CALGARY—Danielle Smith is a traitor. A saviour. A libertarian. Socially progressive. Dangerous.
What she’s called depends on who you talk to in this province, but United Conservative Party members said their piece on Thursday, wrapping up their leadership race, so add “premier of Alberta” to that list. (She will officially take that title when she gets sworn in.)
This isn’t her first political rodeo, and Canadians would do well to understand her roots as they look ahead at what a Smith-led Alberta — founded on taking a hard stance on provincial sovereignty — will mean for the country.
Smith comes from the old days of Alberta politics when the right wing of the province was neatly separated into two rancorous political factions: the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservative parties.
Smith was the Wildrose leader for years. It was considered the more libertarian conservative party, with roots firmly in rural Alberta among ranchers and farmers. In the 2012 election, Smith enjoyed impressive momentum with the Wildrose, and some thought she could win.
But that year she committed the first of two historic flubs during her career, when she refused to boot a candidate from the party after it came out that he had written a blog post saying that gay people would burn in a “lake of fire” if they didn’t reject their sexuality.
Smith lost the election, and many chalked it up to the “lake of fire” moment — three words that still live on today in Alberta as a warning for political parties to not try to put policy in place that would infringe on LGBTQ rights.
Still, Smith led the Wildrose to official Opposition status in the legislature during that election and impressed people with her charisma and communication skills.
But her legacy as a traitor among many Wildrose voters was cemented after her second, career-defining gaffe. In 2014, the Wildrose was dealing with internal issues that left her leadership on shaky ground as she reportedly tried to push for the party to be more socially progressive. At the end of that year, Smith and eight other Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to the governing Progressive Conservatives.
That stunning episode has since been remembered as one of the most notorious political howlers in Alberta history, and Smith has acknowledged it was misguided. She went on to lose her own nomination and the PCs went on to lose the next election to the NDP in 2015, the floor crossing still fresh in the memories of Albertans.
The irony is not lost on some in the UCP, which was formed in 2017 by merging the PCs and Wildrose in a bid to oust the New Democrats. Those who haven’t forgotten the error lay at least some of the blame for the rise of the NDP in the province at Smith’s feet.
Smith left politics after that to host a popular talk radio show where she was able to stay politically relevant as she engaged with current affairs, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which she challenged public health policy consistently on her show. This is where she would start learning the language used during her UCP leadership campaign this year around protecting unvaccinated people and rejecting public health lockdowns.
This wasn’t her first time working in media while tackling hot-button issues, either. She spent years in the late 1990s and early 2000s penning newspaper columns in which she’d often criticize institutions like the Supreme Court of Canada and the federal government for overstepping into Alberta’s jurisdiction.
She had a penchant for tangling with public health policy-makers and scientists back in those days, too.
In 2003, she wrote a column pushing back against policies aimed at curbing addiction to cigarettes, railing against “antismoking zealots” and suggesting that “evidence shows moderate cigarette consumption can reduce traditional risks of disease by 75 per cent or more.”
The column promoted a study that appeared to suggest that second hand smoke didn’t contribute to developing cancer. (It does.)
In 1999, it was the feds protecting endangered species that, she argued, weren’t really endangered that stuck in her craw.
“There are, after all, environmental groups that raise landfills full of money by trumpeting the demise of various flora and fauna,” wrote Smith in the Calgary Herald.
“Money, for the big environmental movement, is almost as holy as the ozone.”
In those days, she defended more private health-care options, criticized Supreme Court decisions, chastised apparent federal government misunderstandings of people’s rights and freedoms, and blasted the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, she wrote a column scorching a Canadian Alliance politician for taking a fantastical essay about gay people seriously and using it to suggest there was a nefarious gay conspiracy.
“Maybe, if religious and pro-family organizations stopped posting this essay, it would slip into obscurity, along with the shocking agenda it purports to advance,” she wrote.
“Why hasn’t that happened? Perhaps the anti-gay lobby has its own conspiracy to answer for.”
Wrote Smith: “If the gay agenda is about convincing society to be more open-minded, so gays can be left alone to live relatively normal lives, I’m all for it.”
This all makes Smith consistent in her libertarian values, her criticism of science and questioning of public health policy.
Her vision of the world has helped make her an unlikely hero during the unprecedented time of COVID. She’s seen by supporters, for better or for worse, as a defender of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a constitutional steward, and an honest skeptic of scientific information worthy of critique from those in the public.
More recently, during the pandemic, Smith has come under fire for her stance on vaccines and one time promoting hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. She’s seemingly made a point of embracing the relatively small minority of people who are firmly anti-vax and who have promoted widely debunked COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
Smith has been a prominent supporter of the Freedom Convoy and said that her Alberta Sovereignty Act (this first bill she would introduce) would nullify federal government attempts to use the Emergencies Act or implement vaccine mandates. Some of her fellow UCP contestants have said this act — which she says would allow Alberta to shirk federal laws it doesn’t like — would be dangerously close to full-on separatism and scare off investment, while constitutional law experts have said it would likely be shot down in court.
This all brings her to the UCP of today, a party that has fought bitterly over these issues throughout the pandemic. Some MLAs in caucus loathed the public health restrictions brought in under Kenney while others thought those measures weren’t brought in quickly or strongly enough.
For years, it appeared the relatively small faction that decried those measures was steering the ship that eventually, for Kenney at least, sank in May after he only got 51 per cent support in a leadership view.
If Smith is that cohort’s saviour, it will remain to be seen how the rest of the party, and Albertans who have not yet had the chance to vote for her, deals with her firebrand vision.
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt