Danielle Smith and the United Conservative Party are entangled in multiple controversies, including a damning ruling from the provincial Ethics Commissioner about the Premier’s conduct and transphobic statements from a candidate, hours ahead of the leaders’ election debate.
The Ethics Commissioner on Thursday determined that Ms. Smith interfered with the justice system when she discussed a criminal case related to COVID-19 and the Coutts border blockade with the Minister of Justice.
Separately, Ms. Smith said the UCP candidate who previously compared transgender children to feces would not be allowed to sit in her party’s caucus should she win her seat in the May 29 election.
While Ms. Smith wants to put both issues behind her, they will certainly play a role in Thursday evening’s televised debate between her and New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley. Both are vying for support in Calgary, where voters tend to be more progressive and moderate, in order to form government.
In the report released Thursday morning, Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner, Marguerite Trussler, concluded that Ms. Smith interfered with the administration of justice by discussing the COVID prosecution of street preacher Artur Pawlowski with Justice Minister and Attorney-General Tyler Shandro.
The report said the Premier 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.
”It is a threat to democracy to interfere with the administration of justice,” Ms. Trussler wrote. ”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.”
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The Office of the Ethics Commissioner received 56 requests or supports for an investigation into Ms. Smith’s pressure on the legal system. The NDP submitted one of the requests and the investigation started in early April. The first complaint came from a senior citizen, which prompted the probe.
The CBC in January 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. This started the first wave of complaints to the ethics office. Concerns were renewed after a recording of a January phone call between Ms. Smith and Mr. Pawlowski emerged in March. The recording captured the pair speaking about the criminal charges, which were tied to the border blockade near Coutts in early 2022.
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.
Ms. Smith has repeatedly said that she used “imprecise language.”
Ms. Smith, in a statement released on 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.”
The investigation 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 started even before Ms. Smith was elected leader of the UCP in October and subsequently became Premier.
Ms. Trussler concluded that the Justice Minister “must have felt considerable pressure and concern for his tenure” because of his conversations with Ms. Smith – especially a phone call in January where she discussed Mr. Pawlowski’s case and “the extent to which he could get involved in the prosecution.” This came just hours after Ms. Smith spoke with the preacher directly.
Ms. Smith, in her statement, said she has “always stated” that she wanted to explore the option of amnesty for those charged with non-violent COVID offences and sought Mr. Shandro’s advice. She said she accepted his comments that there was nothing to be done until the cases 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 Ms. Smith.
Meanwhile, UCP strategists and candidates sparred over how to deal with Jennifer Johnson, the UCP candidate in Lacombe-Ponoka, after an audio recording of her making transphobic comments surfaced earlier this week. In it, she stated without evidence that transgender kids are being chemically castrated. Lacombe-Ponoka is a reliable riding for the UCP and the general election is tight.
Ms. Smith, in a statement, said Ms. Johnson “used offensive language and a vile analogy when speaking about the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, for which she has apologized.”
The UCP Leader added: “Although there are certainly legitimate policy discussions to be had on youth transgender issues, the language used by Ms. Johnson regarding children identifying as transgender is simply unacceptable and does not reflect the values of our party or province.”
Conservatives worried that Ms. Smith would be vulnerable to attack if she did not give Ms. Johnson the boot prior to the debate Thursday evening.
Ms. Johnson is a former UCP provincial board member and aligned with Take Back Alberta, the network of libertarians and social conservatives that make up the right flank of the party. TBA and candidates that enjoy its support have irked more mainstream conservatives in the UCP, fearing the organization is dragging the party too far to the right to be palatable for most voters.
The crisis over Ms. Johnson’s comments is similar to the Lake of Fire incident in the 2012 election campaign, when Ms. Smith was the leader of the Wildrose Party, one of the UCP’s predecessor entities. Ms. Smith, who appeared to be on track to form government, refused to kick out a candidate who said gay people would spend eternity suffering in a lake of fire.
Wildrose lost the election to the Progressive Conservatives, with politicians and strategists largely attributing the last-minute defeat to Ms. Smith’s decision not to remove a candidate with views outside the mainstream.
Ms. Smith, in her statement Thursday, indicated she wanted to move on from the Johnson crisis.
“I encourage all candidates from all parties not to use this or any other election to provoke distrust, anxiety and hate between people for political purposes. It is time to move forward.”
Ric McIver, a respected UCP incumbent in Calgary, on Thursday publicly expressed his disapproval with his colleague prior to Ms. Smith banning Ms. Johnson from caucus.
“I completely condemn Jennifer Johnsons comments,” Mr. McIver said on Twitter.
The deadline for parties to put replacement names on the ballots has expired.
Ms. Johnson, speaking at a forum about schooling in September, said Alberta’s education system is in the world’s top 3 per cent, but spoiled because of transgender children. She compared the situation to adding a teaspoon of feces to a batch of cookies, according to an audio recording that captured the event.
“We can be top 3 per cent but that little bit of poop is what wrecks it,” she said.
She incorrectly stated that teachers are placing litter boxes in classrooms for kids who identify as cats; and said 7-year-old girls are identifying as boys and by 14 undergoing “double mastectomies and getting chemically sterilized.”
She added: “This is more than a teaspoon of poop in the cookie batch.”
“It does not matter that we’re in the top three per cent of the world. Who cares if they got an 89 per cent on Chemistry 30? Who cares that they’re entering postsecondary if they’re chemically castrated?” she said in the recording.
Ms. Johnson, who home schools her children, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment.