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Alberta premier says politicians cannot talk to accused, but her call was OK

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she didn't do anything wrong when she spoke on the phone with a Calgary street pastor charged in connection with the Coutts border dispute. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she didn't do anything wrong when she spoke on the phone with a Calgary street pastor charged in connection with the Coutts border dispute.
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EDMONTON -

Premier Danielle Smith says members of the Alberta legislature, including cabinet ministers, are not free to talk to accused people about their criminal court cases but her call to a man facing charges was OK.

Smith, asked Thursday whether her phone call to Calgary street pastor Artur Pawlowski represents a change in government policy, replied that the long-standing firewall separating politicians and the justice system remains in place.

“There's no change of policy. The policy is what it has always been, that the Crown prosecutors and the judicial system operate independently,” Smith told reporters in Brooks, Alta., a city in her constituency of Brooks-Medicine Hat.

Smith reiterated that she did nothing irregular on the 11-minute call, which took place in early January concerning, Pawlowski's looming trial related to the COVID-19 border protest at Coutts, Alta., in early 2022.

The call was leaked to the Opposition NDP, which played it for reporters more than a week ago.

On the call, Smith is heard telling Pawlowski the charges against him are politically motivated while offering to make inquiries on his behalf and report back to him.

Smith also shares details with him about internal disagreements over Crown strategy and commiserates with him when he accuses the Crown of trying to overwhelm his lawyers and drain his wallet through a late-day “document dump.”

Legal experts say the call was a clear violation of the democratic guardrail that keeps politicians from having a say in who gets charged and how cases are prosecuted.

Smith has said that she promised in her United Conservative Party leadership campaign last year to explore amnesty for people accused of violating COVID-19 health restrictions. She has also said that she was later advised by officials that her office did not have the power to grant amnesties, that the cases must play out independently and that she accepted that advice.

“My job as a politician is to consult with a broad range of people and raise their concerns and then ultimately, in this particular case, take the advice of my justice minister,” Smith said.

“The conversations I had with my justice officials took place several months ago. The court cases still haven't come down. We're still waiting.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley told reporters in Calgary that Smith continues to dig a hole for herself on the issue.

“What we heard from the premier today is that she was actually given advice by justice officials to stay out of the court and justice process with respect to a whole range of people who had been charged,” Notley said.

“Having been given that advice, (Smith) decided she was above the law and she did in fact engage. She engaged directly.”

Notley noted Smith was also heard on the call advising Pawlowski she was regularly questioning justice officials about their pursuit of cases relating to violations of COVID-19 restrictions.

Last Saturday, on her call-in radio show, Smith declined to answer when asked if she regrets the call with Pawlowski, saying that she has lots of conversations with people and was surprised the call with Pawlowski was recorded.

At a news conference earlier this week, Smith announced that because she is contemplating a lawsuit, she will stay silent on the advice of her lawyer.

A notice of defamation letter sent from lawyers on behalf of Smith calls on the CBC to retract and apologize for a January story. The story stated a member of her staff sent emails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service challenging how it was handling court cases from the Coutts blockade.

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 notice of defamation letter gives the CBC until April 28 to retract its article and apologize or face potential legal action, which could be days before a writ drop for the provincial election, expected May 29.

Smith has long been critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning whether the measures were needed to fight the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2023.

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