University of Ottawa Engaged in SLAPP-Suit Against Former Professor — Student Senators Speak Out

By: Hazel Gashoka and Joseph Hickey

The University of Ottawa, a publicly funded institution, is financing a private lawsuit against an outspoken university critic and blogger. The university tried to hide its sponsorship of this repressive action, but it was exposed through a Freedom of Information request and court action. On July 24, the judge assigned to the lawsuit withdrew himself after he was accused of conflict of interest due to links he had with the university and the lawfirm representing it.

This statement is based on the personal observations and experience of two former student members of the U of O Senate. Its purpose is to draw attention to this injustice taking place in the Ontario Superior Court and to call for donations to the Defendant’s Legal Defense Fund. Denis Rancourt is defending himself against a $1 million defamation lawsuit filed by Joanne St. Lewis and funded by the U of O. CLICK HERE to make a donation to Mr. Rancourt’s Legal Defense Fund.

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Joanne St. Lewis is a law professor at the University of Ottawa (U of O). Denis Rancourt is a former tenured physics professor of the university. Joanne St. Lewis is black; Denis Rancourt is white.

In 2008, a student association of the U of O issued a report warning that systemic racism existed on campus. In response, the university requested Ms. St. Lewis to produce an evaluation of the student association’s report. Her evaluation report discredited the student association’s report, and its content reflected instructions from U of O President, Allan Rock, and Vice-President Academic, Robert Major that were later exposed in e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information request submitted by the student association.

Mr. Rancourt then criticized Ms. St. Lewis over her evaluation report and her lack of independence from the university administration on the “U of O Watch” blog using a racially charged socio-political term popularized by Malcolm X. The title of Mr. Rancourt’s blog post was “Did Joanne St. Lewis Act as Allan Rock’s House Negro?”

In June 2011, Ms. St. Lewis filed a lawsuit against Mr. Rancourt, seeking $1 million in damages. She is represented by lawyer Richard Dearden, who is a partner at Gowlings LLP and one of Canada’s highest regarded media and defamation law experts. The U of O is paying all of Ms. St. Lewis’ legal fees, without limit. Mr. Rancourt has represented himself for over one year and will soon have exhausted all of his savings paying for Court fees and the opposing side’s lawyers’ fees on lost motions.

We are two former student representatives to the University of Ottawa Senate. We began following this case because it related to systemic racism, which is an ongoing problem on campus. In so doing, we became alarmed by the vast imbalance in legal resources between the Plaintiff and Defendant, and by the sway that the Plaintiff’s high-ranking lawyers have within the Courts.

We have seen judges of the Ontario Superior Court throw out the Defendant’s motion before it was heard and then refuse to allow permission to appeal; deny the Defendant the right to cross-examine the Plaintiff’s witness on an affidavit; reject the evidence of the Defendant’s expert witness because of a technicality; order the self-represented Defendant to pay fees to the Plaintiff when the issues of the Plaintiff’s motion were resolved before coming before the Court, and more, while siding with the Plaintiff in virtually every aspect. Most egregiously, the judge assigned to the case, Justice Robert Beaudoin, had to recuse himself after the Defendant submitted a newspaper article that showed he had connections to the university and the lawfirm representing it in the action.

Furthermore, as a student representative and member of the student media, one of us was deniend permission by the Court to present arguments in support of public observation of President, Allan Rock’s testimony regarding his decision to have the university fund the Plaintiff’s case, even though the Civil Liberties Association of the National Capital Region supported this initiative. When we announced our intention to bring the matter of diminished court transparency in this case to the university Senate, the university’s Vice-President of Governance cancelled the Senate’s meeting. Following this, the U of O denied an Access to Information request for the total amount of money spent on the Plaintiff’s legal fees.

What should be an open and constructive discussion about systemic racism and freedom of expression in our society has instead been turned into an unjust pursuit of a self-represented Defendant and outspoken critic of the University of Ottawa, due to the university’s decision to pay for the Plaintiff’s case. We are dismayed to have, with our own eyes, seen the Court measure out justice in proportion to the immense resources provided to an individual Plaintiff by a public and student-funded university, while using legalistic excuses to deny a fully transparent court process that any member of the university community may observe. Furthermore, the judge’s failure to disclose his connections to the university and the lawfirm representing it, and the manner in which he disparaged the Defendant as a result of his choice to raise these facts in court are deeply troubling and call for public action.

We believe this case to be a SLAPP-suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) intended to silence the Defendant and remove his participation as a critic of the University of Ottawa and its affairs. In our view, it is the latest step in a continuation of actions by the university to suppress the Defendant, reaching back to his highly politicized firing in 2009 and the preceeding disciplinary campaign against him. Donations to Mr. Rancourt’s legal defense fund are now needed to create a degree of balance in this case. Please CLICK HERE to visit the Defendant’s Legal Defense Fund page at the following link and make a donation.

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About the author(s):

  • Hazel Gashoka was the undergraduate student representative to U of O Senate for Social Sciences for the academic year 2011-2012.  She can be contacted here.
  • Joseph Hickey was the graduate student representative to U of O Senate for the Sciences section (Faculties of Science, Engineering, Health Sciences, and Medicine) for the academic years 2010-2011 and 2011-2012.  He can be emailed here.