How Danielle Smith won in Alberta and what it means for Canada

Danielle Smith rode a wave of Alberta populism to win the United Conservative Party leadership on the sixth ballot.

When she is sworn in as premier, she will be a new and potentially disruptive force in Canadian politics.

“No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free,” Smith said in her acceptance speech Thursday night.

“We will not have our voices silenced and censored. We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order to work or to travel. We will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by virtue-signalling prime ministers.”

Alberta politics includes a long tradition of populism: a belief that ordinary people are being kept down by an elite. That elite might be the federal government, global environmental activists, scientists or eastern Canadians. Populist leaders often rise to power by offering simplistic but grand plans, like Donald Trump’s promise to “build a wall” across the border with Mexico.

Smith’s win in the UCP leadership race follows the populist playbook. She positioned herself as an outsider, sided with the protesters angry about COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates and promised she would put “Alberta First” and fight Ottawa with her sovereignty act.

The UCP leadership race was primed for a populist to win.

The party’s membership is predominantly located outside Calgary and Edmonton. Unlike many other parties’ rules for electing a leader, there was no weighting of votes by electoral district to ensure the new leader has support from across the province.

Each vote was counted equally. Anti-establishment populist sentiment is strong in rural Alberta.

An Alberta farmer drives a combine as he harvests his wheat crop near Cremona, Alta., in September 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh.

Outsider appeal

Being seen as an outsider is important for politicians who want to ride a populist wave into office. Only an outsider is able to make credible claims they will sweep away the elite.

Smith was the only candidate for UCP leader without a seat in the legislature; many served in former premier Jason Kenney’s cabinet. For party members angry at the Kenney government, her claim to be an outsider was an asset.

Smith is not new to Alberta politics, though. She was leader of the Wildrose party, losing an election in 2012 and then crossing the floor to the government in 2014, ending that chapter of her political career. She then spent six years as a radio talk show host.

A woman smiles as she talks to a man in a cowboy hat.
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith greets supporters in High River, Alberta, in April 2012.

The COVID-19 connection

During the pandemic, Smith criticized COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates; her views played a role in her departure from her radio job. In her statement when she left, she said she was “gravely troubled by how easily most in our society have chosen to give up on freedom.”

Alberta stands out in Canada for its relatively low public support for public health measures and negative assessment of the province’s pandemic response. As protests over COVID-19 mandates turned into the so-called freedom convoy, UCP supporters were more likely to approve of that protest movement than other Albertans.

Read more:
What every Canadian should remember about the ‘freedom convoy’ crisis

Smith was able to mobilize support from Albertans angry about public health restrictions.

One of her earliest campaign videos stated: “What happened over the last two years must never happen again… Let me be clear: As your premier, our province will never lock down again.”

Alberta First and the sovereignty act

While the backlash over COVID-19 restrictions gave Smith momentum to launch her leadership bid, her Alberta First stance solidified her as the leading candidate in the race.

There is a widespread belief among Albertans that the province is not treated fairly or given the respect it deserves. Although a minority of about 20 per cent, separatists are a persistent force in Alberta politics.

Read more:
What the spectre of Alberta separatism means for Canada

Many UCP supporters have been frustrated that Kenney’s efforts to eliminate the federal carbon tax, renegotiate the equalization formula and build pipelines to tidewater have not been successful.

Smith’s strategy was to adopt a more radical stance on Alberta’s place in Confederation. The centrepiece of her Alberta First platform is her proposed Alberta sovereignty act, which she has promised will be her first priority as premier.

A dark-haired man gestures while speaking, a Canadian flag behind him.
Kenney answers questions during a news conference in Victoria, B.C., in July 2022 about Smith’s proposed sovereignty act bill.

The sovereignty act was first proposed as part of the Free Alberta Strategy. The document argues that Canada has “expropriated” Alberta’s wealth for decades and has “breached its constitutional agreement with Alberta.” It advocates for the Alberta legislature to grant itself the power to refuse to enforce federal legislation or judicial decisions that, in its view, interfere with provincial jurisdiction or attack the interests of Albertans.

Most of the other candidates for the UCP leadership, Kenney, and constitutional experts have criticized the proposal as blatantly unconstitutional and destabilizing to investment in the province. Despite these criticisms, the proposal is popular with Smith’s supporters.

Disrupting Canadian politics

When she is sworn in as premier, Smith will be a new and potentially disruptive force in Canadian politics. She will have to hold together a divided caucus, satisfy her supporters and position her party for a provincial election in spring 2023.

If she’s able to unite her caucus to pass the sovereignty act, the courts will almost certainly strike it down as unconstitutional, leaving Smith fighting against the Canadian constitutional order during the provincial election.

It remains to be seen whether Smith’s time in office will be a brief interlude, or the start of a significant challenge to national unity.

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