The legal tangle between the Vancouver mayor and the Non-Partisan Association’s board escalated Monday with Kennedy Stewart’s lawyer filing documents in B.C. Supreme Court in an attempt to dismiss a case alleging the mayor defamed the civic party’s directors.
Stewart’s court action is in response to the NPA’s civil claim accusing the mayor of defamation after he issued a news release Jan. 28, 2021 concerning “troubling reports of extremism within the board of the Non-Partisan Association.”
“Continuing media reports about the extreme views of Non-Partisan Association board members, including open support for hate groups, are deeply troubling and must be fully denounced and publicly condemned by NPA leaders,” the mayor said in the release at the time.
Neither Stewart nor his lawyer David F. Sutherland, QC, would comment on the court action when reached by telephone Tuesday. Sutherland, however, did confirm the mayor was paying his own legal bill and was grateful for the financial support of his family.
The action filed by Sutherland focuses on the Protection of Public Participation Act, a law approved by the B.C. government in 2019 to allow citizens to freely participate in debating matters of public interest without fear of facing unfair litigation and associated costs.
The Act is meant to safeguard citizens against strategic lawsuits against public participation — often referred to as SLAPPs — that limit or prevent the expression of individuals’ or groups’ points of view on matters of public interest.
The filing is in addition to a response Stewart made last year to the NPA's civil claim in which he denied the allegations.
'For political gain'
Lawyer Wes Mussio, who is an NPA board member and one of the plaintiffs in the claim against Stewart, said in an email Tuesday that “these sorts of anti-SLAPP applications are commonplace when a member holding public office slanders and defames his political opponents and is sued for the defamatory comments.”
Mussio noted the B.C. Court of Appeal recently released two decisions that “limit the utility of the anti-SLAPP legislation, thus allowing more of these sorts of defamatory lawsuits to proceed on the merits of the claim.”
“The individuals that were defamed by Mayor Kennedy Stewart plan to continue forward with the litigation as it is not appropriate for them to be characterized by the City of Vancouver mayor unfairly and in a manner that was clearly defamatory, all for political gain,” Mussio said.
“We plan to hold the mayor to account for his hate speech against us especially since he used City of Vancouver resources and staff to publish the false narrative. The application will definitely be vigorously defended.”
Other NPA board members — past and present — involved in the case are NPA president David Mawhinney, Christopher Wilson, David Pasin, Phyllis Tang, Federico Fuoco and Angelo Isidorou.
Mussio is the same lawyer who unsuccessfully acted on behalf of citizens who accused Coun. Michael Wiebe of being in conflict after he voted on a temporary patio program for restaurants and bars in 2020.
The mayor’s office issued the news release in question in January 2021 after articles appeared in The Tyee, Vancouver Sun and Province that revealed how some members of the NPA’s board had far-right political leanings.
A focal point of the reporting was on Wilson, a former bureau chief of the far-right Rebel Media founded by Ezra Levant, and Isidorou, who was featured in a photograph at a pro-Trump protest in 2017 in Vancouver.
Isidorou was wearing a red Make America Great Again baseball cap made popular by former U.S. president Donald Trump and flashing a hand gesture associated with “white power” extremists. The photograph was taken by photojournalist Jennifer Gauthier.
Isidorou announced his resignation the day after Stewart’s news release, telling Glacier Media at the time that he resigned because he planned to take legal action against The Tyee and Postmedia — which publishes the Sun and Province — for articles posted on their websites and in print.
“Was I a dumb 20-year-old to wear a MAGA hat and go and mess with people? Of course I was — I was a college kid,” he said at the time.
“But to insinuate and attribute that hand gesture, which was not defined as a white power hand gesture until much, much later, is a problem for me — especially as someone who is Greek, especially as someone who is Middle Eastern, especially as someone who blew the whistle on the Peoples’ Party of Canada, which I believe to be one of the most racist organizations, or federal parties in the country.”
Isidorou said he was “mimicking the meme of Trump” when he flashed the gesture.
“It’s a very serious thing to allege that putting my index finger on my thumb, which at the time only had to do with the fact that if you look at Trump, he has very strange gestures and mannerisms,” he said.
“And one of his many strange mannerisms is doing that — even Alec Baldwin [in his portrayal of Trump on Saturday Night Live] does that. So that’s all that was. It was mimicking Trump. It has nothing to do with a secret W and a hidden P. That wasn’t a thing until way later.”
No conflict of interest
Connected to the mayor’s court action Monday, and referred to in the documents, was lawyer Lisa Southern’s decision in June 2021 in response to a separate complaint made against Stewart related to a tweet he made that linked the January news release.
The complainant, who was not named, alleged Stewart was acting in his own interest and using the city’s letterhead and staff to do so, which constituted an abuse of office or a conflict of interest, or both.
Southern, who was recently appointed the city’s integrity commissioner, was hired on a short-term contract last year to conduct a review of the complaint. She ruled there was no conflict of interest, noting the mayor’s office operates independently from the city.
“The mayor’s office has political employees who, although city employees, uniquely report to Mayor Stewart and not to the city’s CAO,” Southern wrote. “The mayor’s office also has its own letterhead that is distinct from the city’s letterhead.”
The mayor issued a news release after that decision, describing the complaint as “a frivolous attempt to muzzle me and my office from standing up for the values of diversity, equality, equity and respect.”
In response to Southern’s decision, Mussio told Glacier Media in an email in June 2021 that “we plan to immediately discontinue the lawsuit against the City of Vancouver, but not the mayor; the NPA’s initial suit against the mayor included the City of Vancouver.
“Clearly, the City of Vancouver was not involved in the preparation of the defamatory press release and it is the mayor who personally is responsible for the defamatory comments,” Mussio said at the time. “It is he alone that needs to be held to account by the courts, not the City of Vancouver.”
Mussio emphasized Southern ruled on conflict, so [Southern’s] findings “have no bearing whatsoever on the merits of the defamatory lawsuit.”
The legal response from Stewart and his lawyer Monday comes during an election year, with the NPA a critic of the mayor since he narrowly beat the party’s then-mayoral candidate Ken Sim in the 2018 election.
Stewart referenced the October 2022 election in the news release in question from January 2021, saying “these extreme individuals [on the board] will choose who stands as candidates for the NPA in the next election, their election platform and from whom they accept donations.”
No date has been set to hear the case.