Danielle Smith Suggested Police Officers Could Face Criminal Charges For Enforcing Public Health Orders
Two weeks before becoming Premier of Alberta, Danielle Smith floated idea that RCMP officers ‘broke the law’ by enforcing Public Health Act
Alberta UCP leader Danielle Smith suggested criminal charges could be laid against police officers for enforcing the Public Health Act, citing pseudolegal arguments claiming the Criminal Code shields places of worship from law enforcement.
Before her whirlwind rise to Premier of Alberta, Smith was a vocal critic of vaccines and public health measures. Smith recently came under fire for comparing vaccinated Albertans to Nazi supporters and boycotting Remembrance Day poppies in protest of vaccine rules.
Smith later rationalized her comments, explaining that COVID-19 was a “frustrating time for everyone” but she “put those dark days” behind her when she became Premier.
But just two weeks before becoming Premier, Smith appeared on Facebook Live with Vincent Byfield, a social conservative activist, Alberta secessionist and, at the time, a top leader of the far-right ‘Take Back Alberta’ group — Byfield now serves on the UCP’s Board of Directors.
During the September 2022 livestream, Byfield asked Smith pointed questions about “police enforcement” of public health orders.
“The Calgary Police Service stated, ‘our job is to enforce the laws that our elected governments put in place’,” Byfield told Smith. “With such a mindset, pastors have since been arrested.”
“What will you do to ensure that police and other enforcement officers always act within the principle that first and foremost, they are to protect the citizens?”
After stressing the importance of “political leadership,” Smith told Byfield she thinks frontline police officers have been given too much “latitude.”
“You have frontline officers using their own judgment call about how to enforce, when to enforce and how aggressively to enforce and they made some big mistakes,” Smith said, adding: “The pastors never should have been arrested.”
Smith explained that listeners of her now defunct radio show sent her clippings from the Criminal Code and argued that it was the police – not the people violating Public Health Act – who were guilty of crimes.
“I remember being on the air, because it was my last couple of days on the air when Pastor Coates got arrested, and there are many people sending me Criminal Code sections,” Smith recalled.
“You are not allowed, under the Criminal Code, to disrupt a service.”
“That’s a Criminal Code violation,” Smith reiterated.
“I have to wonder whether or not some of those officers are the ones who broke the law in doing so.”
The UCP did not respond to questions from PressProgress seeking to clarify Smith’s comments about police officers violating the Criminal Code.
In her comments, Smith made direct reference to evangelical Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church, which became a focal point for far-right figures opposed to public health measures after Coates repeatedly defied COVID-19 rules on capacity limits.
Coates later turned himself into police and he was charged under the Public Health Act.
According to an affidavit filed by GraceLife, Coates and other congregants attempted to invoke Section 176 of the criminal code when the RCMP arrived at the church to escort public health inspectors to enforce rules on social gatherings – Coates told police it was “unlawful for them to enter the building.”
In a June 2021 decision, an Alberta judge explicitly rejected the argument that section 176 of the Criminal Code somehow shields churches from law enforcement.
“Nothing about the December 20 conduct of AHS or the RCMP violated section 176 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits obstruction of a religious service,” Justice R.C. Shaigec wrote in the decision.
“Section 176 does not dig a moat around places of worship, preventing enforcement of laws that are being repeatedly broken.”
In 2017, the federal government introduced legislation to modernize the Criminal Code and eliminate outdated “zombie laws.” Section 176 was initially slated to be repealed as it was seen as a redundant law, but the government changed course after multi-faith religious groups raised concerns about a rise in hate-motivated crimes.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a controversial far-right legal advocacy charity that backed Coates’ legal defence, has repeatedly asserted throughout the pandemic that section 176 gives churches special exemptions from public health rules.
Other fringe pastors, including Henry Hildebrandt of the Aylmer, Ontario “Church of God,” have invoked section 176 in defiance of public health measures, as well.
Smith echoed her comments on Byfield’s Facebook livestream during a March 2021 Western Standard livestream, in which Smith interviewed Justice Centre President John Carpay and Erin Coates, the spouse of Pastor James Coates.
Smith again cited section 176, this time suggesting Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Deena Hinshaw, could face up to two years in prison for authorizing public health orders.
“Explain to me why I’m wrong, that the criminal code section 176 doesn’t apply here?” Smith said. “Because it does say in there you can’t arrest somebody and prevent them from being able to deliver a sermon.”
“It’s actually a potential two years in jail if you violate that,” Smith said. “Why isn’t someone taking a Criminal Code violation against Dr. Deena Hinshaw for authorizing this?”
“What am I missing about that provision in the Criminal Code? Because if it doesn’t mean anything in this situation, then it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
Only a few weeks after the Western Standard’s broadcast, anti-lockdown activists derided Hinshaw at the Alberta Legislature, ironically chanting: “Lock her up.”
Former Premier Jason Kenney, who was later ousted by Smith and Take Back Alberta, publicly condemned the chant and described the anti-lockdown activists as “unhinged conspiracy theorists.”
Three months after taking office, Smith became mired in scandal after assuring another anti-lockdown pastor, Artur Pawlowski, that she would intervene on his behalf and speak directly with Crown prosecutors about the possibility of having his criminal charges for inciting Coutts blockaders dropped.
Earlier this month, Pawlowski was convicted of his charges.
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