Opening arguments in the defamation trial between Carin Bondar and Barry Neufeld were heard in Chilliwack Law Courts Tuesday (Nov. 14).
The civil lawsuit alleges former school trustee Neufeld defamed Bondar, a school trustee, when he called her a “striptease artist” during an internet talk show in September 2022 broadcast by Action4Canada called the Empower Hour.
“This statement was false, injurious and not defensible as fair comment,” said Bondar’s lawyer, Susanna Quail, in her opening statements.
It was day one of a six-day trial in B.C. Supreme Court in Chilliwack presided over by Justice Michael Stephens.
“Dr. Bondar is not a striptease artist,” Quail said. “She is an accomplished science communicator and educator and a school trustee.
“The defendant asserts that Dr. Bondar had explicit and highly sexualized public performances widely famed by her on a YouTube channel over a number of years.
“And we say the evidence will show that that’s not true,” the lawyer said.
The science education video in which Bondar appears to be swinging on a wrecking ball while scantily clad was not “sexually charged entertainment,” Quail argued.
The video about evolution and natural selection was created by Bondar in 2014. It was a parody of the pop hit Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus, and Bondar’s video was called “Organisms do Evolve.”
In the video, Bondar is wearing what the pop superstar wore – a white tank top, underwear and boots. The video was filmed almost shot for shot in similar fashion, and for a brief moment on-screen, the plaintiff appeared nude in several frames.
Bondar’s PhD dissertation focused on animal reproduction and led to her ongoing interest in popular science education.
“While her work often draws on human sexual behaviour, it’s not actually about human sexuality,” Quail told the court.
“It’s about animal biology.” And it often uses pop culture to “engage viewers,” she said.
The online content that Bondar has produced “is mildly titillating in a silly way,” Quail said.
Bondar’s work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, National Geographic, Scientific American and Animal One.
Quail said the court would determine if the striptease comment could be considered “fair comment” and that would likely form the “real test of where this case lies.”
Bondar is alleging that “Mr. Neufeld defamed her by this comment and seeks damages,” the lawyer said, adding that evidence would show general and aggravated damages were appropriate.
Quail said Neufeld “has not only refused to retract or apologize for the remark, but repeated it and included it in his fundraising materials,” which she said was “outrageous and malicious” in that it increased the plaintiff’s mental distress.
In terms of the legal framework, three elements have to be established in a claim of defamation under the law, Quail said.
One of them focuses on injury to someone’s reputation, in that they “tend to lower the plaintiff’s reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person.”
Bondar’s lawyer said that all three would be “well-established.”
Neufeld has pleaded “justification,” among three defences, but Quail said the evidence will show “he knew full well” that Bondar is not a striptease artist.
“This is simply not who Dr. Bondar is or what she has achieved,” the lawyer said.
The three defences Neufeld filed in connection with the suit were: justification, fair comment and qualified privilege.
“None of these defences can succeed,” Quail said.
She told the court Bondar would testify about “how hurtful and frustrating” it was to have her reputation as an accomplished science educator “replaced with an entirely fictional narrative that she is an underdog striptease artist, scrabbling her way to public office,” Quail said.
In conclusion, Quail said the libel case is “not about balancing the public interest” and it isn’t about “a political contest” over SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) 123.
“This case is only about defamation,” she said.
“This case isn’t about Mr. Neufeld’s personal political agenda. This trial is not a social movement showdown, it’s not about culture wars.
“This is actually a very straightforward application of the law of defamation which exists to protect reputations from exactly the kind of harm Mr. Neufeld has inflicted and continues to do so.”
Neufeld’s lawyer, Paul Jaffe, began his cross examination Tuesday, and it continued Wednesday. The trial is expected to run until at least Tuesday.