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Sayward mayor sues former CAO for defamation

Suit says mayor ‘suffered grave harm’ due to comments made following alleged sexual harassment
Sayward Village Council was made up of (from left) Sue Poulsen, Kohen Gilkin, Mayor Mark Baker, Scott Burchett and Tom Tinsley. Gilkin and Tinsley have both resigned from council. (Photo courtesy Village of Sayward)

Sayward Mayor Mark Baker has filed a civil suit for defamation against former CAO John France.

The suit, a 22-page document filed with the Supreme Court of B.C. in Duncan on May 3 alleges defamation by France with remarks about Baker posted to the Sayward Facebook Rant and Rave page, relating to a previous alleged sexual harassment complaint against Baker.

However, the suit adds, an independent firm concluded that the previous complaint “did not raise issues serious enough to justify spending large sums of public money on a formal investigation,” the suit reads.

The suit says that France began making defamatory posts on Facebook about Baker in August, 2023 and continued until March of this year.

“At the time of filing this proceeding, (France) continues to refuse to resile from his false and defamatory accusations against (Baker) and has not apologized publicly or privately for them,” the suit says.

It adds that “as a direct result of the defamatory posts … (Baker) has suffered grave harm to his reputation, both in the Sayward Valley and also more broadly in the SRD. Several constituents in Sayward and elsewhere have made online posts accusing the plaintiff of engaging in criminal misconduct and suggesting he should be arrested and removed from office.”

In February, 2023, Baker and two fellow councillors, Scott Burchett and then-councillor Kohen Gilkin attended a municipal conference in Nanaimo. The three stayed in a Nanaimo hotel, and Burchett’s girlfriend Talia Clark arrived on the second night of the conference to spend time with Burchett.

Shortly after the conference, Clark filed a complaint with the village of Sayward, alleging that Baker had “looked Ms. Clark up and down early in the morning in the lobby of the Nanaimo hotel after Mr. Burchett mentioned that he had been ‘up all night,’” and had “given councillor Gilken advice ‘in regards to women’ and made a ‘number of sexual comments’ while at the Nanaimo hotel restaurant or bar.”

Other alleged actions included Baker putting his hand on Clark’s arm during a previous event, and making other “inappropriate remarks” during the Nanaimo event.

“Notably, Ms. Clark does not allege that the mayor touched her in a sexual manner, made any sexual comments to or about her, asked her for sexual favours, asked her out or otherwise made any advances of a sexual or intimate nature,” the suit says. “The plaintiff (Baker) says that Ms. Clark does not live in the Village of Sayward and had no reason to attend council meetings, other than to cook up false allegations against the plaintiff at Mr. Burchett’s urging.”

Baker also denied looking Clark up and down for any reason, and that the complaints were “predicated on manufactured offence on the part of Ms. Clark and Mr. Burchett.”

The village CAO Keir Gervais hired the consultant firm to investigate the allegations.

JB Consultants, after interviewing those involved, concluded that the allegations “did not raise issues serious enough to justify spending large sums of public money on a formal investigation,” and recommended informal mediation for Baker, Burchett and Clark.

After the mediation, Baker wrote an apology letter to Clark, saying “I’m sorry to hear that you feel disrespected by my sense of humor and/or actions. It was not, nor has it every been my intention to offend you or anyone else. I often use humour to lighten the atmosphere in any given situation … I will always value constructive feedback as well as open honest communication and want to ensure that my responses are respectful and considerate of everyone’s feelings.”

The suit says that after the mediation, Burchett was “angry and made vitriolic and abusive comments towards (Baker)” and Clark “reported the innocuous conduct reported in her complaint to the RCMP. The RCMP spoke with the plaintiff and concluded that the complaint did not merit further investigation.”

After these events, France, the defendant in the defamation suit, posted multiple times to the local Facebook page, referring to alleged “sexual harassment behaviour of the mayor.”

Baker sent France a cease and desist letter, to which France responded by posting on Facebook, calling it a “SLAPP” letter. France continued posting until March, 2024.

A SLAPP letter, according to the University of Calgary, is a strategic lawsuit against public participation, which is designed to “force political opponents into a legal battle and intimidate them away from participation in political dialogue.” B.C. has enacted legislation against it.

Baker’s suit says that France’s words would make people believe Baker was “a nasty person who is guilty of sexually harassing several different women and has a propensity to abuse women sexually.” As well, that he is “a powerful person trying to hide his misconduct by silencing a legitimate critic.”

Baker is seeking an injunction against France making more comments, as well as general, aggravated, and punitive damages.

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Marc Kitteringham

About the Author: Marc Kitteringham

I joined Black press in early 2020, writing about the environment, housing, local government and more.
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