Smith's office mum on investigating whether staffer contacted Alberta prosecutors

EDMONTON — Premier Danielle Smith’s office says it would be wrong if a staffer contacted prosecutors about cases involving the Coutts, Alta., border crossing blockade, but hasn’t committed to investigating whether that happened.

The office made the comment in response to a CBC News report citing unnamed sources that said a staffer in Smith’s office sent a series of emails to Crown prosecutors last fall questioning and challenging their approach to the cases.

“Premier Smith has not been in contact with Crown prosecutors and has no knowledge of anyone on her staff having done so,” said the statement.

“This is a serious allegation. If a staff member has been in touch with a Crown prosecutor, appropriate action will be taken.”

The statement does not confirm if Smith’s office will investigate, and her office did not immediately return a request to clarify if it will do so.

RCMP laid charges against several people involved in the three-week blockade 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 CBC reported Thursday that a staffer critiqued the prosecutors’ assessment of the cases and challenged characterizations of the protests at the Coutts border crossing.

The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, in a statement, 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.

“Such communication would be exceptionally rare and as such, would stand out.

“However, without seeing the emails in question, no further comment can be provided.”

Smith’s office, in its statement, added "the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service operates independently of government and political interests.

“Crown prosecutors base their decisions on the law and merits of the matter before them. They will continue to use their own discretion in making decisions for each individual case without political interference.”

The Opposition NDP 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.

NDP legislature member Rakhi Pancholi said 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.

Pancholi said the allegations in the CBC report take these concerns to another level.

“We’re not just talking about interference in charges related to violations of COVID restrictions,” Pancholi told reporters in Edmonton on Friday.

“The cases that Smith’s office is now alleged to have interfered in are far more serious. Some of these charges are related to conspiracies to murder police officers.

“The public must have confidence that prosecutions are not influenced by whether the accused have friends in the premier’s office.”

Pancholi said there is precedent for an independent probe. 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.

The NDP called for an independent inquiry earlier this week over Smith’s conflicting statements on conversations she has had with Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and the deputy attorney general about COVID-19 cases.

The Justice Department rejected an investigation, saying Smith never spoke directly to Crown prosecutors.

Smith, in a series of recent conflicting statements and interviews, has said she talked to prosecutors directly and did not talk to prosecutors directly. She said she has reminded justice officials of general prosecution guidelines but also reminded them to consider factors unique to the COVID-19 cases. She has suggested the conversations are ongoing and suggested they have ended.

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.

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press