Alberta premier knocked after ditching plans to pardon COVID-19 rule-breakers

By Courtney Theriault and Alejandro Melgar

The Alberta Justice Ministry jumped into damage control Thursday afternoon, clarifying that the premier has never spoken to any Crown prosecutor about any particular court or legal matters.

It said Alberta Premier Danielle Smith had met with Alberta’s Attorney General Tyler Shandro and his deputy in response to her seemingly walking back plans to grant pardons to those charged with breaking COVID-19 public health restrictions. Smith said she spoke with crown prosecutors.

“Premier Smith’s comments reflect the prosecutorial standard and reflect the independence of Crown prosecutors to assess these factors,” said a statement from the Ministry of Justice’s office.

“Following this process is essential to preserving the independence of the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service (ACPS). And in keeping with the process, the premier has never spoken with any crown prosecutors about any court/legal matters they deal with,” the statement read.

“Suggesting otherwise may undermine public faith in the administration of justice.”

She was asked Thursday if she would push to have charges dropped against individuals accused of violating pandemic measures.

However, Smith suggested she is no longer looking to pursue that level of action.

“The way our system of justice works is that 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?’ And ‘is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?’ As we continue to see some of these cases go through, some of them get dropped, some of them fail, they have to consistently recalibrate, but I do want to make sure that they have an independent process for assessing that,” Smith told reporters Thursday.

“But I asked 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?’ And so, I’ll leave the justice system to work. But I do think that’s an important lens for us to be looking at these kinds of charges.”

Meanwhile, a rally erupted at the Alberta legislature Thursday, calling on Smith to follow through on her previous pledge.

“Today, I, Artur Polowski, a political prisoner, illegally arrested and kept in jail,” said controversial Calgary pastor Artur Polowski who is facing COVID-19-related charges and one of the people Smith was referring to.

“You have given your word that if elected, you will bring amnesty, that you will stop the prosecution of political dissidents.”

In October, the premier said she was seeking legal advice on whether she could grant pardons for those fined for non-criminal violations.


“The things that come to top of mind for me are people who got arrested as pastors (and) people given fines for not wearing masks,” Smith told reporters at the United Conservative Party’s annual general meeting.

“These are not things that are normal to get fines and get prosecuted for. I’m going to look into the range of outstanding fines and get some legal advice on which ones we are able to cancel and provide amnesty for.”

NDP calls for independent investigation

In response to Smith’s press conference, the Alberta NDP is calling Smith’s actions “interference.”

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

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

As a result, the NDP is calling for an investigation and is also calling on Smith to release records that include “meeting minutes, phone calls, etc.” of the interactions she had with the Crown prosecutor.

“Smith’s actions run afoul of the rule of law and will certainly diminish the level of trust and confidence Albertans have in our independent judicial system,” said Sabir.

“We are calling on the current justice minister to step up and call an independent investigation.”

Legal experts also say the premier’s comments raise concerns about prosecutorial independence.

“We should be concerned with both if there was interference but also with the appearance of interference,” said Lorian Hardcastle, a legal researcher at the University of Alberta.

“I think that the idea that the premier is contacting prosecutors about active, ongoing cases at least creates that appearance of politicizing those prosecutions.”

So what’s the harm in the premier asking if a case is in the public interest or winnable?

“That’s already considered by prosecutors, who then give that evidence to judges, who then decide if the elements were made out in a particular case, that process already happens in thousands of cases every day,” Hardcastle said.

“Unduly interfering with ongoing cases may erode public trust in the justice system”

Smith has been outspoken in her criticism of vaccine passports as well as employees, particularly in Alberta Health Services, not being allowed to work without a COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic.

On her first day as premier, she said the COVID-19 unvaccinated were the most discriminated group she has seen in her lifetime.

–With files from Cole Fortner and The Canadian Press

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