A Thunder Bay law professor says mayors in the northwest are putting corporate interests ahead of their communities by opposing a bill that's under debate in the legislature.

Lakehead law professor Jason MacLean moonlights as a newspaper columnist.

He said a recent piece has attracted attention from both sides of the debate over what's known as Anti-SLAPP legislation. 

The private member's bill would enhance courts' powers to throw out certain lawsuits, known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which are seen to discourage public debate.

MacLean's column supported it, but not everyone agrees.

"One thing we're really good at in Ontario is duplicating legislation,” said Kenora Mayor David Canfield, who's also the president of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association.

“We're saying it's already covered under law. And we don't think it's necessary."

Canfield said Bill 83 would allow environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, to attack forestry companies, such as Resolute, without fear of reprisal.

"If these attacks keep coming out, it's going to have a detrimental effect on communities, and their ability to rebuild this very sustainable industry.”

Letter to premier

But MacLean said that's not likely, as any truly defamatory attack would probably still result in a lawsuit.

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Jason MacLean, a Thunder Bay law professor, is criticizing some northern mayors for their opposition to a bill currently under debate in the legislature. (Adam Burns/CBC)

"If in fact, on the merits of the case, Greenpeace has defamed Resolute, then the lawsuit will go ahead."

MacLean said only truly frivolous suits would be thrown out under the proposed law.

MacLean added he hopes Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs will come out in support of Bill 83, and even bring a motion before council doing just that.

In the meantime, MacLean said he is disheartened by the northern mayors' letter to the premier.

“I really think the mayors are misunderstanding who their constituents are. Their constituents are not the industries and the industry representatives who are promising to bring jobs into their towns — at least not exclusively,” he said.

“Northern families want a healthy environment, as well as a vibrant economy. And this bill is an important means of bringing that about.”

He said governments “at all levels really should be doing more to encourage and enhance opportunities for people to get involved and participate in public decision making — not putting up obstacles."

‘Attacking communities’

Canfield said the northern mayors are “completely and 100 per cent behind the ability to speak freely. That's not what we're opposed to at all. As municipal representatives, we have to do that on a daily basis."

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Kenora Mayor Dave Canfield says Bill 83 would allow environmental groups to attack forestry companies without fear of reprisal. (Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce)

He pointed out that for “a lot of these organizations, if you don't have a war, you don't have a job."

Canfield said Ontario has “the highest [forestry] standards in the world, and yet industry continues to get attacked.”

"Even though they're attacking industry, they're actually attacking communities, because it's the communities that benefit from the industry,” he said.

"At the end of the day, though, they convince customers not to buy products from some of these companies, which inevitably can shut mills down and put our people out of work."

MacLean said he hopes Bill 83 will go through, “but realistically [he doesn't] think the bill is going to pass."