Opinion: Danielle Smith and the Alberta version of tactical populism 

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In a provincial adaptation of Pierre Poilievre’s path to power, Danielle Smith has repurposed the populist playbook for an Alberta divided by pandemic propaganda, economic uncertainty and old-fashioned anti-Ottawa sentiment. Former federal Conservative MP and veteran Alberta political adviser Lee Richardson explores the sources and implications of Smith’s surprising ascendancy in this column from Policy magazine.  

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On Oct. 11, Danielle Smith was sworn in as the 19th premier of Alberta. With many in Alberta and a lot more outside the province still marvelling at the implosion of Jason Kenney, they are now asking, “how did this happen?” 

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Kenney came to Alberta in a new blue pickup truck, portraying himself as a true-blue Albertan, but he was soon seen as “all hat and no cattle,” failing to define who he was and what he stood for. To a growing segment of aggrieved Albertans, particularly rural Albertans, Smith is the real deal. She bluntly speaks of the unspoken issues to those who feel they’ve had no voice. Those who feel forgotten, ignored or left behind are not all in rural Alberta. 

This is not the politically homogenous Alberta of Peter Lougheed. The province is divided. A broadening base of Albertans is disillusioned, frustrated, defiant. 

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Defiance is often an impulse to avoid change — to keep things the way they are (or were, in better times). Many Albertans feel they have compromised too often, remained silent for too long. Tired of feeling that if they questioned public policy, they were not only wrong, but bad people. Many feel that more than just their populist grievances are sneered at by elites, but that their very essence is under attack; their traditional, fundamental values and beliefs threatened.  

No longer simmering in the sanctuary of their churches, or festering in more extreme alliances or new fringe parties, the growing resentment found cohesion in an unlikely catalyst. 

While COVID-19 was the death knell of Kenney in Alberta, his protegé, Pierre Poilievre, had capitalized on its surprising significance in the federal Conservative leadership contest by backing anti-mandate protesters in the blockades of Ottawa and Canada-U.S. border crossings. His strident messaging brought thousands of new supporters to the party and his leadership campaign. 

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Danielle Smith saw an untapped source of new supporters for her campaign and the link that would give her the edge in a then-tight leadership race in Alberta. Already opposed to mandates, she eagerly and decisively won support at the epicentre of the anti-vaxxer minority and captured the sympathies, organization and funding of the base. Brooks-Medicine Hat is the constituency Smith chose to contest in the Nov. 8 byelection to gain the new premier a seat in the provincial legislature. Coincidentally, Medicine Hat is the home of Tamara Lich, a primary organizer of the blockades in Ottawa as well as a spokesperson, organizer and fundraiser for the protest. Lich is currently facing trial on a number of mischief and obstruction charges stemming from the blockades. 

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Television images of the chaos in Ottawa and the threat of violence at the Coutts, Alta., border crossing had offended Albertans and their respect for the rule of law, public order, and common decency. Most Albertans felt a collective responsibility to get vaccinated and wear a mask for the benefit of the community, some thinking it was selfish if not downright irresponsible to object to vaccination or mandates for other than legitimate medical reasons.

Still, beneath the public disdain there lingered a growing empathy for the underlying causes of the movement and a shared sympathy for those the hardships the COVID mandates and lockdowns had caused. What began as an anti-mandate protest had grown into a symbolic catch-all for broader populist grievances, captured in a new, vague propaganda-friendly redefinition of “freedom.” It became personal. 

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To Albertans whose health concerns were outweighed by the fact that they could not work from home, were out of work, had children out of school, or otherwise had their lives disrupted by COVID-related restrictions, the mandated lockdowns seemed disproportional, unfair and overreaching.  

Street Church pastor Artur Pawlowski, well known for his “Defence of Christianity” as well as organizing anti-gay and anti-abortion protests in front of Calgary’s city hall, saw his small group of regulars grow to hundreds marching in the streets when he added “anti-mandate” to his rhetoric. Pawlowski has been accused of organizing, promoting and attending illegal gatherings, including church services that ignored Alberta’s COVID-19 rules on masking and physical distancing. One of the principal organizers of anti-mandate protests across Alberta, Pawlowski was arrested by Alberta RCMP and charged under the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act in relation to the Coutts border protest. 

