Sometimes What You Don’t Say Can Defame

Everything looked shipshape in the great debating chamber. Speaker Darryl Plecas, stern of face; arms – elbow to hands resting on broad chair arms; eyes flickering over rows of slowly filling chairs as members of the BC Legislature take their seats.

Slowly the chamber fills, conversations drop to murmurs and then silence, as Speaker Plecas calls for the prayer that marks each daily opening ceremony. It is 1:35 pm, Feb. 16, 2019, and all is as calm and bright as the Christmas carol that we stopped singing a few weeks back. And prayers have never been more needed.

There have been a few changes to the cast routinely on stage for these opening days of a new legislative session. A Deputy Clerk has replaced Craig James in the processional of the Speaker from his office to his throne of authority and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz has been replaced as the bearer of the golden mace.

Those two senior officials have been suspended – with pay – pending investigation of suspicions of careless control of public spending – or worse. Speaker Plecas has made public a list of his concerns; the RCMP is investigating; accountants are doing “deeper audits.”

James and Lenz were given a tight time frame to review the Plecas list. And, at this writing, they remain uncharged as the 41st Parliament gets underway with bucolic calm covering nasty clouds of suspicion critics cannot or dare not name.

Under the dome of Belleville Street, it is not unknown for exaggerated office gossip to be wrong and lead to injustice.

Back in 1964, a gentleman named George Ernest Pascoe Jones was Chairman of the Provincial Purchasing Commission. On Oct. 2, 1964, the government laid criminal charges alleging unlawful acceptance of benefits, and on the same day, an Order in Council was passed designed to relieve Jones from all his duties with the Commission “until further notice.”

Mr. Jones politely refused to vacate his office. A few months went by, and on Feb 25, 1965, the Provincial Secretary introduced a bill entitled An Act to Provide for the Retirement of George Ernest Pascoe Jones. It became law by assent a month later on March 26, 1965.

Three weeks before, on March 5th, Premier W.A.C. Bennett had delivered a “state of the province” speech to Social Credit Party faithful had avoided detailed reference to the long running Jones affair. All he had for his followers was: “I am not going to talk about the Jones boy. I could say a lot, but let me just assure you of this; the position that the government has taken is the right position.”

And George Ernest Pascoe Jones (Jeep from initials GEP to his friends) sued Premier Bennett for slander. He won after a series of trials and appeals, and appeals of appeals. Jeep’s lawyer throughout the ordeal was Tom Berger.

Readers interested in every twist and turn can find them at Supreme Court of Canada, Jones v Bennett (1969) S.C.R. 277.

There is a lesson to be learned and remembered in the reasoning of the Justices that sometimes what you imply but don’t say can be as libelous as what you enunciate. Assumptions made but not based on solid foundations can be dangerous and cruel.

I have no idea how long it will take for the charges, truths, denials, hints, innuendos to lurch their way through the current public spending scandal to the truth, but it can’t be soon enough. It took two years give or take a day or two for “the Jones boy” to clear the courts and win a modest settlement.

While we wait I’m wondering how government workers are finding the on the job office environment? It should be a great place to work, but it can’t be a happy one when you don’t know if the guy or gal on the next desk is a conscience-driven whistleblower or conspiracy clone.

Time for government – and I mean every proudly entitled Member of the Legislative Assembly plus all holding a supervisory position in public service – to get this ship righted before already shaky morale from scuppers to bridge, brings fresh disasters.

3 comments

  1. Amazing story about Jones. I wouldn’t have thought he had a case. The various appeals on it, however, suggest some members of the judiciary, at least, shared my doubt.

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