Cantley, Quebec SLAPP couple finally have their day

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by Mark Burgess on August 12, 2010

Serge Galipeau and Christine Landry outside a Montreal courthouse

Serge Galipeau and Christine Landry outside a Montreal courthouse

On the edge of a farm in Cantley, what Serge Galipeau calls a “little corner of paradise,” an odd-looking device interrupts the backdrop of horses and hay. It’s beige and bland and looks like a shed except for the small propeller rigged a few feet above the roof, blowing in the wind. It’s called a JEROME and it measures toxic gas levels.

Just out of view, a kilometre beyond the neighbouring field and grazing horses, is the Cantley dry dump, closed in 2006 under government orders, following a litany of environmental infractions and complaints from the municipality and residents.

Serge Galipeau and Christine Landry were among the first to speak out. They were hit  with a $1.25-million defamation lawsuit for their troubles. After four years – a period that saw 4,300 hours committed to preparing their defence; $28,000 in legal fees; more than 600 news stories; a strain on their personal and professional lives, on their marriage, that they’ve barely had time to measure; and their contribution to a new law that will prevent others from facing a similar nightmare – Galipeau and Landry are off the hook.

They received the news Aug., 4 that Quebec Superior Court Judge Pierre Dallaire had deemed the dump owners’ suit against them a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

“We were happy, but in our minds it couldn’t have been otherwise,” Galipeau said of the ruling.

More than six weeks after their June 21 hearing, Galipeau and Landry were called into their lawyer’s office on Aug. 4 to hear Dallaire’s judgment. The nine-page document states that the $1.25 million in itself suggests the suit’s aim was to intimidate.

It also acknowledges that the couple’s complaints against the dump – the subject of the alleged defamation – were taken from existing documents considered scientific facts. The complaints resulted in the dump’s closing, which Dallaire said gave them reason to denounce the way it was operated.

All this led Dallaire to conclude that the lawsuit aimed to silence Galipeau and Landry. The burden of proof then shifted to the dump owners – Gilles Proulx and Denzil Thom – to prove their claim was not excessive and unreasonable, but they were nowhere to be found. Neither Thom nor Proulx appeared at the hearing. The former couldn’t be reached at press time.

“Freedom of expression in Quebec has been strengthened,” Galipeau said. “Freedom of expression in Quebec – you don’t touch that.”

‘LIKE AUTO-DEFENCE’

Landry and Galipeau stand in front of the JEROME, an instrument measuring the toxic gas emanating from the dump a kilometre away

Landry and Galipeau stand in front of the JEROME, an instrument measuring the toxic gas emanating from the dump a kilometre away

Galipeau and Landry, both 50, weren’t always so confident during their four-year struggle. They received a mise en demeure from Proulx and Thom in May 2006 in

response to a petition they had organized – which garnered 3,400 signatures – to close and clean the dump.

The mise demanded they appear in front of the media to deny previous claims that the dump emitted headache-inducing toxic gases and threatened ground water. Their lawyer said the request was ridiculous and recommended doing nothing. Three months later they were formally sued.

“It knocks you to the ground. It’s really like the sky is falling on you,” Galipeau said, admitting that the suit initially induced the “chilling effect.”

“We did exactly what the SLAPP suit wants. We put the muzzle on our mouths.”

It didn’t stay there for long. A month after the lawsuit, the Quebec government ordered the dump closed on Sept. 21, 2006. Even though this decision reflected Galipeau and Landry’s complaints, the lawsuit was not withdrawn. They mortgaged their house to acquire the liquid assets to fund their defence.

“For our own convictions, it was impossible to do (nothing),” Landry said. “You can either hide in your house or face the music. We wouldn’t transfer our problem to someone else.”

The couple soon found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Galipeau is a civil servant with public works; Landry is a real-estate agent. Both are mild-mannered and cautious – “timid by nature,” as Landry said – and they had moved to Cantley in 1992 to seek a simpler life.

Suddenly they were spearheading a fight out of which most had fled in the early stages. There were giving interviews, appearing before cameras, sometimes up to seven times in a single day.

Galipeau couldn’t say where the impetus to battle came from, except that there was a force pushing them, “like auto-defence.” Landry’s explanation was more principled.

“If we want to live in a good society,” she said, “we have to do something concrete for it.”

Still, the couple had no way of knowing how long their battle would drag on, and how bleak it would get.

‘STATE OF PANIC’

Residents were spurred to action in March 2005, when a fire at the dump that had been simmering for months became sufficiently dangerous for Sante Publique to recommend evacuating 165 people. Hydrogen sulfide was issuing from the site. The workers extinguishing the fire wore gas masks.

Cantley residents were spooked. They and their mayor, Michel Charbonneau, wanted the site closed. The Ministry of Environment imposed conditions on the dump that weren’t met, which led to the September 2006 closure.

