EDMONTON – The Opposition NDP says it will be watching to make sure advice to Premier Danielle Smith doesn’t grant her back-door permission to continue interfering in Alberta’s justice system.
Smith has asked Justice Minister Mickey Amery to give her guidelines on how she is to interact with him on legal matters, given she was reprimanded last month by the ethics commissioner for trying to convince Amery’s predecessor to abandon a criminal case.
Smith has promised to make those guidelines public.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley says she assumes Amery will simply remind Smith of the fundamental democratic firewall separating politicians from front-line prosecution of court cases.
If not, Notley says, the NDP will raise the alarm.
“I honestly took it as (Amery’s) advice was going to essentially restate the obvious,” Notley told reporters Wednesday in Calgary.
She said the NDP will be watching whether or not the United Conservative Party government is “actually going to try and rewrite the constitutionally established relationship between the legislative and the judicial branch of government.”
“If they try to do something like that, obviously we will not stand for it.”
On Tuesday, the house met for one day to vote for Nathan Cooper to return as Speaker, and Smith took the opportunity to stand and apologize for the phone call she made in January to then-justice minister Tyler Shandro.
“Although I had no ill intent, the ethics commissioner found it was improper for me to contact the minister of justice in the way I did,” Smith said.
“I apologize to all members of the assembly and to all Albertans for the error.
“I’ve asked my minister of justice to develop guidelines for an appropriate way to receive his legal advice on various legal matters, and I look forward to receiving that advice.”
Smith’s office did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions on whether there is a timeline for the guidelines, which of the “various legal matters” Smith seeks direction on and whether those legal matters include criminal prosecutions.
The issue has dogged Smith since mid-January, when she announced she was taking an active interest in COVID-19 court cases given she considers the charges politically motivated.
She has said repeatedly she followed the advice that was given to her. She said the advice was to discuss cases only with the minister and the deputy minister and to restrict any advice to them to reminders that cases should only be pursued if there’s a reasonable chance of success and they are in the public interest.
On May 18, ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler issued a report that concluded Smith broke ethics rules when she had a phone conversation Jan. 6 with COVID-19 protester Art Pawlowski. The call was about his upcoming trial relating to a blockade at the Canada-U. S. border crossing at Coutts, Alta.
Trussler said hours later, Smith discussed Pawlowski’s case with Shandro and tried to persuade the justice minister to make the case “go away.”
Trussler said Shandro stood his ground but Smith nevertheless interfered in the rule of law and, in trying to help Pawlowski, broke ethics rules.
After the call, a judge found Pawlowski guilty of mischief and breaching a release order.
Trussler said she reserved the right to sanction Smith once the house resumed sitting. Smith’s office declined to say if the premier’s apology on Tuesday fulfilled a sanction.
The NDP, meanwhile, asked RCMP in letter Tuesday to investigate whether Smith’s actions violated Criminal Code provisions surrounding breach of trust and obstructing justice.
Smith has said she will also act on Trussler’s recommendation to have new members to the legislature receive briefings on how the separation of powers work in Canada’s democracy.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2023.