EDMONTON – Alberta’s Opposition NDP is calling on Premier Danielle Smith to divulge all her conversations relating to COVID-19 court cases after she acknowledged having contact with an accused before his trial relating to a blockade at a U.S.-Canada border crossing.
Smith has said she contacted Artur Pawlowski to tell him she couldn’t offer him amnesty, but NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said full disclosure — and an independent inquiry — are needed to ensure the justice system isn’t being compromised.
“All these assertions made by the premier do raise serious concerns about the independence of our justice system,” Sabir said Friday in a news conference in Calgary.
Pawlowski went on trial earlier this month on charges of breaching a release order and mischief for allegedly inciting people to block public property at Coutts, Alta., the province’s main U.S. border crossing, in January 2022. He is also charged under the Alberta Critical Infrastructure Defence Act with wilfully damaging or destroying essential infrastructure.
Pawlowski’s trial has wrapped up and a date for a decision has not been set.
Other charges related to violating COVID-19 protocols dating back nearly two years against Pawlowski were stayed by the Crown in December.
NDP legislature member Kathleen Ganley, a former Alberta justice minister, said she can’t think of a situation where a former premier has contacted an accused before trial.
Ganley said it makes the job harder for front-line prosecutors who are duty bound to shut out outside influences and pursue cases on the grounds of public interest and likelihood of conviction.
“It puts (the prosecutor) in a horrible position. A sitting premier should never do that,” Ganley said.
“It would be incredibly awkward to find yourself in a position where you know your boss’s boss’s boss — whatever that is — is ultimately, potentially intervening in a case.“
Smith’s office did not immediately give answers to questions on who the premier talked to while leader of the United Conservative Party government. Her office has also not said whether she disclosed her contact with Pawlowski to Crown prosecutors.
Smith has been sharply critical of COVID-19 masking rules, gathering restrictions and vaccine mandates, questioning whether they were needed to fight the pandemic. She called the public health restrictions intolerable violations of personal freedoms, which contributed to job loss, social unrest and mental health issues.
She also promised in her early days as premier to seek amnesty or pardons for those charged in COVID-19 related offences, but later said it’s not legally possible.
On Thursday, in response to questions from reporters, Smith said she spoke to Pawlowski earlier this year but only to let him know she could not help him.
“I said (to Pawlowski) the same thing that I’ve always said (to others) — that I had sought the opportunity to seek amnesty. I was told by my justice minister amnesty is not available to a premier,“ she said. ”It is only an option that is available to the Governor General.“
Smith said she has had discussions with others facing COVID-19 charges and told them the same thing, but declined to elaborate on who she talked to or if she was talking to them while holding the job of premier.
Last year, several people linked to the Coutts blockade were charged after RCMP found a cache of long guns, handguns, body armour, large amounts of ammunition and high-capacity magazines in three trailers. Four men were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
For more than a month, Smith and her office have been dealing with questions and allegations surrounding her involvement with COVID-19 court cases.
Smith has delivered multiple versions of what she said to justice officials, when she said it and to whom she said it.
She initially said she talked to prosecutors, then clarified that she only talked to Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and the Justice Department’s top civil servant, Frank Bosscha, chalking the confusion up to “imprecise” word choice.
The government announced Friday that Bosscha would be leaving his role to become a provincial court judge as of March 27.
Smith has also been dealing with two recent CBC stories alleging someone in her office sent emails to prosecutors questioning their approach to cases involving the Coutts blockade and that Smith has been involved in trying to influence the prosecutions.
Smith has denied the allegations and the Justice Department said a search of emails over the four-month period in question yielded no results.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2023.
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