EDMONTON — An email probe into whether Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s office interfered with Crown prosecutors took a confusing turn Friday after two government spokespeople delivered duelling statements that raised questions over how far back the search went.
The review was ordered by Smith a week ago to respond to allegations in a CBC story that reported a staffer in the premier's office emailed prosecutors last fall to question decisions and direction on cases stemming from a blockade at the Canada-U. S. border crossing at Coutts, Alta.
The Justice Department said Monday it had done a four-month search of ingoing, outgoing and deleted emails and found no evidence of contact.
Two days later, Alberta Justice communications director Charles Mainville said in a statement that deleted emails are wiped from the system after 30 days, meaning the search for deleted emails may not have covered the entire time period in question.
On Thursday night, Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney, a spokesman for Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, responded to questions about Mainville’s statement. He said while emails are deleted after 30 days, they live on in the system for another 30 and could have been checked that far back by investigators.
“For example, if an email was deleted on Oct. 17, 2022, the email would no longer be accessible to the user as of Nov. 16, 2022, but would continue to be available to our investigation team until Dec. 16, 2022,” said Lecavalier-Kidney in his statement.
A 60-day search would have stretched back to late November, capturing all but the first six weeks of Smith’s United Conservative Party government. Smith was sworn in as premier on Oct. 11.
But while Lecavalier-Kidney’s statement said investigators could go back 60 days, it did not state that they did so, leaving confusion on how far back they went.
When asked Friday to clarify whether investigators went back 30 or 60 days on the deleted emails, Lecavalier-Kidney did not respond to questions while Mainville reissued the original statements in an email.
The government has also delivered conflicting messages on who was investigated in the review.
Smith promised that emails from all Crown prosecutors and the 34 staffers in her office would be checked.
However, the Justice Department later said emails between “relevant” prosecutors and Smith staffers were checked. It did not say how it determined who was relevant.
The Coutts blockade and COVID-19 protest at the border crossing last year saw RCMP lay charges against several people, ranging from mischief to conspiracy to commit murder.
Smith has said she did not direct prosecutors in the Coutts cases and the email review exonerated her office from what she called “baseless” allegations in the CBC story.
The CBC has said that it has not seen the emails in question, but stands by its reporting.
The Opposition NDP said questions stemming from the CBC story, coupled with multiple conflicting statements from the premier on what she has said to Justice Department officials about the COVID-19 cases, can only be resolved through an independent investigation.
Smith has given six versions in recent weeks of what she has said to justice officials about COVID-19 cases.
Smith has said she talked to prosecutors directly and did not talk to prosecutors directly. She has said she reminded justice officials of general prosecution guidelines, but at other times reminded them to consider factors unique to COVID-19 cases. She has also suggested the conversations are ongoing and that they have ended.
She has attributed the confusion to "imprecise'' word choices.
Smith has long been openly critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning if they were needed to fight the pandemic and labelling them intolerable violations of personal freedoms.
She has also called those unvaccinated against COVID-19 the most discriminated group she has seen in her lifetime.
Last fall, Smith said charges in the cases were grounded in politics and should be open to political solutions. But she recently said it's important to let the court process play out independently.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2023.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press