TORONTO - The owner of a website critical of the provincial police force's handling of an aboriginal occupation is facing a $7.1-million lawsuit filed by a group of 22 Ontario officers who say they have been defamed.

The officers are suing Gary McHale, the organizer of several divisive rallies in the southern Ontario town of Caledonia which has been living with the ongoing occupation for over a year.

On his website, McHale criticized the provincial police officers who stopped him from hanging Canadian flags near the occupied site - saying they were violating their oath of office and treating aboriginal protesters differently than others.

Although McHale has since posted a written apology on the site, he was served with the lawsuit last week.

"As a result of the defamatory publications, the plaintiffs have and will continue to suffer damage and harm to their reputations personally and in their profession as police officers," reads a statement of claim filed on behalf of the 22 Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers.

"The malicious, high-handed and arrogant conduct of the defendant warrants an award of punitive damages."

OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino, who is embroiled in his own controversy regarding an e-mail he sent to Caledonia politicians, refused to comment on the lawsuit Thursday.

"I'm here on some other business and I'm not going to mix the two," he said after attending a lunch to commemorate a research partnership between a Toronto hospital and a facility in Italy.

The website manipulated photos of one officer, attributing words to him that imply he "performs his duties as a police officer in a racist manner," the statement of claim said.

The photos of all the 22 police officers were also posted on the site under the heading "OPP: Hang your heads in shame," saying each one of them had violated their oath of office, the statement of claim said.

Although McHale has repeatedly been served with notices of libel by police officers, the statement of claim said he didn't remove the material in question but instead just posted the notice of libel.

The allegations have not been proven in court.

Ian Roland, a partner with the Toronto firm Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein, said his clients are "feeling upset" about the whole suit - which may take several years before it goes to trial.

"It's not common for groups of officers to commence these kinds of suits for defamation but it's also not common for them to be defamed," he said.

"There is nothing very common about Caledonia. Unusual circumstances create unusual events and consequences."

Despite the prospect of being on the hook for $7 million in damages and other legal fees on top of that, McHale said he's not worried.

"Maybe they're hoping that (when) facing the legal costs of paying a lawyer, we'll just shut down the website," McHale said.

John Findlay, McHale's Hamilton lawyer, said he questions why the lawsuit is claiming $7.1 million in damages from the computer programmer who dedicates himself full-time to the website and lives primarily thanks to donations.

"It just seems like a lot of money," he said.

The lawsuit comes as Fantino is being investigated by the province for an e-mail he sent to Caledonia politicians, suggesting they supported McHale's rallies.

In the e-mail, Fantino said if any of his officers are injured as a result, he will support any lawsuit brought by them against the town and won't support the renewal of the force's contract to police Caledonia.

Fantino wouldn't comment on his e-mail Thursday but said he expects to be exonerated by the investigation.

"The truth always comes out and I have tremendous faith in the system," Fantino said. "That's about all I can say."

Six Nations protesters have occupied the former housing development site since February 2006. They say the land was stolen from them by the Crown over 200 years ago and they will remain on the site until it is returned.