Steven Schnoor made a film about mining companies in Guatemala and the impact on local indigenous people. Mr. Schnoor was called a liar who had fabricated the facts contained in the film by the Canadian ambassador, Kenneth Cook. Mr. Schnoor successfully sued for libel and slander as a result of the comments made by Mr. Cook and won damages for behaviour described as reckless, spiteful and oppressive.
Between 2006 and 2007, Steven Schnoor worked in Guatemala and Honduras, researching the relationship between Canadian-owned mining companies and local communities affected by their operations. At that time, he held an internship funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and administered by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).
During his internship, Schnoor became interested in Guatemalan indigenous communities affected by a concession that had been granted to the Canadian mining company Skye Resources (since purchased by another Canadian company, HudBay Minerals). The communities claim that the concession was granted over land in their ancestral territory without their consent.
In early 2007, Skye Resources obtained an eviction order against the communities. When the order was implemented, Mr. Schnoor was on site and shot live video footage of the events. This included the forced displacement of community members by the Guatemalan military, police, private security companies, and mining employees. Mining employees were depicted disassembling and burning the houses of community members. Mr. Schnoor's documentary film incorporated photographs of the evictions taken by a Mexican photojournalist. Mr. Schnoor posted the film online and, along with several journalistic reports, it served to challenge the mining company's claims that the evictions were both legal and peaceful.
In the months that followed, the Canadian ambassador to Guatemala, Kenneth Cook, was alleged to have said, in the course of at least two meetings with Canadian and Guatemalan civil society members, that Schnoor’s film lacked credibility and had been fabricated. Mr. Cook allegedly said that Mr. Schnoor had paid an individual to "perform" as an outraged community member protesting the evictions, and that the photographs used to depict the evictions were actually taken many years earlier during Guatemala’s internal conflict.
Upon learning of these statements, Mr. Schnoor immediately contacted the ambassador via email to inform him that they were untrue and to ask why he had made such statements and that he further refrain from making any similar defamatory comments. Mr. Schnoor then sent an open public letter to Peter MacKay, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as to James Lambert, the Director of the Latin America Bureau at the Department of Foreign Affairs, and to the ambassador himself. Two journalists who had also witnessed the forced evictions, as well as the Director of Rights Action, a Canadian/American NGO based in Toronto and Washington DC, also signed the letter, calling on the Government of Canada to provide a retraction, explanation, apology and inquiry regarding the ambassador’s defamatory comments.
Several months later, Mr. MacKay responded to Mr. Schnoor with a standard form letter. It failed to address any of his concerns. Mr. Schnoor then filed an Access to Information request with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala in an effort to obtain information related to the defamatory statements. One year later, Schnoor received a package of heavily censored documents in response to his information request.
In light of the government’s refusal to provide an apology or any explanation of the ambassador’s comments, in early 2009 Schnoor sued Mr. Cook and the Government of Canada. He alleged that the ambassador had maliciously uttered false and defamatory words calculated to damage his professional reputation as a scholar and documentary filmmaker. Further, Mr. Schnoor argued that given the mining-related tensions and violence in Guatemala, the ambassador’s defamatory comments put his physical security and potentially even his life at risk by portraying him as a deceptive anti-mining radical.
In June 2010, an Ontario court judge ruled that Ambassador Cook had indeed slandered Mr. Schnoor by making false statements about his documentary film. The judge stated that Mr. Cook had been reckless and should have known better. The Court ordered the Government of Canada to pay almost $10,000 in damages and costs to Mr. Schnoor. In fixing this amount, the judge stated that the Government’s silence in response to Schnoor’s request for an apology and explanation was spiteful and oppressive.
- 2006-2007: Schnoor works in Guatemala and Honduras, looking at the relationships between Canadian mining companies and local communities.
- Early 2007: Canadian mining company, Skye Resources, obtains an eviction order against indigenous communities in Guatemala. The eviction takes a violent turn and mining employees are depicted disassembling and burning houses belonging to the community memvers. Schnoor films a documentary, that he then posts online, documenting these events.
- 2007: Kenneth Cook, the Canadian ambassador to Guatemala, allegedly defames Scnoor in two different meetings with Canadian and Guatemalan civil society members. He claims that the movie was fabricated and lacked credibility.
- 2007: Schnoor contacts the ambassador and asks for the reasons behind the ambassador's defamatory statements. He also sends an open public letter to the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay, to the Director of the Latin America Bureau, James Lambert, and to the ambassado himself. This letter called for a retraction, explanation, apology and inquiry concerning the ambassador's comments.
- 2007: MacKay responds to Schnoor with a letter that fails to address any of his concerns. Schnoor then decides to file an Access to Information request, in order to obtain information concerning the defamatory statements.
- 2008: Schnoor receives a package of heavily censored documents in response to his request.
- Early 2009: In light of the government's refusal to provide either apology or explanation, Schnoor files a claim before the Ontario superior court of Justice against both the ambassador and the Government of Canada.
- June 2010: an Ontario judge ruled that Mr. Cook had in fact slandered Schnoor, making false statements about his film. Moreover, the court ordered the Government of Canada to pay Schnoor about $10,000, depicting the Government's silence in response to Schnoor's requests as spiteful and oppressive.
Role or Position
Steven Schnoor is a documentary filmmaker, researcher and a PhD candidate at York University. Since 2008 he has taught at the Department of Communications Studies at Concordia University in Montreal.
Implications and Consequences
- Free Speech: Individuals who criticize Canadian corporations operating in developing countries may risk attracting repressive responses from Canadian government officials that attempt to discourage their freedom of expression.
- Free Speech: A civil court claim for defamation can be an effective means of defending the freedom of expression of individuals who criticize the Canadian government or Canadian corporations.
- Democracy: If government officials are reckless as to the truth of their statements regarding critics, they can be held responsible in Canadian courts for defamation – even if the offense occurred outside of Canada.
Civil Society Organizations: Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada; Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (Canadian NGO); Rights Action (Canadian/American NGO).