Incoming Alberta Premier Danielle Smith
Incoming Alberta Premier Danielle Smith (Photo: Dave Cournoyer, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

The new pre­mier of Alber­ta, Canada’s oil pro­duc­ing province, is a right-wing pop­ulist and for­mer online radio talk show host.

Danielle Smith
Danielle Smith, incom­ing Pre­mier of Alber­ta (Pho­to: Man­ning Centre)

Danielle Smith, fifty-one, was cho­sen Thurs­day as leader of the Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty in a vote of par­ty members.

The UCP holds a major­i­ty of seats in the Alber­ta Leg­is­la­ture, so its leader becomes pre­mier. Under a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, as seen recent­ly with ouster of Britain’s Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son, a head of gov­ern­ment can be forced to resign and replaced with­out a vote of the people.

“Peace, order and good gov­ern­ment” has been Canada’s infor­mal mot­to of set­tle­ment and devel­op­ment from the time of Confederation.

Smith is like­ly to soon dis­rupt all three pil­lars by ask­ing the Alber­ta Leg­is­la­ture to adopt some­thing called the Alber­ta Sov­er­eign­ty Act. The act would allow the provin­cial leg­is­la­ture to veto any actions by Canada’s fed­er­al gov­ern­ment or reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies “that vio­late the juris­dic­tion­al rights of Alberta.

The Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty can­not be described as united.

Out­go­ing Pre­mier Jason Ken­ney, who resigned in May after com­ing up short in a UCP lead­er­ship vote, has described the Alber­ta Sov­er­eign­ty Act as “cocka­mamie” and “cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly stupid.”

Sim­i­lar opin­ions came from Smith’s oppo­nents in the UCP lead­er­ship con­test. A for­mer fed­er­al cab­i­net min­is­ter, Ken­ney rep­re­sents a more staid, busi­ness-ori­ent­ed con­ser­vatism, in the man­ner of the Bush fam­i­ly in the Unit­ed States.

Under Ken­ney, Alber­ta imposed few­er restric­tions to com­bat the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic than any oth­er Cana­di­an province.

Yet, protests erupt­ed in rur­al parts of the province along with a late win­ter “Free­dom Con­voy” block­ade at a bor­der cross­ing into Montana.

The RCMP uncov­ered a large arms cache at a near­by home.

An activist on the right from Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary days, and alum­nus of The Fras­er Insti­tute think tank, Danielle Smith is known for con­tro­ver­sial views.

On the top­ic of health, she has sug­gest­ed that there can be health ben­e­fits from a mod­est con­sump­tion of tobac­co, and that growth of can­cer is influ­enced by a patient’s behav­ior. She espoused the dis­cred­it­ed view that that hydrox­y­chloro­quine could pre­vent a SARS-Cov­‑2 infec­tion.

“We are not going to be enforc­ing fed­er­al lock­down mea­sures or fed­er­al restric­tions,” Smith declared after win­ning the UCP leadership.

Smith was a cli­mate skep­tic a decade ago in the Albert Legislature.

She claimed dur­ing the lead­er­ship cam­paign, how­ev­er, to have “come around full cir­cle” on the need to curb car­bon emissions.

Not quite. She oppos­es a fed­er­al car­bon tax and has backed Big Oil’s response to con­trol­ling emis­sions from its vast tar sands project in north­ern Alberta.

“I’m not a sci­en­tist,” she has said, words heard from Repub­li­can politi­cians in the U.S. “I defer that the indus­try has agreed: This indus­try accepts the con­sen­sus (on cli­mate change) and they’re work­ing on pro­tec­tion solu­tions and it’s my job to sup­port them.”

Huh? In plain Eng­lish – one of Canada’s two offi­cial lan­guages – that means resist­ing con­trol mea­sures pro­posed by Canada’s fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, as well as efforts by Ottawa to reg­u­late or lim­it new ener­gy projects.

