A year ago Danielle Smith was a self-exiled outcast, walking away from her major Canadian talk radio program to work at a small-town restaurant. Now Smith is the new Premier of Alberta — the home of Canada’s oil and gas sector — having won a heavily contested race to become leader of the United Conservative Party.
Smith, a libertarian populist, has suddenly become one of the driving forces in Canadian politics.
She’s insistent COVID restrictions will never return. She has apologized for how the government excluded the unvaccinated. And she’s pledging to stand up against the federal Liberal government on behalf of a province that often feels disrespected by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s clear disdain for the oil-producing region.
It is a remarkable reversal of fortune.
Smith made her first big splash in 2009 as leader of a defunct party called the Wildrose. It was formed as something of a protest to the Alberta Progressive Conservative, which had been in power for most of the previous 50 years but was seen by grassroots conservatives as corrupt and having lost its way.
Smith was considered the frontrunner to become Alberta Premier a decade ago, in the 2012 election, under the Wildrose banner. But the party instead won second place, leaving Smith as opposition leader.
What happened next is one of Alberta politics’ wildest rides. Smith tried to stay pure to her libertarian principles and would never punish a candidate or member of caucus no matter how controversial their statements or antics. But Smith soon found herself uncomfortable with the vocal social conservatives in her own party and, as party leader, defected to join the very governing party she had campaigned against.
This was just one of the destabilizing moves that saw the Alberta Progressive Conservatives lose the 2015 election to the New Democratic Party — the first time a left-wing party ever took power in Alberta.
Smith was one of many people who found herself booted from politics during this rocky time, remaining a controversial figure to those grassroots conservatives who saw her departure from the Wildrose as an ultimate betrayal. But her early foray into political leadership was clearly just a warm-up act.
When Smith started up again as one of the province’s main talk radio voices, she won back conservative Albertans with her unapologetic right-wing commentary in a media landscape awash with progressive voices.
Then COVID-19 came and Smith really hit her stride. Smith was one of the lone voices in the mainstream media who spoke out strongly against pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates. She took a lot of heat for this from mainstream voices though and in early 2021 she resigned from her program.
“Unfortunately over the last few years 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,” Smith wrote in a post outlining her decision.
It was thought at the time that Smith would likely drift out of the public eye, working alongside her husband in the old train car turned restaurant that they renovated a few years earlier. And maybe that was the original plan. But events got in the way.
Jason Kenney, the Alberta Premier at the time, was supposed to be a true blue Conservative and had been a popular federal politician while serving in the cabinet of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But during the pandemic Kenney embraced lockdown measures in a way that didn’t sit well with many conservatives, including those within his own government. His own party forced a leadership review on him in May 2022 and, based on the poor results, Kenney announced his intentions to resign.
There were in total seven candidates for the race to replace Kenney. Some of them had been cabinet members in Kenney’s government. All of them had been in office more recently than Smith. But it was Danielle Smith’s firm convictions that saw her win.
While it is early days in her government, Smith so far appears determined to stick to her principles this time around.
Her rise, fall and rise again will no doubt be remembered as one of the great conservative comeback stories of Canadian politics.
Anthony Furey is VP of Editorial for True North, an online news organization. He has been a journalist in Canada for over 15 years.
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