NOTE: Story was updated at 4:50 p.m. to include comment from Justice and Solicitor General.
WESTLOCK – Following 14 court appearances and five pre-trial conferences, the Crown has withdrawn 10 Public Health Act tickets against Westlock DJ and self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” Benita Pedersen who organized a series of anti-COVID-19 measures rallies across northern Alberta throughout the first half of 2021.
During a brief 30-second appearance in Westlock Provincial Court June 22 via CCTV, specialized prosecutions prosecutor Craig Kallal told Judge Michèle Collinson he was withdrawing the 10 PHA 73(1) tickets for contravening an order of the Medical Officer of Health, specifically in relation to mass gatherings, and offered no further explanation — each carried a specified fine of $1,000, plus a 20 per cent victim fine surcharge.
In a June 22 e-mail received at 4:23 p.m., Luis Carlos Flores Aguilar, a communications advisor for Justice and Solicitor General, said a key duty of a Crown prosecutor is to assess cases on an ongoing basis and ensure all aspects of the evidence are carefully considered at every stage of a prosecution.
“In general, Crown assessment of files continue to evolve after the initial decision(s) are made to lay charges, and Crown prosecutors continue to evaluate the evidence in light of the prosecution standard that the matter is in the public interest and there be a “reasonable likelihood of conviction” and consider relevant court decisions. If at any time following the laying of charges the Crown prosecutor becomes aware that there is insufficient evidence to proceed, the charges may be stayed, withdrawn or downgraded,” reads the statement.
Pedersen, who was physically present in court, had asked to read a statement into the record, which the judge flatly denied. Outside the courthouse with a handful of supporters at her side, Pedersen said she had been “hopeful” for the result — she was last in court May 25 and also participated in a June 17 pre-trial conference with Kallal and Judge Charles Donald Gardner.
“These tickets that were unjustly issued to me are just a sample of the injustice going on in the world today,” said Pedersen, who represented herself on the matters. “Up until today I have endured. My hope is that my experience will become an inspiration to others … endurance paid off in this case. I had the strength to last long enough to resist giving in and it paid off in the end.”
Pedersen said she thought the tickets against her were dropped following a similar case that came before the courts in Calgary last month. In May, COVID-19 measurers protest organizer Brad Carrigan was acquitted on similar Public Health Act tickets by Judge Michael Dinkel — in essence, the judge ruled that the health orders were aimed at private gatherings, not public protests. In a CTV News story, Carrigan's lawyer Hatim Kheir said he argued the definition of 'private social gathering' did not apply to the rallies as members of the public were invited to attend and noted that his client's acquittal would set a precedent for other individuals facing similar charges.
“This is unreasonable, this is intimidation,” Pedersen continued outside the courthouse, adding the Crown told her last summer that each ticket could be increased up to $100,000 bringing the total to $1 million. “Everybody has the right to protest — it’s a democratic right, it’s a constitutional right. It is unreasonable for someone to be ticketed for a peaceful demonstration and for the tickets to go up to such an illogical amount.”
While the tickets have been withdrawn, Pedersen said she’s not done protesting and claims it’s important people “push back” and continue to fight for their rights.
“Although these charges have been withdrawn, there is still a problem in our system and we have to continue to push back, protest, write letters, deliver petitions, until more changes are made,” she said. “Those changes must include the removal and replacement of elected representatives who’ve put Alberta into lockdown and those changes also must include changes to policy so these lockdowns in Alberta can never happen again.”
Although her tickets were for organizing anti-COVID-19 measures rallies in Westlock Feb. 11 and Feb. 25, 2021, plus others in Athabasca, Barrhead, Bonnyville and Lac La Biche, Pedersen remained in the spotlight hosting “freedom rallies” and “church in the park” events throughout the year.
Pedersen was also in Ottawa during the February “freedom convoy” protests, interviewing Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen and Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP Cheryl Gallant via livestream on her Facebook page. More recently, Pedersen hosted a convoy-rally-march Feb. 24 in Athabasca that drew about 25 supporters and recently advertised a “freedom rally” for April 2 in Whitecourt. Under her All Fired Up for Freedom Facebook page she has since gone on to promote the Alberta Prosperity Project, highlighting recent events for the group in Slave Lake, Athabasca and Westlock.
At her March 2 court appearance, Pedersen told Judge Bruce Garriock one of the reasons she protested the COVID-19 restrictions is that they “inhibited my ability to make a living for the last two years” and that her income has been “adversely affected” and that she couldn’t afford a lawyer. She also claimed the Crown was placing “some pressure on me and attempting to discourage me from making a constitutional argument if I am self-represented.”
At that same appearance Kallal denied the accusation, stating they encouraged her to submit a “constitutional notice and to also make some O’Connor applications and (are) not trying to discourage her from doing so.”
During her Feb. 2 court appearance, Kallal said Pedersen’s request for further disclosure from the RCMP was still in the works and noted he had given a letter to Pedersen in response to her request for clarification on what charges she faces and what public health orders were breached — Pedersen had previously told court she was “seeking the results of the investigation of Dr. Deena Hinshaw confirming that COVID-19 is present and constitutes a public health emergency.”
At her Jan. 5 court appearance, Pedersen said she had requested “full disclosure from the Crown per R v Stinchcombe. “I have detailed to the Crown a number of items that must at minimum be disclosed for me to make a defence. To date I have received nothing except a package of videos of meetings where I was present.”
R v Stinchcombe is a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision from 1991 that relates to the disclosure of evidence. The unanimous decision found the Crown has a duty to provide the defence with all evidence that could possibly be relevant to the case, whether it is to be presented as evidence or not and regardless of whether it helps or hurts the Crown's case.
At her October 2021 court appearance, Pedersen stated her motivation for the past rallies was “love” while previously posting on social media she has “zero intention of paying any of these (fines)” and contended that she hadn’t broken any laws.