Alber­ta has always been a con­ser­v­a­tive province, except for the peri­od of 2015 to 2019 when it had a reformist gov­ern­ment from the cen­ter-left New Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Its con­ser­vatism is cen­tered in rur­al areas, and has a lib­er­tar­i­an bent.

In fed­er­al elec­tions, rid­ings (the Cana­di­an equiv­a­lent of con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts) give mas­sive majori­ties to the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty. The country’s gov­ern­ing Lib­er­al Par­ty holds only two of the province’s forty-two seats in the House of Commons.

A right-wing provin­cial move­ment, the Wil­drose Par­ty, grew up ear­ly in the twen­ty-first, oppos­ing Alberta’s cen­ter-right gov­ern­ment. Danielle Smith was its leader in the Alber­ta Leg­is­la­ture. In 2015, how­ev­er, she aban­doned the par­ty with four fel­low leg­is­la­tors and crossed the floor to sit with the Conservatives.

She was show­ered with unfa­vor­able pub­lic­i­ty and could not even win a provin­cial rid­ing nom­i­na­tion in 2015. The road back was a talk show on Cal­gary radio CHQR. And, to Smith’s advan­tage, the frat­ri­cide of the Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive Party.

Con­ser­v­a­tives rule Alber­ta, but inter­nal bat­tles and par­ty divi­sions have forced out a suc­ces­sion of pre­miers. The usu­al sin, not fight­ing hard enough against Ottawa. The casu­al­ty list includes Ken­ney, Ali­son Red­ford, Jim Pren­tice, Ralph Klein (drink­ing was a fac­tor) and Ed Stelmach.

Ken­ney has not gone qui­et­ly, how­ev­er. In a recent mag­a­zine inter­view, he said: “Con­ser­vatism, there­fore, means pro­tect­ing what’s best about what we’ve inher­it­ed, not being opposed to thought­ful reform, but being opposed to rad­i­cal overnight change and the destruc­tion of insti­tu­tions. And some of what I see now, what I call ‘pop­ulism with a snarl,’ is not con­ser­vatism. It’s tear­ing things down and blow­ing things up, and that con­cerns me.”

The bot­tom line, Ken­ney added: “I think a con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty or gov­ern­ment focus­ing on recrim­i­na­tions over COVID, politi­ciz­ing sci­ence, enti­tling con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, cam­paign­ing with QAnon is a par­ty that can’t form gov­ern­ment and shouldn’t.”

Polls show the Alber­ta Sov­er­eign­ty Act to be unpop­u­lar even among vot­ers of a province that dis­likes Canada’s fed­er­al government.

Its dan­gers are obvi­ous, one province set­ting itself apart from the oth­er nine. Court bat­tles are cer­tain. Busi­ness invest­ment would be shroud­ed in uncer­tain­ty. The chaos might build sup­port for what has been a small but noisy move­ment favor­ing sep­a­ra­tion from Canada.

The UCP gov­ern­ment must call a provin­cial elec­tion by next spring. The New Democ­rats under for­mer Pre­mier Rachel Not­ley are poised for a come­back and can­not be dis­pleased that the most con­tro­ver­sial UCP can­di­date prevailed.

As well, Alber­ta is chang­ing. Its prin­ci­pal cities, Edmon­ton and Cal­gary, are becom­ing more pro­gres­sive and diverse, not just in pop­u­la­tion but in an econ­o­my no longer dri­ven entire­ly by oil. Envi­ron­men­tal resis­tance blocked an Aus­tralian magnate’s plan for coal min­ing in the front range of the Cana­di­an Rock­ies. “We will nev­er mine our moun­tains for coal,” Not­ley said in a recent tweet.

The New Democ­rats held onto Edmon­ton and Cal­gary rid­ings even while being vot­ed out of office in 2019. Long labeled left­ist, they may appear to rep­re­sent peace, order and good gov­ern­ment… giv­en Unit­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty tur­moil and the incom­ing premier’s rad­i­cal views.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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