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Jen Gerson: It may not be SNC-Lavalin, but it should be humiliating
Where is Premier Smith’s judgement? The discretion? Her basic understanding of government? I am so gobsmacked that I don't even know how to describe the scene.
By: Jen Gerson
It's always a good sign when a major public figure tries to preempt an imminent story with a threat of defamation.
And so it was this week in Alberta. Cue the title cards and the synth theme music. Our favourite soap opera, Alberta: The Show, rolls into its umpteenth season despite critics’ skepticism and complaints.
The CBC dropped a story featuring an 11-minute video featuring premier Danielle Smith chatting with well-known Calgary pastor, Art Pawlowski, a man who had faced a litany of charges related to his talent for flouting COVID restrictions, as well as his alleged incitement of protestors at the Coutts border blockade last year.
During that chat, which appears to have occurred between the pair via video conferencing in January, and was recorded by one of Pawlowski's supporters in a private home, Smith appeared enormously sympathetic to the pastor's legal predicament, and noted that she was having "almost weekly" conversations with "our prosecutors" about outstanding COVID cases.
Smith denied wrongdoing in her pre-emptive statement. "At no time have I spoken with anyone from the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, nor to my knowledge, have any of my Office’s staff. Allegations to the contrary are defamatory and will be dealt with accordingly."
There are two major issues here: the immediate fallout of the video’s release, and what this whole incident highlights about Smith's most pressing weakness as a premier. The latter is probably more important than the former.
But let's start with the news: the extensive conversation with Pawlowski does undermine Smith's claims to have respected judicial independence on COVID files — a claim she has maintained since CBC started publishing stories effectively accusing her office of pressuring Crown prosecutors to drop COVID charges several weeks ago.
The recording, in and of itself, falls short of clear evidence that Smith did anything legally wrong. The premier starts the call by trying to explain to Pawlowski that there are legal limits to what she can do about his charges; she can ask certain questions of her department of justice, but she simply doesn't have the power to force prosecutors to lay off Pawlowski.
After being sworn in as premier, Smith received a briefing from the justice department, and in fact seems acutely conscious of the boundaries of precedent, practice, and law. She even cites the SNC-Lavalin scandal that ensnared Justin Trudeau — this is obviously referenced as a breach of protocol and ethics to be avoided.
However, even if Smith were just asking the legally above-board questions, there is a point at which asking those questions persistently — ie; weekly — could be interpreted as pressuring individuals for a certain outcome. And that’s where the grey area in which the Premier’s office might legitimately operate would quickly turn dark.
Complicating matters is that Smith at this time had an embarrassing habit of publicly conflating Crown prosecutors — ie; "our prosecutors" — with justice department officials. This point was noted by columnist Lorne Gunter; it's therefore not entirely clear whether Smith is telling Pawlowski that she is poking members of her own justice department (which could be appropriate, if ill-judged) or individual Crown prosecutors overseeing COVID files (which would be entirely out of line.)
What's more damaging about the call from this perspective is that Smith, by her own admission, was running around during the leadership campaign making promises about granting amnesty for COVID charges despite having no legal power to do so … which she claims she did not realize.
“I thought we probably had the same power of clemency that they did in the U.S.," she explains to Pawlowski on the tape. "I’m not a lawyer by training."
Danielle Smith, by the way, is not some journalist noob to politics: she ran the Wildrose Party for years, and has sat as an MLA in the Alberta legislature as a former leader of the opposition. If she genuinely did not know that she couldn't go around lifting spirits in rural Alberta like the magic pardon fairy, well, that's just really humiliating for her. I hope she’s got someone fine-tooth combing through that stump looking for other humdingers.
And herein lies the biggest problem with the Pawlowski tape: it’s less that it proves some kind of SNC-type scandal took place, but rather that it is just intensely shameful.
To explain this, I need to provide a little context to our non-Albertan readers about who, exactly, Art Pawlowski is by offering this brief and incomplete summary of Pawlowski's history in the public eye:
He came to prominence in the mid-2000s when he engaged in a multi-year court crusade to blast his sermons near Calgary City Hall with the help of a giant amplifier, violating noise bylaws and making a swathe of the downtown unbearable during weekends.
