Alberta Premier Danielle Smith told a street preacher facing charges related to the Alberta-Montana border blockade and COVID-19 infractions that she asked prosecutors “almost weekly” about such cases, according to a recording of a phone call posted online.
The video, which captured a telephone call earlier this year between Ms. Smith and Artur Pawlowski, a vocal critic of public-health measures related to COVID, renewed allegations that the Premier and her office attempted to interfere with pandemic-related prosecutions.
Ms. Smith won the United Conservative Party leadership last fall after campaigning to seek amnesty for people facing charges related to public-health rules, and after becoming Premier she said she raised such cases with prosecutors. Later, on Jan. 13, Ms. Smith denied ever speaking directly to Crown attorneys, instead saying that she used “imprecise” language and was actually referring to Justice Ministry officials.
The Premier’s office offered the same explanation for the video that surfaced Wednesday.
The video, which is no longer publicly accessible, was posted to Mr. Pawlowski’s YouTube page on Jan. 26. It’s not clear when it was made, but in the recording, Mr. Pawlowski raises concerns about his trial, which he said was three weeks away. Mr. Pawlowski was facing charges for his role in the two-week border blockade last winter at Coutts, Alta. His trial started in early February.
Mr. Pawlowski expressed frustration that Ms. Smith had not yet fulfilled her leadership campaign promise to drop charges related to COVID-19 violations. In the recording, Ms. Smith replied that she had since learned that premiers do not have the power of clemency.
“Once the process is under way, I can ask our prosecutors: ‘Is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction and if it is in the public interest?’ And I assure you, I have asked them that almost weekly ever since I got started here,” said Ms. Smith, who was sworn in as premier on Oct. 11, 2022.
Mr. Pawlowski was the first person to be charged under Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act after he delivered a speech to protesters in Coutts.
In his call with Ms. Smith, he bemoaned that the Crown prosecutor “dumped” thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of hours of testimony to “frustrate” his defence, forcing him to hire more lawyers to comb through the disclosure.
Mr. Pawlowski told the Premier that he believed the Justice Minister was behind this strategy, which Ms. Smith dismissed.
“Once the ball is rolling, these Crown prosecutors seem to be very independent and we can only ask the two questions as I mentioned,” she said, casting doubt that the Justice Minister was driving this effort.
“But I have also raised it with the deputy minister, and let him know my dissatisfaction with the tactics. So can you just leave this with me and I will make that request one more time.”
Until Tuesday, Mr. Pawlowski was leader of the Independence Party of Alberta. A statement posted to the party’s Twitter account said the preacher was focused on the “narrow concerns of a minority of Albertans” and not on Alberta sovereignty, so they cut ties.
It went on to say that the party rejects discrimination of any sort and Mr. Pawlowski’s “words were putting the party at risk.”
Mr. Pawlowski has long been a controversial figure in Calgary and his profile grew during the pandemic. He was charged with keeping his church open in defiance of public-health orders, and in early 2021 he led an anti-mask protest in Calgary that featured demonstrators holding tiki torches, which were associated with far-right white nationalist protests in Virginia several years earlier.
Ms. Smith acknowledged in February that she had spoken with Mr. Pawlowski but has repeatedly denied doing anything improper.
In January, the CBC published a story alleging a staff member in Ms. Smith’s office sent a series of e-mails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, challenging prosecutors’ assessment and direction on cases tied to Coutts. The Premier ordered a review of government e-mails that came up empty, however the scope of the search remains unknown and the time frame was limited.
Prior to CBC publishing a story on Wednesday about the Pawlowski video, Ms. Smith released a statement. (The NDP also held a morning news conference about the tape). The Premier said the CBC story is part of its “campaign of defamatory attacks against” her and her staff.
The statement repeated that she asked staff in the Justice Department to look into whether the government could grant amnesty to people charged with COVID-related offences. She said they recommended against pursuing amnesty and she followed their advice.
“At no time have I spoken with anyone from the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, nor to my knowledge, have any of my office’s staff,” Ms. Smith said in her statement Wednesday.
Kim Goddard, assistant deputy minister of the prosecution service, said in a statement that once allegations that Ms. Smith’s staff had e-mailed prosecutors came to light earlier this year, all staff involved in Coutts-related prosecutions were canvassed. “There was no direct contact with the Premier or her office,” Ms. Goddard said.
The Justice Department did not respond to questions about the video, nor did Mr. Pawlowski. A verdict has yet to be delivered in his case.
The Crown has dropped some charges against others related to the border blockade and pandemic restrictions. The most serious allegations – that some protesters were conspiring to murder Mounties – have not yet been tested in court.
NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said the video raises further questions on the level of interference by the Premier and her staff. The New Democrats have previously called for an independent investigation into the matter, but did not hear back, he said.
Mr. Sabir said it is the role of Crown prosecutors alone to determine whether a case is in the public interest and whether there is a likelihood of conviction, free of any political interference.
He said it is “offside, inappropriate and constitutes prima facie interference in the justice system” that the Premier, or her staff, were contacting prosecutors. Mr. Sabir said Ms. Smith and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro are unfit to serve in their roles.