Alberta UCP leader Smith hedges on pursuing defamation lawsuit against CBC over COVID
EDMONTON — Alberta United Conservative Leader Danielle Smith won’t say if she will follow through on her threat to sue the CBC for defamation over its coverage of her role in prosecuting COVID-19 court cases.
Smith had given the public broadcaster until last Friday to retract and apologize or face further legal action, but a CBC spokesman said Monday it has not seen anything new from Smith’s legal team.
Smith, speaking to reporters at her party’s election campaign launch in Calgary, declined to answer when asked if she is still pursuing the case and if not, why not.
“I think that Albertans are interested in what we're going to be campaigning on to move the province forward,” said Smith.
“That's what I'll be focused on for the next four weeks, making sure that people understand exactly what a UCP majority government will deliver.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley, speaking to reporters at her Calgary campaign launch, said Smith is hedging because she doesn't have a case.
“What it looks like to me is that when (Smith) was caught dead to rights attempting to interfere in the administration of justice on behalf of someone who was charged with, among other things, trying to incite violence against police officers, that she panicked — and then they decided to try a lawsuit," said Notley.
The dispute is over a CBC story published Jan. 19 alleging one of Smith’s staff sent emails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service challenging how it was handling court cases from COVID-19 protests at the United States-Canada border crossing at Coutts, Alta.
Smith has said a review found no evidence of contact between her office and the prosecution service. The CBC has said it stands by its reporting.
The issue lay dormant after the original CBC story for two months until March 29, when the NDP released audio of a phone call between Smith and Artur Pawlowski, in which Smith is heard offering to help Pawlowski with his criminal case relating to the Coutts protest.
Smith is heard offering to make inquiries on Pawlowski's behalf, revealing to him internal government arguments over case direction and telling him that the charges against him are rooted in political bias.
As Smith then faced renewed questions and news coverage over her involvement with COVID prosecutions, a lawyer sent a letter on her behalf to the CBC on April 2, advising the broadcaster of the April 28 deadline and accusing it of attempting to “resuscitate a false and defamatory narrative against the premier” by continuing to reference the original Jan. 19 story in its reporting.
“We hereby provide notice of our client’s intention to bring an action against the CBC as may be required under the Defamation Act,” stated the letter.
At an April 4 news conference, Smith told a CBC reporter, “I’m also waiting for an apology for the misinformation in the stories that you and the CBC have written.”
While the legal action revolves around Smith in her role as premier, Smith confirmed it is being funded by the UCP, raising questions over who is making decisions on how the case proceeds.
Smith’s conversation with Pawlowski is also the focus of an ongoing investigation by Alberta’s ethics commissioner.
Legal experts have said the call violates the democratic convention that there must be a firewall to separate politicians from the day-to-day decision-making of cases before the courts.
Smith has said she has restricted her involvement to reminding her justice minister and top justice senior civil servant — as she is free to do — of the overarching guideline that any case should be pursued only if it is in the public interest and has a reasonable chance of success.
Smith has since stated she agrees it's not OK for politicians and accused persons to discuss active criminal cases, but has said her call to Pawlowski was OK because as a politician it's her role to interact and hear from constituents and hear their concerns.
She has also said she didn’t realize her call with Pawlowski, which took place in January, would be about his criminal case and that she thought she would be talking politics with him in his then-role as the head of the fringe Independence Party on Alberta.
Pawlowski has pleaded not guilty to mischief and breaching a release order, as well as a charge under the Alberta Critical Infrastructure Defence Act of wilfully damaging or destroying essential infrastructure. A judge is expected to deliver a verdict Tuesday in Lethbridge, Alta.
Smith has long been critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning whether the measures were needed to fight the pandemic.
She had promised to seek pardons for protesters of COVID-19 health restrictions, but after becoming premier said she learned she does not have the power to grant pardons.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press