Alberta NDP: 'A lot of lying going on' about premier's role in COVID-19 prosecutions

Alberta's Opposition NDP leader says Premier Danielle Smith has entangled herself in a web of lies and needs to come clean over what she has been saying to prosecutors pursuing COVID-19 health violations.

“She’s scrambling. She is either lying now or she was lying then. Clearly lying is happening. There is a lot of lying going on,” Rachel Notley told reporters in Calgary on Friday.

Notley added there is also evidence of interference in the administration of justice.

“The deputy attorney general, when it comes to individual matters that are before the courts, does not meet with the premier to have the premier try and coax him into changing what happens with respect to decisions.”

The United Conservative Party premier has been a staunch advocate of protesters against COVID-19 health restrictions. Smith had long promised to pursue pardoning non-criminal violators of health restrictions, such as pastors who ignored gathering limits at services and people fined for not wearing masks.

However, she faced accusations of interfering in justice when she announced Thursday that while she would let the court process play out, “I ask (Crown attorneys) on a regular basis, as new cases come out: 'Is it in the public interest to pursue and is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?'''

Questions remain over whom Smith talked to, when she talked to them, what they talked about and why Smith felt the need to impose herself at all in what should be an independent process.

Smith’s remarks Thursday match similar comments made to Rebel News in an interview just before Christmas.

Both Smith and the justice ministry now say she had only high-level discussions with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and his deputy attorney general.

“At no time have I communicated with Crown prosecutors,” said Smith in a statement Friday. "My language may have been imprecise in these instances."

Smith suggested in her Friday statement she was simply on a fact-finding mission to explore "what options were available to with respect to outstanding COVID-related cases."

She said the officials told her they would handle the cases in the normal independent fashion and she said she respected that.

However, in her Rebel News interview on Dec. 21, Smith said she used the meeting to impress upon officials that she believes the public is no longer onside with future COVID-19 prosecutions. She said prosecutors should consider that point, along with the fact cases were failing in court, when they make future decisions.

"I’ve put it to the prosecutors, and I have asked them to do a review of the (COVID-19) cases with those two things in mind and I’m hopeful that we’ll see a true turning of the page," Smith told Rebel News.

Smith’s Friday statement referred only to past talks, an assertion confirmed by the Justice Department. But in the Rebel News interview, and speaking to reporters Thursday, Smith indicated consultations are active and ongoing.

“The questions that I can ask and have asked and continue to ask is: Is it in the public interest and is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?” Smith told Rebel News.

Notley said the biggest question is why Smith is imposing herself at all on what is supposed to an independent process.

Smith’s office declined to respond to specific question on that.

The NDP is calling for an independent investigation, saying there is recent precedent.

Last February, a third-party report by a retired judge concluded that then-UCP justice minister Kaycee Madu tried to interfere in the administration of justice when he called up Edmonton's police chief to discuss his traffic ticket.

Madu was moved to a different portfolio under then-premier Jason Kenney. He has since been promoted to deputy premier under Smith.

This is the second time Smith has delivered controversial remarks over promises to help those she says were unjustly victimized by COVID-19 health rules.

In late November, Smith announced she was rolling back on a promise to introduce a bill to make it a human rights violation to impose restrictions on people based on their vaccine status.

In that same announcement, Smith said she was instead taking action directly. She said her government had contacted the Arctic Winter Games and convinced event organizers to drop their vaccine mandate.

John Rodda, committee president of the Games, said at the time he was not aware of any such call and said the committee made the decision to remove the vaccine mandate without any outside coaxing.

Smith’s office declined Friday to respond to a request asking for confirmation that someone in government contacted the Arctic Winter Games.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press