Judge to decide if former Alberta justice minister is in contempt of court

Former Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis could be cited for contempt of court after a letter was sent to the province's former chief medical examiner threatening to sue for defamation.

Justice Doreen Sulyma will hand down decision Wednesday over Jonathan Denis letter that halted trial

Former Alberta Justice minister Jonathan Denis attended court in Edmonton Monday, but did not address the judge directly. (CBC)

An Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench judge will take two days to decide if former Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis should be cited for contempt of court. 

A civil trial came to an abrupt halt Friday after a lawyer sent a letter on behalf of Denis threatening to sue the plaintiff for defamation. 

On Monday, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma called the timing of the letter "disastrous" because Dr. Anny Sauvageau was still testifying in her wrongful dismissal case. 

Sauvageau was Alberta's chief medical examiner from mid-2011 until 2014 when she learned that her contract would not be renewed the next year. She is suing the province for $7.6 million in damages for loss of income and benefits.

In court Monday afternoon, Sauvageau's lawyer characterized the Denis letter as a "threat" and "intimidation."

"The plaintiff is an individual … who is already feeling vulnerable," Allan Garber told the court. "How do you put the toothpaste back in the tube?"

In a sworn affidavit, Sauvageau said she has renewed a prescription for anti-anxiety medication and is going to seek counselling.

"The false accusations and threats made by Jonathan Denis, Q.C., against me have made me feel bullied and intimidated once again and have reactivated my symptoms," Sauvageau wrote.

"I now feel fearful, anxious and worried … and am having flashbacks of the events that occurred in the past which gave rise to this litigation."

'A misunderstanding'

The lawyer representing Denis offered an apology for what he called a "misunderstanding" of the letter that was sent last week. 

"Mr. Denis wishes to apologize to the court," Brendan Miller said. "He takes full responsibility for the misunderstanding arising from the letter."

Miller told the judge that the letter was sent last week because Denis believed Sauvageau was speaking to members of the media outside court. 

The letter referenced an Edmonton Journal article that recounted testimony about Denis given by Sauvageau last week during her sworn testimony.

In her affidavit, Sauvageau said she has not spoken to the media since the end of 2014, when her contract as the province's top forensic pathologist was not renewed. 

Miller acknowledged that Sauvageau could not and would not be sued for defamation over her testimony, because it is protected by absolute privilege.

"There's no way she can ever be sued for what she says on the stand," Miller said. 

"But that's what the letter refers to," Sulyma immediately countered. 

"The letter doesn't rise to the occasion of intimidating a witness," Miller said. "Even if it was a threat to the testimony, it's a threat that amounts to nothing."

Miller added that on their own volition, Denis's legal team reported the issue to the Law Society of Alberta. 

Last week's letter was sent by Kyle Shewchuk, a junior lawyer in Denis's Calgary law firm who was admitted to the bar last August. 

Before the hearing adjourned on Monday, Shewchuk asked to address the court so he could apologize. 

"This has been a learning experience for me as a new lawyer to the bar," Shewchuk said. 

Sulyma called his apology "appropriate" and accepted the apology.

Denis did not address the court. 

He declined comment outside court. 

Sulyma will hand down her decision on Wednesday morning before Sauvageau resumes testifying. 


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.