Alberta premier backs off on promise to seek pardons for COVID-19 health violators

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, less than three months after promising to seek pardons for COVID-19 health violators, says she will now let justice take its course while also announcing she is regularly contacting Crown prosecutors about these cases.

“The way our system of justice works is we do have an independent justice department and independent Crown prosecutors,” Smith told reporters Thursday when asked why she has not followed through on the pardon commitment.

“As we continue to see some of these cases go through — some of them get dropped, some of them fail — (prosecutors) have to consistently recalibrate, but I do want to make sure they have an independent process for assessing that.

“But I ask them 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?”

The Justice Department later issued a statement that appeared to contradict Smith.

“The premier had met to discuss prosecutions at a high level with the attorney general and deputy attorney general,” said department spokesman Jason Maloney.

“The premier has never spoken with any Crown prosecutors about any particular court/legal matter they deal with.”

Smith’s office did not respond to a request for clarification.

Opposition NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir labelled Smith’s comments a clear case of judicial interference and called for an independent investigation.

“Danielle Smith is reaching into the Crown prosecution branch and inquiring about a specific case and questioning whether charges are in the public interest, and that certainly constitutes interference,” Sabir said.

“Smith’s actions undermine the rule of law, and it is disturbing to see that she does not understand that.”

Smith became premier in October after winning the leadership of the United Conservative Party by leveraging strong member support with promises to redress perceived abuses of individual rights and freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soon after being sworn into office, Smith announced that she would pursue pardoning non-criminal violators of health restrictions, such as pastors who ignored gathering limits at services and people fined for not wearing masks.

Smith has called the COVID-19 unvaccinated the most discriminated group she has ever seen in her lifetime.

Artur Pawlowski, a Calgary pastor jailed and fined for COVID-19 masking and gathering violations — charges later overturned on appeal — criticized Smith’s remarks.

“My friends were voting for her (in the leadership race) because they wanted this prosecution and persecution of Canadians to stop in our province,” Pawlowski said in an interview.

“She promised that amnesty would come. That never happened.”

Pawlowski still faces charges related to last year’s blockade in Coutts, Alta., near the United States border.

He called Smith "Kenney 2.0," referencing to her predecessor, Jason Kenney.

“She is a flip-flopping, political pancake," Pawlowski said. "Whatever works for her, that’s what she’s going to pursue.”

Kenney was effectively voted out of office last year by a branch of the UCP angry over what they called freedom-busting COVID-19 gathering, vaccine and masking rules.

Smith also won the leadership on a promise to change laws to forbid restrictions for people based on their COVID-19 vaccine status. She never introduced the bill as promised last fall, saying more study was needed.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said the confusion leaves Albertans with two unpalatable options.

“Which is worse, political interference in the judicial system or lying about interfering in the judicial system?” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Bratt said the comments appear to be a political calculation by Smith to try to appeal to the broad electorate by adhering to the rule of law on COVID-19 cases while simultaneously saying she is taking direct action — rubbing against democratic guardrails in the process — to appease her base.

“That’s what happens when you try to appease two different groups. You end up appeasing none of them,” said Bratt.

Sabir said there is recent precedent under the UCP for an investigation.

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 a traffic ticket.

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press