Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party (UCP) is in the midst of a leadership race after deeply unpopular premier Jason Kenney received a dismal 51.4 percent in his May leadership review. For context, former premier Alison Redford resigned three months after receiving 77 percent approval from her party in 2014. Those hoping that Kenney’s resignation will make way for a more moderate conservative leader — one who will shave the edges off the rigid austerity Kenney promoted during his time in office — will be sorely disappointed.
There are seven candidates vying to be the next UCP leader and, by extension, the next Alberta premier — the Canadian equivalent of governor. Two former leaders of the Wildrose Party, which merged with Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives (PCs) to form the United Conservative Party, are in the race — Danielle Smith, a podcaster and conspiracy theorist, and Fort McMurray member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Brian Jean, who returned to the legislature this year on an explicit platform of removing Kenney from power.
Three of the candidates, who represent the establishment wing of the party, had to resign from Kenney’s cabinet in order to run for the leadership. Former finance minister Travis Toews, former children’s services minister Rebecca Schulz, and former transportation minister Rajan Sawhney are stuck between touting their experience in cabinet and distancing themselves from Kenney’s tumultuous premiership. Schulz, for example, claims she was “not part of the inner circle, although I sat at that table” before shifting the conversation to her own “humility and hard work.”
Two MLAs who had falling outs with Kenney are also running. Leela Aheer, the former minister of culture, multiculturalism, and status of women, was kicked out of cabinet in July 2021 when, after infamous pictures emerged of Kenney and officials violating COVID restrictions on a rooftop patio, she criticized the premier. Todd Loewen, meanwhile, was kicked out of the party after he called on Kenney to resign.
Polling has been sparse for the leadership election, but the most recent public polling shows a three-way race between Smith with 22 percent, Jean with 20 percent, and Toews with 15 percent. Internal polling from the Smith campaign leaked to sympathetic Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell shows an even greater lead, with her at 46.4 percent, Toews at 26.3 percent, and Jean at 10.7 percent.
Polls are one thing, but Smith has shown a remarkable ability to pack rural town halls and sign up new members. It’s these members, rather than the broader electorate, who will decide who becomes the next premier. Smith is also undeniably driving the tenor of discussion in this race, with her bizarre pronouncements getting roundly denounced by her opponents, burnishing her populist, outsider credentials.
Her political reemergence has been all the more remarkable, as her political career was written off as dead after her failed effort to unite the Right in Alberta, crossing the floor with half the Wildrose caucus to join the governing PCs. But when it came time to run for the PCs, she lost her nomination — the equivalent of a primary — for the district of Highwood. In politics, however, if you say the right things, all is forgiven.
While Jean has dabbled in COVID conspiracy theories — insinuating that vaccines are as dangerous as COVID itself — none have been more prolific on this front than Smith. It’s an integral part of her brand.
After Smith lost her nomination, she reinvented herself as a conservative talk radio host. She left this job at Global News in early 2021, after making a statement about how “far too many topics have become unchallengeable and the mob of political correctness thinks nothing of destroying a person’s career and reputation over some perceived slight, real or imagined.” This petulant complaint might have been related to criticisms she received in March 2020 that forced her to give an apology for tweeting that hydroxychloroquine is a 100 percent cure for COVID.
But without Global to constrain her, she’s gone even further down the COVID conspiracist rabbit hole. She claimed Alberta Health Services and the province’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, whose entire boards she promises to fire if elected, were covering up the efficacy of ivermectin as a COVID treatment. She also wrote an op-ed in the Calgary Herald in March 2021 likening vaccine mandates to Nazi experiments on Jews.
She has also shared the stage at a campaign rally with Theo Fleury, a former Calgary Flames hockey player, who compared the effects of COVID restrictions to the sexual abuse he received from a coach as a minor. But the worst instance of medical disinformation to come from Smith was actually unrelated to COVID. In a podcast interview with a naturopath, she said that until a patient gets to stage four, cancer is “completely within your control and there’s something you can do about that that is different.” Smith has refused to apologize for these remarks.
Alberta Sovereignty Act
The centerpiece of Smith’s campaign has been her much-maligned Alberta Sovereignty Act. The act would allow the province to veto any federal laws it dislikes, and it seems very much like it was designed with COVID restrictions and environmental protections in its crosshairs. Smith would also begin the process of creating a provincial police force to replace the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and a provincial tax collection agency.
In a debate cohosted by Alberta Prosperity Project, an Alberta separatist group, and far-right media company Rebel News, Smith said the act “ensures that we are putting our civil service on notice — all 240,000 of them — that every single decision they make must be put through the lens of putting Alberta first.” It’s unclear what exactly this means, but it does demonstrate a willingness to vilify the public sector.
During his successful election in 2019, Kenney flirted with Alberta separatism, lashing out against a federal government he claimed was treating Alberta unfairly. He promised to establish a Fair Deal Panel to look at the ways in which Alberta could exert its independence while remaining part of Canada. In June 2020, the panel released twenty-five recommendations, including much of what Smith is now advocating.
The Kenney government said it would start the process of creating a provincial police force and pension plan. But Smith is going a step further, saying she will invoke the Alberta Sovereignty Act as her first action in office — as the opening move in a political game of chicken — to force the federal government to “keep” Alberta in Canada by acceding to its demands.
This is a bridge too far for Kenney, who called the act a “proposal for Alberta to basically ignore and violate the constitution in a way unprecedented in Canadian history.” Smith responded by telling Kenney to stay out of the leadership race.
Barry Cooper, one of two academics who drafted the policy as part of a larger “Free Alberta Strategy” happily admits that it’s unconstitutional. “Indeed, that is the whole point,” he wrote in the right-wing National Post:
The Canadian Constitution has never worked in favor of Albertans, so it needs to be changed. Changing the Constitution, in fact, if not in terms of black letter law, is called politics. Law exists downstream from politics.
Uberifying the Public Sector
Another key pledge from Smith is to give every Albertan a $300 stipend so they can “begin the process of . . . buy[ing] the healthcare of their choice” through an Uber-like app, with which people can select their health care provider. Smith seems to presuppose that the shiny new app can distract the electorate from the substance of this pledge — the privatization of health care. Albertans may not approve of Canadian health care with the same enthusiasm as other provinces, but satisfaction with health care nonetheless remains at a robust 65 percent.
In an effort to court the burgeoning distrust in science-based modern medicine, Smith has also claimed that Albertans will be able to use the app to purchase the services of holistic practitioners, such as nutritionists, naturopaths, and acupuncturists.
More broadly, she has asserted the need to “Uber-fy our public services.” At a July campaign event in Airdrie, she explained her vision:
Uber allows you as an individual to sign up because you want to receive a service and allows another person to sign up because they want to deliver a service, and they have an application that connects the driver with the person who wants to be driven, and they do automatic payments. It has eliminated virtually all the bureaucracy you have from a central dispatch system.
Smith has also expressed desire to turn Alberta into a “bastion of freedom” by inviting independent media outlets from across the political spectrum to move to Alberta. Once they are safely on the province’s soil of liberty, through the use of Elon Musk’s StarLink system, she will somehow protect them from federal government censorship.
If a right-wing media personality, in the mold of Tucker Carlson, ever ran for president, chances are their campaign would look a lot like Danielle Smith’s. With her folksy charm and undeniable talents as a broadcaster, Smith offers a grab bag of bold, albeit wacky ideas that could appeal to people normally disenchanted from politics. The opposition New Democratic Party should pay attention — its electoral prospects in next May’s general election will depend on how effectively it can fight back against Smith.