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Alberta premier's office contacted Crown prosecution about Coutts cases: sources

A staffer in Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s office sent a series of emails to Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, challenging prosecutors’ assessment and direction on cases stemming from the Coutts border blockades and protests, CBC News has learned. 

Smith hasn't contacted Crown prosecutors and has no knowledge of staff doing so, premier's office says

Anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate demonstrators created a blockade at the U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., last January. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

Editor's note: The original version of this story, published Jan. 19, neglected to note that CBC News has not seen the emails in question.


A staffer in Alberta Premier Danielle Smith's office sent a series of emails to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, challenging prosecutors' assessment and direction on cases stemming from the Coutts border blockades and protests, CBC News has learned. 

The emails were sent last fall, according to sources whom CBC has agreed not to identify because they fear they could lose their jobs. CBC has not seen the emails.

Soon after Smith was elected leader of the United Conservative Party and sworn in as premier, her office asked for a briefing on the cases. Subsequent emails critiqued the prosecutors' assessment of the charges and pushed back on the characterizations of the protest.

"This is so improper on so many levels — it's pure interference with Crown independence," said one source with knowledge of the correspondence.

The revelation comes just days after Smith herself backtracked from comments about two instances when she said she had contacted Crown prosecutors, subsequently clarifying that "at no time" had she communicated directly with prosecutors.

In a statement provided to CBC Thursday evening, the premier's office said Smith has not been in contact with Crown prosecutors and has no knowledge of anyone on her staff doing so.

"This is a serious allegation," reads the statement. "If a staff member has been in touch with a Crown Prosecutor, appropriate action will be taken."

Last winter, more than a dozen people were charged following a blockade at the Canada-U.S. border in protest of COVID-related restrictions and vaccine mandates. Four sets of cases — ranging from weapons and mischief charges to conspiracy to commit murder offences — are currently making their way through the courts in Lethbridge.

Crown's office won't comment on emails

CBC News asked Kim Goddard, the assistant deputy minister of the justice department, about the correspondence. Alberta Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson Michelle Davio would not provide a "yes" or "no" answer when asked repeatedly if the assistant deputy minister (ADM) had viewed the emails. 

The same question was asked of prosecutor Steven Johnston, the deputy chief of specialized prosecutions and the Crown assigned to all Coutts-related cases.

Davio wrote in an email that Goddard did "not recall" viewing the emails but said "it is difficult to say with 100 per cent confidence that neither Kim [Goddard] nor Steve [Johnston] have seen the emails that you have described but not provided." 

"As the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service (ACPS) has not been provided with the emails, we are unable to provide a comment," wrote Davio.

Report any communication from political staff: internal email to prosecutors 

CBC News has obtained a copy of an internal email sent last Friday by Goddard to Alberta prosecutors after Smith made comments about being in contact with prosecutors, which her office later clarified as the premier using "imprecise" language. Smith added she'd only spoken with the attorney general and his deputy.

In the email, Goddard reassured prosecutors that she is committed to following the ACPS's code of conduct, which dictates that prosecutorial discretion must be free from improper pressures or influences.

"In the rare occasions that information about a particular prosecution has been requested, the proper processes have been followed," said Goddard.

The ADM went on to say she will only provide information to the attorney general or deputy attorney general.

"I will not brief other elected officials or any political staffers on details involving individual cases," wrote Goddard.

"If you are ever approached by any elected official or political staffer to discuss one of your cases it is imperative that you report such communication to your chief prosecutor or myself immediately."

Tensions and public interest

There has been tension between the ministry of justice and the premier's office when it comes to cases before the courts, multiple sources familiar with the matter told CBC News.

They explained Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and his staff were not involved in the emails sent to ACPS lawyers — and the ministry has been trying to reinforce the independence of prosecutorial decisions for months.

Last Friday, Smith said definitively that she had not been in contact with Crown prosecutors. That followed two previous occasions where the premier stated she'd requested a review of the COVID-related cases and asked prosecutors whether it was worth pursuing certain cases.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks behind a lectern bearing the provincial logo.
Emails originating from Premier Danielle Smith's office went to the Alberta Crown prosecutors' office regarding Coutts blockade charges, sources tell CBC News. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

In a December interview with Rebel News, Smith had questioned whether the cases are in the public interest to pursue and if there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction.

"I've put it to the prosecutors, and I've asked them to do a review of the cases with those two things in mind. And I'm hopeful that we'll see a true turning of the page," she said.

"And so do you continue on in prosecuting one when the public has moved on? That's the big question that the Crown has got to to come to terms with."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is a justice affairs reporter. She has been covering courts, crime and stories of police accountability in southern Alberta for more than a decade. Send Meghan a story tip at meghan.grant@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter.

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