Pawlowski then led a church that lost its charitable status because it spent too much time on partisan political activities in opposition to issues like abortion and gay marriage.
At one point, Pawlowski's ministry filed a human-rights complaint against the municipal government, claiming it was discriminated against because the city had denied it an application to hold some kind of Jesus flag raising at city hall.
In 2012, he and his crew breached a city bylaw when they crashed the annual Stampede parade.
Hilariously, that year Pawlowski also railed against Smith, then leader of the Wildrose Party, after seeing her dressed in traditional garb at a Hindu ceremony. She "crossed the line from being tolerant of other people and their beliefs to actively participating in their idolatrous practices,” he said.
In 2014, Pawlowski probably also doomed the political aspirations of then PC leadership hopeful Ric McIver; during that race, pictures of McIver cutting a ribbon at one of Pawlowski's marches became a subject of significant consternation. Association with the pastor had grown controversial after Pawlowski blamed the 2013 floods in Alberta on God's unhappiness with homosexuality. To wit: "He is weeping for the perversions of homosexuality," Pawlowski wrote in his blog.
So of course — of course — Pawlowski found himself a new crusade for freedom with the advent of the pandemic. He flouted numerous social distancing and mask requirements, and was called up to court on multiple charges in recent years. He's been required by the court to pay multiple fines. I don't even want to know how many times he's been found in contempt. The charge in Coutts stems from allegations that he was inciting further illegal border blockades by offering a sermon of sorts to the protestors on site.
To offer just one more example: in February 2021, Pawlowski was banned from the Shoppers Drug Mart in the Westbrook Mall when the manager at the site's postal outlet kicked him out.
The worker said she saw him arguing with another customer and glaring at her: when he was asked to leave, Pawlowski started recording her on his phone and muttered that he felt that he was being treated like a modern-day Jew. This offended the postal worker.
Look, I could get more colourful, but our libel lawyers don’t need the hassle and I think most readers will get the drift. No doubt this pastor has provoked his opponents to excess. Sometimes he is in the right. Regardless, Pawlowski is a known gadfly who has spent the last decade in this city crafting himself into a martyr of his own making. He's gained himself notoriety, a ministry, and a flock of dozens with a series of never-ending stunts designed to invite the ire and overreach of local authorities. He's the OG troll.
And Danielle Smith — a premier of a province — thought: "Yeah, I should definitely call that guy up and personally bring him up to date on his latest charges."
Because ... why? Because she's so sympathetic to anybody who has been charged with COVID that she's oblivious to how wildly inappropriate this is? To be clear, Pawlowski isn't exactly commanding a legion of voters. He may be well-connected in conservative circles, but he's not politically powerful. I don't think he's even particularly influential among fellow evangelicals. He's a fringe street preacher convinced of a divine purpose.
To make matters worse, the tape shoes this be-sweatpanted loser threatening the premier, and Smith — again, a premier — responding meekly in turn. ‘Yeah, just leave that with me, Art! I’ll get right on that once my aide is back from vacation.’
Where is Smith’s judgement? The discretion? I am so gobsmacked that I don't even know how to describe the scene. It's pathetic.
To put this into a non-Alberta perspective, imagine Doug Ford sitting down with the goiter dude at Yonge/Dundas and debasing himself before the "pray to Jesus" sign. "Sure Fred! Need another soapbox here? How about a chair? How's your megaphone doing?" I am sympathetic to the argument that politics is the pursuit of service, but even Ford is not that desperate to be liked.
The NDP is having its moment with this tape, and I don't blame them. The opposition's justice critic has repeated his party's demands for an independent investigation into allegations of judicial interference, and that request doesn't seem in any way offside to me.
"It is deeply inappropriate for the premier to be having this conversation with someone facing criminal charges," Sabir added. "That she greets him with such admiration says a lot about who Danielle Smith is."
He's not wrong.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece noted that Pawlowski faced a series of charges for COVID-related infractions. To the best of our knowledge, those charges have been resolved.
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