EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has asked for an email search this weekend to determine if her staff have been contacting Crown prosecutors and interfering in cases involving the Coutts, Alta., border crossing blockade.
Smith made the announcement on her Corus call-in radio show Saturday while also delivering a fifth version of the meetings she has had with Justice officials prosecuting COVID-19 cases.
On the email search, Smith said there are 34 staffers in her office and 400 prosecutors to check on but says she expects to have results early next week to respond to a story reported Thursday by CBC News.
“The CBC has said they don’t have the emails. They did not provide us with names, and so I have asked for our independent public service to do a review of emails,” Smith told her radio listeners.
“We have an IT department that can look at all of the emails that have been received by Crown prosecutors and assess it against all of my staff and see if this email that the CBC is making reference to even exists.”
She added, “As soon as we get the response back, we’ll make sure the results are public.”
Smith reiterated she has not talked to Crown prosecutors, has not directed any staffer to do so, and isn’t aware of any staffer doing so.
“It is a serious allegation,” said Smith.
“If a staff member had been in touch with a Crown prosecutor, we’d obviously have to take appropriate action.”
Smith made the comment in response to the CBC News report citing unnamed sources that said a staffer in her office sent a series of emails to Crown prosecutors last fall questioning and challenging their approach to the cases.
CBC said it has not viewed the emails in question.
RCMP laid charges against several people involved in the three-week blockade at Coutts a year ago to protest COVID-19 restrictions. The charges range from mischief to conspiracy to commit murder.
Police have alleged a group at the protest was willing to use force against officers if the blockade was disrupted and described the threat as "very serious."
The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, in a statement, has said: "Neither the assistant deputy minister of the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service nor the Crown prosecutor involved in the Coutts files has any recollection of receiving any emails from the premier's office."
The Opposition NDP has renewed its call for an independent investigation, given that the United Conservative Party premier has also made numerous, conflicting statements on discussions she has had with top justice officials on how they prosecute cases related to violations of COVID-19 health restrictions.
The NDP also says Smith already crossed the line and interfered in justice by saying in an interview before Christmas that she had asked prosecutors to consider that COVID-19 cases are no longer in the public interest.
"If Danielle Smith doesn't know what the staff in her office are doing, she shouldn't be premier," NDP member Rakhi Pancholi said in a statement Saturday.
"These allegations are extremely serious and yet, her story keeps changing. Albertans know the UCP cannot to be trusted to investigate themselves."
The Justice Department has rejected an investigation, noting Smith never spoke directly to Crown prosecutors.
Over the past month, Smith has given five versions of what she said to Justice officials and who she said it to with regard to the COVID cases.
On Dec. 21 last year, she told Rebel News she was meeting with prosecutors and urging them to consider that she believes the public is no longer onside with prosecuting such cases. She said she also asked prosecutors to consider the cases were failing in court.
On Jan.12, in a scrum with reporters, Smith repeated that she was talking to prosecutors but didn't mention she had asked them to consider factors unique to the COVID-19 cases. Instead, she said she only reminded prosecutors of the overarching guidelines for pursuing any case: it has to be in the public interest and have a reasonable chance of conviction.
As concern grew over her involvement Smith issued a statement on Jan. 13 saying she had not met with prosecutors but with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and the deputy attorney general to discuss "options" on the outstanding cases. She did not elaborate on what those options were.
On Jan. 14, on her radio call-in show, Smith did not mention she was seeking options but said the meeting with Shandro and the deputy attorney general was about reminding them that the cases have to be in the public interest and have a reasonable chance of conviction.
On Saturday’s show, she stated the meeting with Shandro and the deputy attorney general was about more than a reminder of general prosecution guidelines, noting it also involved Smith asking them to consider other factors unique to the COVID-19 cases, including personnel changes and a revised legal landscape.
“We have a number of public health orders that no longer exist,” said Smith Saturday.
“The people who enacted them are no longer there. We've lost a court case on this because one health order was found to be enacted inappropriately.
“And it's in that context that I asked the Justice department (and) the atttorney general: Is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction and is it in the public interest?”
Smith has attributed the confusion to word choice.
“My language may have been imprecise,” Smith said last week.
On Saturday, she said, “I probably used imprecise language.”
Smith has been sharply critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning if they were needed to fight the pandemic and labelling them intolerable violations of personal freedoms, which contributed to job loss, social unrest and mental health issues.
She has called those unvaccinated against COVID-19 the most discriminated group she has seen in her lifetime.
Shortly after becoming premier in October, she promised to seek amnesties and pardons for COVID-19 rule violators but recently said she won't, noting that premiers do not have the authority.
She has said the charges were grounded in politics and therefore should be open to political solutions.
The premier admitted on a podcast last week it is “a bit frustrating” for politicians to not be allowed to intervene once charges are laid, but says that is how it has to be.
If there is a review, it would be the second such investigation under the UCP government.
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 Edmonton's police chief to discuss a traffic ticket.
Madu was moved to a different portfolio under the premier at the time, Jason Kenney. Madu has since been promoted to deputy premier under Smith.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2023
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press