Alouette River group worried it may be silenced

Changes to Society Act could quell protests, but gov't. listening, says MLA

One of Maple Ridge’s river groups is taking notice of proposed changes to B.C.’s Society Act that could see environmental groups taken to court by someone claiming to be hurt by their actions.

Changes to Section 99 of the act would allow anyone to get a court order against a group for acting illegally or for activities that “are detrimental to the public interest.”

The West Coast Environmental Law Association says the court can make a wide range of orders against a society under that  section.

The changes would have the effect of silencing a group that’s trying to protect wildlife or the environment.

“The whole idea of putting it down in the act, so people can do that kind of thing, makes it an open invitation,” said Greta Borick-Cunningham, with the Alouette River Management Society.

She’s informed the society’s board of directors to see if they want to respond.

“I think it’s pretty cut and dried. It affects us and so many small organizations who can’t afford to be stuck in the courts?”

The Alouette River Management Society functions on a yearly budget of $240,000.

The government’s white paper that lays out the proposed changes adds that there’s a general expectation that societies “will act in the public interest.”

The law society, though, challenges that, saying that both the existing and proposed act says that a society just has to be created for a legal purpose.

Former ARMS president Geoff Clayton likened the proposed change to a “slap” letter a group or person can receive from a lawyer warning of legal consequences if they continue their actions. Slap refers to – strategic lawsuit against public participation, a lawsuit filed with the intent of silencing criticism.

“It’s used so many times to intimidate and you never know whether that person has deep enough pockets to do it. It certainly gets your attention when you know he has money.”

Clayton didn’t know if the government was deliberately targeting conservation or environmental groups with such changes.

“I just feel we’re being beaten up on all fronts. It’s just amazing. Democracy is unravelling.”

According to the Ministry of Finance, the Society Act outlines the rules that govern B.C.’s 27,000 societies. Societies are non-profit corporations organized primarily for social purposes, ranging from community-based organizations to large charities.

MLA Marc Dalton though pointed out that all comments will be considered as the government starts preparing its final rewrite of the act. “It certainly will be examined.

“It’s an important issue and all the comments will be considered.” But it could be next year when that happens, he added.

Dalton said he’s talked to Finance Minister Mike de Jong. “He’s assured me – this is a white paper. The government really does want to get it right.”

Ross Davies, with the Kanaka Education and Environmental Partners Society, says the society just runs the hatchery and educational programs. But what if KEEPS reports on someone harming the stream or encroaching on public land?

In other cities, developers have written slap letters to volunteer groups, silencing them, he added.

“It could potentially give a little traction to someone who’s got a bone to pick.” But if the society is acting properly, it should be OK.

“I could potentially see wasting everyone’s time.”

People have different definitions of what is in the public interest, Davies added.

That needs more definition in the new act, he added. He supports the law society response and the letter it and 50 other groups wrote to Finance Minister Mike de Jong on Oct. 15. “We’re watching with interest to see which way this goes,” Davies said.

The society wrote to de Jong saying the proposals, “have the potential to intimidate many societies.”

Allowing the public the option to seek a court order against a society, will “invite litigation.”