EDMONTON — United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith says she won’t comment on a controversial Calgary street pastor being convicted of mischief for his actions at the COVID-19 border protest in Coutts, Alta.
Smith says she must respect that Artur Pawlowski’s case is continuing through the legal system.
“I'm not going to be commenting on the matter. I don't comment on individual cases,” Smith said Wednesday, when asked about the Pawlowski verdict by host Shaye Ganam on a provincewide Corus radio talk show. Smith made the appearance in the lead-up to the May 29 Alberta election.
“The matter is still ongoing and under review, so I’m just going to leave it at that," she said.
Ganam reminded Smith that in a leaked phone call with Pawlowski, Smith advised the pastor that the charges against him were politically motivated.
“You did comment on the case,” said Ganam. “You said on the phone call that you thought it was politically biased, that's what it was about, it was about politics.
“Would you say the judgment then — the two guilty verdicts yesterday that are closed, that are done — were those politically biased or were those justice being served?”
Smith responded: “I've never commented publicly on ongoing cases, individual cases. I’m not going to comment on this one.”
NDP Leader Rachel Notley responded later at a campaign stop in Edmonton, prefacing her comments with a brief bit of caustic laughter.
“(Smith) has a policy of not speaking publicly on matters before the courts, except when she's talking to the person who's before the courts about how she's going to interfere with the matter before the courts,” said Notley.
“That is most ridiculous thing I've ever heard from her. OK, maybe it’s not the most ridiculous, because there's a lot of ridiculous.”
UCP candidate Rebecca Schulz defended Smith’s call with Pawlowski while responding to questions from reporters at an unrelated news conference in Calgary.
“We talk to Albertans every single day. We hear their concerns, we hear their issues and we commit to get back on certain processes that need to be followed. In this case, the premier did exactly that,” said Schulz.
UCP candidate Brian Jean, standing beside Schulz, added that the Pawlowski call is not an issue he is hearing on the doorsteps.
“I've been knocking on a lot of doors, and what Albertans are worried about is affordability. They're worried about being able to afford their electricity bills and being able to afford their natural gas bills,” said Jean.
Pawlowski is known for controversial demonstrations against the LGBTQ community, abortion and, more recently, health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, a Lethbridge judge found him guilty of mischief for inciting truckers to continue their illegal protest at Coutts. The protest blocked Alberta’s main border crossing into the United States for more than two weeks in early 2022.
Pawlowski was also convicted of breaching a release order. A third charge of violating a provincial act against disruption of critical infrastructure is on hold pending a constitutional challenge from the pastor's lawyers.
Pawlowski has criticized Smith for not following through on her promise to pardon COVID-19 protesters. He is now organizing a political party for the election and has told reporters he will have more to say next week on his phone call with Smith.
Smith is a longtime critic of COVID-19 health measures, questioning their effectiveness while denouncing their impact on individual freedoms.
In her successful campaign in the fall to replace Jason Kenney as UCP leader and premier, Smith promised to seek pardons for COVID-19 violators. But later, as premier, she said she couldn’t do it because she learned premiers in Canada don’t have such authority.
Smith has faced questions and Opposition calls for a full investigation for multiple, and at times contradictory, comments about her role questioning her Justice Department’s pursuit of COVID-19 prosecutions.
On March 29, the NDP released the leaked call between Smith and Pawlowski that took place in January, before Pawlowski’s trial. Smith is heard offering to make inquiries on his case and report back while discussing and agreeing with his concerns about Crown prosecution case strategy.
“Everybody has moved on from COVID and we’re dealing with a bunch of charges,” Smith is heard telling Pawlowski.
“The thing I find very frustrating is that it was a political decision that initiated this, but it can’t be a political decision to end it.”
Alberta’s ethics commissioner has launched an investigation into the conversation.
Notley said the call "is a clear demonstration of (Smith) interfering with the administration of justice and violating the rule of law, and showing people that she doesn't understand basic law-and-order principles.
“She’s reckless and she’s unpredictable," Notley said.
Smith has recently stated that it's not OK for politicians and accused persons to discuss active criminal cases but her call to Pawlowski was OK because, as a politician, it's her role to interact and hear from constituents.
She has also said that she didn't realize the call would be about Pawlowski’s criminal case and she thought she would be talking politics with him in his then-role as the head of the fringe Independence Party of Alberta.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press