No emails found between Alberta premier's office, prosecution following weekend search, justice ministry says

Anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate demonstrators created a blockade at the U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., last January. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP) (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate demonstrators created a blockade at the U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., last January. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP) (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A search of nearly a million government emails found no evidence of contact between Alberta premier's office staff and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, the province's justice ministry says.

Public service employees, who are non-partisan, conducted a weekend search "for any emails sent to or received by the relevant prosecutors and staff in the premier's office" during a four-month period, said a statement from the justice ministry Monday.

The public service commission and IT experts conducted the search between Friday and Sunday and reviewed incoming, outgoing and deleted emails, the statement said.

Premier Danielle Smith said on Saturday she had asked for the search after CBC News reported on Thursday that a premier's office staffer sent a series of emails to Crown prosecutors, challenging their assessment and direction on court cases connected to last year's Coutts border blockade and protests.

Sources told CBC News the staffer sent the emails last fall that critiqued prosecutors' assessment of charges laid and pushed back on characterizations of the protests.

CBC News has not seen the emails.

Smith said in a Monday morning statement that she is confident in the integrity and professionalism of her staff and grateful to the public service for conducting the weekend review.

"An independent Crown prosecution service, free from political interference, is integral to the preservation of public confidence in the justice system," Smith said in the statement.

In an email, Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs for CBC, said the organization stands behind the journalism in the story.

Thompson said any information about sources is confidential.

In an email Monday, Charles Mainville, director of communications for Alberta Justice, said the email search included 900 mailboxes, and would capture any messages sent between government of Alberta addresses and non-government ones.

The exact search terms are part of an investigation, and confidential, he said.

Crown prosecutor emails were searched between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2022, and premier's office emails were searched between Oct. 6 and Dec. 31. 2022. Smith won the UCP leadership on Oct. 6.

Mainville wouldn't specify whether all premier's office staff and all Crown prosecutors were included in the search.

"To protect the confidentiality of investigatory processes, further details cannot be provided," he said.

Rakhi Pancholi, NDP MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud, said she is dissatisfied by the internal review. Over the weekend the Opposition Alberta NDP called for an independent investigation.

At a news conference Monday, Pancholi raised questions about the scope of the review, and whether it would have captured emails sent to and from private email addresses.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

She also questioned what the government means by including "relevant" prosecutors in the search.

Mainville said "relevant prosecutors" refers to those who worked on files related to the Coutts border blockade or in the same office as those prosecutors.

Pancholi repeated calls for Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to appoint an independent investigator to not only search for possible emails, but interview employees in the premier's office and prosecution service.

"This isn't just about these emails," Pancholi said.

"We have the premier stating on record, a number of times, almost boasting about it, bragging about the fact that she has talked to prosecutors and asked them questions about charges related to COVID-19 convictions."

United Conservative Party members chose Smith as leader in October after she campaigned on a promise to look at offering amnesty to people who still faced charges for public health violations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith has twice said she spoke to Crown prosecutors about charges related to pandemic health violations.

At a Jan. 12 news conference in Edmonton, Smith said:

"We do have an independent justice department and independent Crown prosecutors, and I have asked them to consider all charges under the lens of 'is it in the public interest to pursue?'

"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?"

In an interview published online Dec. 23, Smith also told Rebel News she raised the issue with prosecutors.

"I put it to the prosecutors, and I've asked them to do a review of the cases with those two things in mind," she said.

Smith later said in a statement that she used "imprecise" language, and never communicated directly with prosecutors – only Attorney General Shandro and the deputy attorney general.

Just how robust any email search would be depends on how technical employees conducted that search, says John Zabiuk, chair of Northern Alberta Institute of Technology's cybersecurity program and an instructor at the Edmonton-based post-secondary institution.

Searching for keywords relating to the subject of interest could capture more relevant results than examining a specific subset of senders and receivers, he said.

CBC News
CBC News

It should capture any deleted emails if the sender or receiver was using a government address, as those emails would be stored on a server, he said.

Any emails sent between two private email addresses wouldn't be captured by a search, Zabiuk said.

Many organizations also archive older messages to save space, and those would have to be manually returned to the email server to be included in the search, he said.