EDMONTON—Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s office said Friday she has not been in contact with Crown prosecutors and has no knowledge of anyone on her team sending any questionable emails to them.
The statement came in the wake of a CBC report that Smith’s staff had sent emails to prosecutors regarding charges laid last year during the Coutts, Alta. border blockade that “critiqued the prosecutors’ assessment of the charges and pushed back on the characterizations of the protest.”
“This is a serious allegation,” wrote Smith’s press secretary, Rebecca Polak, in an email to the Star. “If a staff member has been in touch with a Crown prosecutor, appropriate action will be taken.”
CBC News quoted unnamed sources in an exclusive report that said Smith’s office requested a briefing on the Coutts criminal charges in the fall.
“Subsequent emails critiqued the prosecutors’ assessment of the charges and pushed back on the characterizations of the protest,” CBC reported.
The article did not reveal the specific details of the emails.
Four men involved in the blockade — which snarled traffic at the southern Alberta border for days as protesters decried vaccine mandates and public health restrictions — were charged with conspiracy to murder police officers. Others were charged with less serious offences.
One of them, Joanne Person, was charged amid the arrests but saw two of those charges dropped this week. She no longer faces charges for possessing a weapon or mischief causing property damage, but she still faces charges related to dangerous driving.
Marco Van Huigenbos, who was charged with mischief, and who faces a trial by jury in 2024, is represented by lawyer Yoav Niv. He said in an email to the Star that his office was aware of the article but that he couldn’t comment on its contents or the case as the matter is before the court.
“In any given case, allegations and/or public perceptions of political interference with a prosecution is a serious issue that needs to be investigated accordingly,” he said.
The Alberta NDP is calling for Alberta’s minister of justice and solicitor general, Tyler Shandro, to launch an investigation. On Friday, the opposition party said it had not received a response from his office.
“This UCP chaos is completely unacceptable in a democracy. The public must have confidence that prosecutions are not influenced by whether the accused have friends in the premier’s office,” said NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi.
They are also calling for Smith to make a public appearance to “identify who in her office has sent these emails and confirm that that person has been dismissed.”
“Failing to do so and allowing this chaos to stand will cause profound damage to the rule of law in Alberta and our reputation around the world as a stable and mature democracy,” Pancholi said.
Smith’s press secretary said the premier would not be holding a news conference Friday and that she was not available for an interview.
The CBC report sparked outrage among observers who said a politician should not be interfering in the administration of justice.
Political scientist Duane Bratt of Mount Royal University simply tweeted: “What did Premier Smith know? And when did she know it?”
Smith recently said unequivocally that she has not been in communication with Crown prosecutors.
But political pundits questioned that statement in the face of two previous media interviews in which she said she had been in contact with prosecutors in connection to charges laid against people violating COVID-19 restrictions.
In December, Smith told Rebel News she was meeting with prosecutors and asked them to “review” the cases to see if they were in the public interest and if they would hold up in court.
Last week, Smith said during a media scrum that she had been in contact with prosecutors but only to remind them that prosecutions must be in the public interest and have a reasonable chance of conviction.
Smith then clarified her statements to say she had only talked to the attorney general and deputy attorney general about pursuing charges for violating lockdown conditions, not the actual Crown prosecutors.
“I may have used some imprecise language, but my contact with the justice department has always been through the appropriate channels,” she said.
The fact that Smith alluded to speaking to prosecutors on two separate occasions raises serious questions, said Lori Williams, a political scientist from Calgary’s Mount Royal University.
To be clear, Smith’s statements defending people who have charged were not specific to the Coutts protesters, whom police have charged with allegedly attempting to kill RCMP officers, but rather charging people for violating lockdown restrictions more broadly.
But the two matters cannot be completely divorced, Williams said.
“It’s not sort of peripherally related. It’s the same issue — COVID restrictions and how to respond to them. So she thinks the COVID restrictions shouldn’t have been there, then whatever anybody did in opposition to those COVID restrictions are not to be prosecuted. And then whether or not she mentioned Coutts in those discussions, the connection is there,” Williams said.
The most recent episode raises “among the most serious concerns we’ve seen so far in her premiership,” Williams said.
It’s not the first time Smith’s credibility has been questioned, Williams noted, pointing to when the premier walked back her support for the use of the debunked COVID treatment hydroxychloroquine, or when she claimed to have Indigenous heritage then later said she hadn’t done a “deep dive” into her ancestry when media reports raised doubts.
“Daniel Smith’s credibility on this and some other files has, I think, been materially damaged. This just adds to that damage,” Williams said.
Before becoming premier, Smith hosted a radio show where she regularly criticized public health measures.
Upon coming into office, Smith said unvaccinated people were the most discriminated against people she’d seen in her life — a comment she would clarify after an uproar.
Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political scientist, says it appeared that when Smith and some of those around her came into office they believed they could ensure COVID rulebreakers weren’t prosecuted.
Still, “there are very clear boundaries,” said Young. “A fundamental element of rule of law in our system of government is that prosecutions do not take into account political considerations.”
As for recourse, Young said that comes down to members inside the legislature and the electorate. Either MLAs could decide they no longer have confidence in the premier over the allegations or the general public could do the same at the ballot box in May.
“I would imagine that there are going to be polls that will be taken in the next few days, and they might present some troubling findings for the premier and for the party,” Young said.
With files from The Canadian Press
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct . The Star does not endorse these opinions.