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But expressions of anti-mandate resentment, frustration and anger were not confined to the usual rabble-rousing suspects. In Mirror, Alta., restaurateur Christopher Scott ignored Public Health Act gathering restrictions by refusing to close his Whistle Stop Café during COVID lockdowns and made national headlines, as CTV News reported, “attracting swarms of supporters to his door.”  

GraceLife Church on the outskirts of Edmonton drew international attention after the arrest of pastor James Coates for continuing to hold over-capacity indoor services despite surging COVID infections and multiple public health orders. Parishioners were said to believe that the pandemic is not real and was made up by government. The church’s lawyer said, “Their first loyalty is to obey God, not government.” Christianity Today (which the Washington Post calls “evangelicalism’s flagship magazine”) wrote, “The GraceLife case has drawn the attention of those both in Canada and the U.S. who fear government overreach during pandemic.” 

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The Statement of Principles of the United Conservative Party of Alberta begins, 

“As a party, we stand united on the following principles that guide our vision for a stronger Alberta: 

A robust civil society made up of free individuals, strong families, and volunteer associations. 

Freedom of speech, worship and assembly …” 

In her leadership acceptance speech, Smith spoke to those principles and defended her proposed, more politically significant Alberta Sovereignty Act, which would grant the legislature discretion to refuse to enforce federal laws and court decisions. “No longer will Alberta ask for permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free,” she said. “We will not have our voices silenced and censored.” The loudest cheer from supporters came with, “We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order to work or travel.” 

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In her first meeting with the UPC caucus, the incoming premier asked for and received support for the Sovereignty Act and made it clear her cabinet would be in solidarity on the issue. The Sovereignty Act trumped all other issues and all other contenders by combining grievance populist issues, standing up to Ottawa, and purportedly protecting our freedom.  

Smith had identified the strongest wedge between herself and other candidates, seized the anti-mandate/lockdown sentiment and parlayed the issue to gain the required support, as had Poilievre. Two politicians for whom success had remained elusive based on more authentic politics — for Poilievre over 18 years as a gadfly MP and cabinet minister and for Smith as the failed leader of the Wildrose Party — had found success by other means.  

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Despite criticism of the Sovereignty Act, Smith says she won’t back down, although she walked it back on her first day in office, saying Alberta would comply with any constitutional decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada. Nor will she apologize for declaring the unvaccinated as “the most discriminated against group” in her lifetime. She either believes that, or at least believes that is what her supporters want to hear.  

In any event, by the end of the brief sitting of the Alberta legislature, likely Nov. 29 to Dec. 22, both issues may well be forgotten. A watered-down, constitutionally correct Sovereignty Act will be introduced, debated and passed. The dogs will bark, but the caravan moves on. 

Premier Smith and a United Conservative Party will plan to begin the new year with a clean slate and a focus on a winning platform for a general election ahead in the spring. January will provide time for renewal, policy development, budget preparation and election readiness. Less optimistic UPC MLAs and some current ministers may “take a walk in the snow” to contemplate their own future in a Smith government and their potential of defeat in May. Some may decide their best option is to resign before the spring session begins.  

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Smith will have to unite the fractured party and present a clear, positive platform to Alberta voters to remain in office. Current polls suggest an NDP victory or at least that the election is theirs to lose. Opposition Leader Rachel Notley must begin to appear as a premier-in-waiting. Albertans yearn for leadership, integrity and competence. Not all conservatives have moved to the hard right, not even in the UCP. It should be noted that it took six ballots of the pre-cast preferential vote for Smith to reach majority territory at 53.8 per cent. A centrist constituency is looking for a place to call home. 

Tired of fighting with perceived external enemies and negative rhetoric, voters want to know what the parties stand for, not just what or whom they’re against. Speaking at a recent Policy magazine lunch in Ottawa, pollster David Coletto said, “It’s becoming more about what voters don’t like than what they do. The big question is, how do you find the balance between being an acceptable alternative to enough people but at the same time being compelling enough that you motivate your base to come out and vote for you.”  

On or about May 29, Alberta voters will decide which candidate provided the right answer.   

Contributing writer Lee Richardson is a former chief of staff to Alberta premiers Peter Lougheed and Alison Redford and also served as an Alberta MP under prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. He lives in Calgary. 

This article was originally published in Policy magazine

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