Alberta Premier Danielle Smith interfered in the justice system in a way that is a “threat to democracy,” according to the provincial Ethics Commissioner, adding another layer of controversy to the already troubled United Conservative Party election campaign.
Marguerite Trussler released a 17-page report Thursday that concluded that Ms. Smith, as Premier, tried to influence the Minister of Justice in a way that would benefit a street preacher charged for his role at the border blockade near Coutts, Alta., in early 2022.
The Ethics Commissioner found that Ms. Smith contravened Section 3 of the Conflicts of Interest Act, which a member breaches by using their power to influence or seek to influence a decision to be made by or on behalf of the Crown.
The scathing report was made public just hours before Ms. Smith squared off against New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley in a televised debate. The report was finished on May 2 and provided to the Premier’s legal counsel two days later.
The ethics ruling adds fuel to the NDP’s assertion that Ms. Smith is unfit to lead the province and provides fodder for UCP insiders unhappy with their leader.
Ms. Smith’s troubles were compounded Thursday by a pair of her candidates. She banned one UCP candidate who made transphobic remarks from sitting in the party’s caucus if elected, while another publicly apologized after racist comments he posted to social media came to light.
Ms. Trussler determined that Ms. Smith made an “improper attempt” to influence judicial independence by asking Justice Minister Tyler Shandro about the extent to which he could get involved in the Crown’s case against street preacher Artur Pawlowski.
Ms. Smith spoke to Mr. Pawlowski about the charges on Jan. 6, according to the report. Hours later, she called Mr. Shandro, who was on vacation with his family in Fernie, B.C. Mr. Shandro told the Ethics Commissioner that Ms. Smith wanted him to make the case against Mr. Pawlowski go away, although she did not say so directly, according to the report.
“It is a threat to democracy to interfere with the administration of justice,” Ms. Trussler said in the report.
“It is the first step toward the type of judicial system often found in a non-democratic or pseudo-democratic country where members of, and friends of those in power are shielded from prosecution or are acquitted by the courts on the instructions of those in power.”
Mr. Pawlowski has been convicted of criminal mischief and other charges related to his role at the Alberta-Montana border blockade that erupted last winter in protest of COVID-19 public-health measures.
The ethics probe also found that Ms. Smith and members of her staff repeatedly asked Mr. Shandro and members of his office for updates on legislative options to provide amnesty in COVID-related cases. This began before Ms. Smith was elected leader of the UCP in October and subsequently became Premier.
Mr. Shandro, who has not spoken publicly about the matter, resisted pressure from Ms. Smith, according to the report. He stated that the Premier was passive-aggressive in their January call.
“I believe that Minister Shandro must have felt considerable pressure and concern for his tenure as minister as a result of the call,” Ms. Trussler said. The Ethics Commissioner noted that Ms. Smith discussed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s interference in the case against SNC-Lavalin when she was a talk-radio host.
The Ethics Commissioner did not recommend any sanctions against Ms. Smith but said she reserves the right to do so once the legislature is back in session. Ms. Trussler did propose that all new members to the assembly receive training on the structure of Canadian governance.
The commissioner is required to release the report publicly but Ms. Trussler noted that the Legislative Assembly should consider whether to amend the Conflicts of Interest Act to allow for a stay on continuing investigations during an election period. It otherwise puts her, and the Speaker of the assembly, in “an extremely difficult position with respect to the timing and release of any report.”
In January, the CBC reported that a member of the Premier’s staff sent e-mails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service last year challenging its perspective on COVID-related cases. The issued flared up in March, when the CBC and the NDP discovered a recording of the call between Ms. Smith and Mr. Pawlowski on the preacher’s YouTube page. The recording captured Ms. Smith telling Mr. Pawlowski that she asked prosecutors “almost weekly” about cases like his.
Ms. Trussler did not find any evidence of e-mails from the Premier’s staff, or of Ms. Smith speaking directly to Crown prosecutors. She concluded that the Premier was referring to justice ministry officials, which Ms. Smith has repeatedly said was a matter of her using “imprecise language.”
Ms. Smith, in a statement released Thursday morning, said she was “gratified” with the report’s findings and called on the CBC and NDP to apologize and “withdraw those false accusations.”
She added that it was always her intention to explore the option of amnesty for those charged with non-violent COVID offences and sought Mr. Shandro’s advice. She said she accepted that there was nothing to be done until the case concluded.
“I invited the Commissioner to give me and future premiers the benefit of some guidance on how to advance sensitive policy issues similar to this with the minister of justice if she thought there was a more appropriate way,” said the Premier.
Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, said there is no question that the timing of the ethics report is bad for the UCP but it contains information voters are entitled to know before casting their ballot
“We now have a member of her own cabinet saying that what she was doing was inappropriate and was passive-aggressive. This also seems to suggest that she is not trusted within her own cabinet,” Prof. Williams said. “It doesn’t get much worse.”
Alberta's two main election candidates, Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley, squared off in a televised debate on Thursday that came down to the topic of who voters should trust.
The Canadian Press