Canada: A Primer On Defamation

Last Updated: August 6 2018
Article by Sarah R. Levine

Many people are likely familiar with terms like defamation, libel, or slander from hearing them in the media or on television. But few people are aware of the nuanced differences between these terms. More importantly from a legal perspective if you find yourself in a situation where you feel your reputation has been harmed, you need to understand what a successful lawsuit for defamation really entails.

What is defamation?

In Alberta, we have legislation called the Defamation Act (the "Act") which sets out the scope of defamatory statements, the possible damages an injured party can recover, and the potential defences or mitigating factors which a party that made a defamatory statement can raise.

Defamation is the broad term for a communication made about an individual that harms their reputation. Libel and slander are both types of defamation. Libel is a false defamatory statement that is made in writing, while slander is a false defamatory statement that is communicated orally.

A statement is defamatory if it would cause an individual who reads or hears it to think less of the person about which the defamatory statement was made. Implicit in this is the requirement that the defamatory communication must be made to other people, not just to the person it is about. If you feel that your reputation has been injured, you have the option of commencing an action against the maker of the defamatory statement, but it is critical to understand at the outset what is needed to convince a court that a harmful defamatory statement has been made, and to assess whether it is worth the time and cost of pursuing such a claim.

Essential elements of a defamation action

To begin, it is important to appreciate that defamation is very difficult to successfully prove. The law protects parties from injurious remarks made about their, or their business', reputation, but it will not protect parties from personal insult made directly to them that simply causes them upset. The courts must balance competing interests in determining whether or not to make a finding that a statement is defamatory. In particular, a court must balance the interests of the party who claims to have been defamed, with the rights of the party that made the statement to exercise free speech.

In making a case for defamation, the person claiming damages must also be able to establish and quantify the damages they say they have suffered. In the case of libel, a court may award general damages (that is, damages not tied to a quantified and specific loss) for loss of reputation if it is satisfied that defamation has occurred. Certain factors will come into play in determining the size of the general damages award. These include the extent to which the defamatory statement was published, and the effect this had on the defamed party's reputation. If it can be established that earnings or profits were lost as a result of the defamatory statement, the court may award special or pecuniary damages (that is, damages specific to the loss suffered) flowing from the defamatory statement as well.

In the case of slander, it is only actionable (that is, capable of being the subject of a lawsuit) if the party can prove a pecuniary loss that justifies an award of special damages. However, there are some exceptions to the normal requirement of needing to prove a material or financial loss in order to be successfully awarded damages for slander. If the defamatory statement involves the injured party publicly being accused of a crime, of having a contagious disease, of being an adulterer, or involves harmful remarks about one's occupation, then it is unnecessary to establish a financial loss resulting from the slanderous remark in order for it to be actionable.

Things to keep in mind if commencing an action for defamation

If you feel that you have suffered reputational harm as a result of a defamatory statement, then there are some basic procedural things to keep in mind.

First and foremost is the statutory limitation period in the Province that governs the timeline within which one can commence an action for an injury suffered. In Alberta, our Limitations Act provides parties with two years from the date on which they first knew or ought to have known an injury had occurred to commence an action. In this case, one would have to sue within two years from the date the defamatory statement was made or published.

Another critical consideration is whether or not it is worth the time and great expense involved in pursuing an action for defamation. Unless there has been serious financial hardship suffered as a result of harm to one's reputation, it is likely not worth pursuing.

Defences to a defamation lawsuit

If you find yourself the defendant in a defamation lawsuit, or if you are trying to assess the potential success of your own defamation action, it is helpful to be aware of the possible defences that can be raised. The most commonly raised defences are briefly canvassed below.

  • Justification/Truth:
    While a defamatory statement may have caused harm to one's reputation, if it is true, then that is a complete defence against a defamation allegation.
  • Fair comment:
    Similarly, individuals have the right to comment freely about issues of public interest. It would be unfair and against the public interest to restrict parties, such as journalists, from being able to raise points about matters in the public interest to their readership. The defence of free or fair comment can be raised so long as the party making the allegedly defamatory statement is clear that the comment is the author's opinion, is not made with malice, and is premised on facts that can either be proven or are stated or otherwise known to the audience.
  • Absolute & qualified privilege:
    These privileges tie in to earlier comments made about the right to free speech, but in the context of judicial proceedings. Parties that make what would usually be considered to be defamatory statements in the course of a civil lawsuit, a quasi-judicial proceeding or a criminal proceeding, are protected from any damages for making such statements on the grounds of absolute privilege. This is to encourage that the ends of justice are met, which involves allowing people to speak freely in judicial proceedings without fear of being sued so that the truth can be discovered. Qualified privilege is grounded in the same reasoning, but protects those who make defamatory statements in the course of performing a public or private duty. The test for whether qualified privilege should apply is whether a person of ordinary intelligence would think a duty existed to communicate the information to the audience it was made to.
  • Innocent dissemination:
    If a party disseminates a defamatory statement without knowing that what they were distributing was defamatory, and, upon learning it was a defamatory statement, immediately remove it from where it was distributed, they can rely on this defence. This scenario is relevant in the age of sharing news articles or other statements on various internet and social media platforms. It would only be the party who disseminates the information, in other words forwards it along or shares it, as opposed to the actual author or publisher of the information, who could rely on this defence.
  • Responsible communication on matters of public interest:
    Recent developments in the law of defamation have begun to recognize a defence for reporters, or anyone who publishes materials, that protects their statements or allegations, even if untrue, if it is in the public interest to communicate such information to a broad audience. This is a contextual defence that would consider the content of the alleged defamatory statement and the context within which it was made. If it were found that the statement made was defamatory but the matter communicated about is of public interest and the party making the statement acted responsibly and with proper diligence, the defamatory statements will not attract liability.

    One of the most recent cases in Alberta that considered this defence, as well as those of justification and qualified privilege, was handled by McLennan Ross in 2016. This decision gave rise to the largest individual defamation award granted in Alberta ($150,000 in general damages) for the print publication of a defamatory article, and a further $50,000 for continuing online publication of the defamatory article. The decision illustrates that huge windfalls should not be expected in suing for defamation. While a global award of $200,000 may seem like a large amount, it must be borne in mind that this was an exceptional award, the highest ever awarded in the Province, and that the significant legal and expert costs associated with going to trial can greatly offset the net amount actually recovered.
  • Apology:
    While an apology for a defamatory statement is not a defence on its own, it can act as a mitigating factor against any possible damages that may be ordered against the party that made the statement.

Final Considerations

If you feel that someone has made or published statements about you that are defamatory in nature and you feel that this has injured your reputation, you have a right to sue them and pursue an award of damages for the losses you have suffered as a result. While hurt feelings or jabs at one's reputation are an unfortunate thing to experience, defamation is a cause of action that must be carefully considered before being pursued. Given the significant time and legal fees involved in a lawsuit, and the array of defences that can be raised against allegations of defamation in the interest of protecting competing interests, serious thought should be given to the factual, evidentiary, and financial factors at play in determining whether or not it makes sense to commence an action for defamation.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Sarah R. Levine
Events from this Firm
19 Dec 2017, Webinar, Calgary, Canada

McLennan Ross previously conducted a webinar on June 6, 2017 about the passage of Bill 17, during which we reviewed the changes to the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Relations Code. During that webinar, we identified a number of issues which would depend upon the language of the Regulations, which had not yet been developed.

17 Oct 2018, Webinar, Calgary, Canada

We have been preparing for legalization day since Bill C-45 was first introduced. With October 17th just around the corner, our Corporate, Labour & Employment, and Insurance groups have the answers to your questions.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions