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Brad Blair, former Deputy Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, during a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Sept. 13, 2019.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Premier Doug Ford has persuaded an Ontario court to dismiss a libel lawsuit filed against him by the province’s former top police officer – a ruling that was rendered after Mr. Ford gave sworn evidence saying that the suit was like “a gag order on me.”

In 2019, former acting Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Brad Blair sued Mr. Ford for defamation as the two men engaged in a war of words over the leadership of the OPP, Canada’s second-largest police force.

The Premier publicly accused Mr. Blair of violating Ontario’s Police Services Act by alleging that the police commander had unlawfully leaked OPP documents. The police commander responded by suing, saying those remarks were defamatory.

The case stalled in the courts before the Premier followed up this fall with a bid to quash the lawsuit. He argued that Mr. Blair’s action was a SLAPP suit, which stands for strategic litigation against public participation. This allowed Mr. Ford to use an anti-SLAPP defence, where a defendant who feels his free speech is being constrained can ask a judge to toss out a lawsuit entirely.

Last month, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba ruled that the Premier’s right to speak out had indeed been impaired. The parties involved in the libel lawsuit have never highlighted the Dec. 15 ruling.

“There is significant public interest in hearing the defendant’s comments,” on the OPP controversy, reads the decision. It adds that “these are matters of considerable public interest that justify fulsome expression and debate in the public forum.”

The ruling concludes by saying that “the defamation action is dismissed.”

Mr. Blair is still pursuing other lawsuits, including a wrongful-dismissal case over the Ontario government’s decision to oust him from the OPP.

“The Premier’s sole focus right now is on the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gavin Tighe, Mr. Ford’s lawyer. In an e-mail, he added that aspects of the libel action are still before the courts because “Justice Belobaba is still considering the issue of the costs.”

Legal counsel acting for Mr. Blair filed an appeal on Dec. 30 asking that the libel suit be reinstated.

“Brad Blair did what he thought was the right thing to do,” lawyer Julian Falconer said in an e-mail. He added that the dismissal could have huge implications for his client. “And for his trouble – his undeniable courage – Brad faces professional and now financial ruin … what a sad sad day.”

The controversy started in mid-2018, when Mr. Ford was a newly elected Premier and Mr. Blair was an OPP deputy commissioner overseeing portfolios that included the police teams responsible for the Premier’s transportation and security.

The relationship grew rocky after the Progressive Conservative government elevated Mr. Blair to acting OPP commissioner after the post became vacant.

During a nearly three-hour deposition held on Oct. 28, 2020, Mr. Ford said he felt that the OPP had then operated like a “police state” or a “deep state” because the police officers assigned to guard and chauffeur him were going overboard in terms of taking notes and relaying them up their chain of command.

“For a democratically elected Premier to get recorded in the car without his knowledge to benefit the commissioner of the OPP. That is as scary as hell right now,” Mr. Ford said.

During the deposition, Mr. Ford said that for nearly two years he has not been free to speak out about his past problems with the OPP, for fear of fuelling Mr. Blair’s libel suit. “I have basically a gag order on me,” he said.

Previously released OPP records – which were made public because they were filed in court by Mr. Blair – provide other perspectives.

OPP officers logged an angry outburst that Mr. Ford directed at his police security teams. Mr. Blair later raised questions about the propriety of a $50,000 proposal for a van-retrofit that arrived to the OPP from the Premier’s office.

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Mr. Blair has always said that he never did anything improper. He contends that his reputation was ruined because he tried to safeguard the OPP from political interference.

In the fall of 2018, Mr. Blair applied to be the OPP’s permanent police chief. But a hiring panel led by Mr. Ford’s then-cabinet secretary chose Toronto Police Service Superintendent Ron Taverner – a friend of the Premier’s. The superintendent withdrew his application amid a public outcry.

Mr. Blair called the appointment “cronyism” in the winter of 2018-19, the period when he started launching public complaints and lawsuits. He contended that the Taverner appointment fit a broader pattern of the Premier’s Office attempting to politicize the police – an assertion that he tried to back up in the courts with copies of OPP documents, including the ones about the Premier’s outburst and the $50,000 van retrofit.

In televised interviews at that time, the Premier alleged that these disclosures proved only that Mr. Blair was flouting the province’s legislated police code of conduct. “Breaking the Police Act numerous times is disturbing to say the least,” Mr. Ford said.

On Dec. 12, 2018, the Premier received a legal opinion from the Ministry of the Attorney-General.

Circulated immediately after Mr. Blair’s initial disclosures, the opinion alleged that he had “clearly disclosed confidential information.” It went on to say that several Police Act charges could potentially be pursued – but they probably wouldn’t stick unless someone were first able to disprove Mr. Blair’s position that he was motivated “by a genuine desire to protect the integrity of the OPP.”

Mr. Blair was never charged. He sued Mr. Ford for libel in March, 2019. That same month, the Ontario government fired him from the OPP.

He has never worked as a police commander since, though he has tried. In an affidavit, Mr. Blair states that before he left the OPP, he talked to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki about jumping to the Mounties. She was initially receptive, he writes, but he never got the job. “I believe the loss of interest was directly related to Premier Ford’s public comments about me.”

In his December ruling, Justice Belobaba considered this history. But he decided that the libel lawsuit should be dismissed because it had the effect of fettering free speech.

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