But this wasn’t the end. An appeal went to the Quebec Administrative Tribunal, which heard testimony in July 2007. One of the witnesses was Guy Legault, another dump neighbour who was suing its owners, the province and the municipality for alleged health problems and property devaluation caused by the dump. A few hours after the tribunal heard the closing arguments July 12, an intruder entered Legault’s home around midnight, called him a “bastard” and broke his nose.

“It created a state of panic in Cantley,” Landry said.

Galipeau and Landry show some of the paperwork they assembled in the course of 4,300 hours spent preparing their defence.

Galipeau and Landry show some of the paperwork they assembled in the course of 4,300 hours spent preparing their defence.

Legault’s beating, though never connected to the dump, wasn’t the only incident of its kind. In May 2008, Galipeau and Landry’s gazebo was torn down. Galipeau had been at work and Landry had only left the house briefly to retrieve a cat from the vet. The police report from the incident said “the force of at least two or three people was necessary due to the weight.” Nothing was stolen.

“We didn’t feel safe after that,” Galipeau said.

Sometimes trucks would drive by their house slowly at night before peeling away. The couple purchased an expensive security system with cameras.

‘IT’S ALWAYS THERE’

Even without these incidents, the strain of their four-year battle impacted on their home and personal lives. Galipeau talked about a voice in his head, reminding him of the lawsuit’s weight, not allowing him to enjoy everyday things. They spent vacations building their defence. Home renovations that began optimistically six years ago remain unfinished. They considered themselves outside society, robbed of leisure, identified by a single purpose.

“When we go to sleep the first thing we think of is the lawsuit. In the morning, too. There isn’t a day in (48) months we didn’t think of it,” Galipeau said. “You have to work. You try to put those thoughts aside but it’s hard because it’s always there. It’s always there.”

They talked about the stresses normal couples face, most often caused by money. They already had these, they said, before the $1.25 million was added on. While most problems last a few weeks, theirs seemed endless.

One lawyer who testified before the commission to create Bill 9 said that in almost every case resembling theirs, the defendants go bankrupt and then divorce.

“It stifles intimacy. It stifles your personal life. It stifles any normal life,” Landry said.

An obvious question, then, is was it worth it?

“People always ask, if we could restart, would we?” Galipeau said. “In our case, we would do the same thing. But if you asked whether we would want to, the answer is no.”

What kept them going was the conviction that something good would come out of their struggle.

“Now (others) will be less afraid than we were,” Galipeau said.

But it remains to be seen what type of material compensation the couple will receive.

At the June 21 hearing, Dallaire acknowledged their “colossal efforts” and said the court was “not indifferent” to the reality they’ve lived while fighting the suit.

However, he suggested the amount they were seeking in damages – $625,000 – was excessive. He repeated this in the ruling, recommending they revise the amount prior to appearing before a judge sometime in the next four months.

“Otherwise, their own demand could itself seem abusive,” he wrote.

Galipeau and Landry disagree. They point to the stress of four years with the suit hanging over them and the health risk the dump posed. They also believe the law has to be dissuasive to be effective and that the amount of damages awarded will be the main deterrent for companies launching abusive suits.

“We have a responsibility to those who come after us,” Landry said.

‘BARRING AN ATOMIC EXPLOSION’

While Galipeau and Landry accumulated paperwork and disappointing court dates, the JEROME on their property continued to spin and record gas levels as the dump sat idle, compiling nothing but also not seeing any of the work the Ministry of Environment had ordered. The administrative tribunal had upheld the ruling to close the dump and the owners were fined $66,000 in 2008 after pleading guilty to infractions.

Cantley Dump Committee President Bob McClelland, who leads the group of residents pressuring the Ministry to take action on the site, said it holds more than a million tons of garbage, most of it uncovered. With the company that owns the dump, along with Proulx,  now bankrupt, McClelland said it’s up to the ministry to cover two hectares of garbage with a membrane and to monitor the gas levels and ground water.

“Obviously, the government doesn’t want to spend the money unless there’s a gun to their head making them do it. So now, barring an atomic explosion,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Ministry spokesperson for the Outaouais, Christian Perron, said they still want the owners to close the site according to environmental norms. He said the ministry’s lawyers are in the process of analyzing the “complicated legal questions” surrounding the clean-up, but

he couldn’t say how close they were to taking action.

Perron said the JEROME on the dump site is no longer working. The unit Galipeau and Landry have is, and they’re still taking the trouble to get the data it stores, tirelessly filing access to information requests to get it. They said the most recent batch, from last spring, still exceeded provincial norms on a few occasions.

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Cantley, Quebec SLAPP couple finally have their day | Lowdown Online | Quebec Lawyers
08.13.10 at 3:30 am

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