledge. Idealist that I am, I would like to think still think that most people agree.

But the evidence that they do sure is tough to come by these days. A troubling number of us never even make it to a polling station during election time. That is something that we can do something about. We can invest a half-hour of our time during municipal, provincial and federal elections and vote for the candidate of our choice. That's the very least we can do as citizens.

Although I dropped the civil case against Weston, I have decided to pursue the matter with Elections Canada. We filed two complaints at the same time we launched our defamation action. We did so under Section 91 of the Elections Act, which essentially says that it is against the law to knowingly make a false statement regarding the character or conduct of a candidate.

Significantly, a charge has never been laid by Elections Canada under Section 91, and we have not heard back from the commissioner of elections about the status of our complaint.

Perhaps Section 91 would have more teeth and do some good if Parliament would amend the legislation by replacing "knowingly" -- which is almost impossible to prove -- to "recklessly," and making it a strict liability offense. That seemingly minor albeit sensible change to the wording of the Elections Act would dramatically change the nature of political campaigns.

Imagine that! People would actually have to have a legally provable fact before slinging mud and trashing someone's reputation. The mere fact that I am suggesting changes to the law underscores how low our politics have descended. What a novel concept that would be!

It is high time we resolve to eradicate the poisonous toxicity from our political system. If we don't, it will only get worse. And if it does, good people will refuse to stand for public office. Goodness knows, we need all the experienced, honest and quality people we can get.

We clearly cannot rely on the politicians themselves, or the professional class of paid and volunteer operators to do it. So perhaps we should look to the law to protect citizens from those whose very nature and culture is to debase and demean. Since politicians will not repudiate such corrosive behavior, perhaps the judiciary and journalistic community might.

In the "Grant v. Torstar " case, the Supreme Court of Canada noted that while someone participating in public life is certainly not immune to criticism, it is not "open season" on them either. The legal issue is just where is that line? The body of case law on this question is very much "under construction." Another obstacle is the high cost for litigants in our civil justice system. Unless you have the means to take on those who choose to spread lies, you can forget any kind of justice.

For some politicians, smearing an opponent and telling lies is just another day at the office. Until the Canadian public declares that this type of cheap and gutter politics is unworthy of those that offer to stand for office, it will continue.