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Alberta premier's phone call to accused raises questions about court case

Alberta NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley addresses the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. She says Danielle Smith’s phone call to an accused pastor to discuss his criminal trial raises questions about whether the premier has compromised the case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — A phone call between Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and a Calgary pastor where they discussed his criminal trial raises questions about whether she has compromised the case, the Opposition NDP said Friday. 

Smith is heard on a leaked cellphone video telling Artur Pawlowski that charges such as those he was facing were politically motivated. 

“I think it actually probably compromises the case itself,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who is also a lawyer. “You may actually find that it ends up being something that jeopardizes the independence of the case."

The call centres around Pawlowski’s looming criminal trial for his role in a protest over COVID-19 health measures that blocked the United States-Canada border-crossing at Coutts, Alta., in January 2022. The blockade paralyzed Alberta's main U.S. border-crossing for more than two weeks.

Constitutional law professor Eric Adams, with the University of Alberta, agreed that Smith's comments raise serious red flags.

“If the premier — who is in a sense the ultimately responsible individual for the executive actions of the Crown, including the prosecution of criminal offences — is telling one of the individuals so accused that the charges against him were politically motivated, then you effectively are claiming that the system is corrupt,” Adams said in an interview.

“That’s an astounding thing to say from the premier of the province.

“If you are an accused individual and the head of the government bringing charges against you tells you the charges against you are (brought) on the basis of a corrupt consideration, then I’m not sure why your lawyer wouldn’t bring that into the case.”

Pawlowski’s lawyer, Sarah Miller, declined to comment on whether the Smith phone call could affect the case. The trial wrapped up in February and Pawlowski now awaits a verdict from the judge.

“Given that there is an active matter before the court, we have no comment at this time,” Miller said in an email.

Smith faced renewed criticism this week for her interactions with justice officials surrounding cases involving those charges related to protests over pandemic rules.

The United Conservative Party premier has called the charges politically motivated. On the call with Pawlowski, she tells him she is regularly questioning justice officials over whether the cases were still winnable or in the public interest to pursue.

Audio of the 11-minute call was obtained by the Alberta NDP and played for reporters Wednesday.

In it, Smith is heard commiserating with Pawlowski over her government's “document dump” trial tactics. She offers to make inquiries on his behalf and laments her lack of authority to dispose of the cases directly.

“I’m very sympathetic,” Smith is heard telling Pawlowski.

“Everybody has moved on from COVID and we’re dealing with a bunch of charges.

“It was a political decision that initiated this. Why can’t it be a political decision to end it? That’s what I’m finding very frustrating about the whole thing.”

Pawlowski went on trial in Lethbridge, Alta., in early February on charges of breaching a release order and mischief for inciting people to block public property at the Coutts border crossing.

He is also charged under the Alberta Critical Infrastructure Defence Act with wilfully damaging or destroying essential infrastructure.

Smith has not spoken to reporters since the cellphone audio was released.

On Friday, Smith delivered a speech in Edmonton to municipal leaders but declined to take questions afterward from reporters.

In statements this week, Smith reiterated she has acted strictly within the parameters of advice from Justice Department officials and has not spoken directly to Crown prosecutors.

“There is no need for further investigation of this matter,'' Smith said in a statement Thursday.

Smith has long been critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning if they were needed to fight the pandemic. She has called them intolerable violations of personal freedoms.

Smith has the support of her deputy premier, Kaycee Madu, who said Thursday that as long as Smith is working for the greater good of Alberta, she can call whomever she wants.

Madu was moved out of the Justice portfolio under former UCP premier Jason Kenney after a third-party report determined Madu tried to interfere in the administration of justice by calling Edmonton’s police chief about a traffic ticket.

Notley labelled Madu's comments a dangerous "la la land" rationale that ignores the guardrails of an independent justice system and puts Alberta on the precipice of a "tinpot dictatorship."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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