From the outset of Alberta’s provincial election campaign, the United Conservative Party’s strategy has been clear: hide the leader and hope for the best. That included not letting journalists ask Danielle Smith any followup questions and keeping her as far away as possible from their prying eyes and ears. For a little while, it looked like it might be working. But as the last few days have shown, there’s one fundamental problem with this strategy: Danielle Smith.
This is familiar territory for the UCP leader. Back in 2012, her Wildrose Party looked like it was coasting to victory over Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservatives until a year-old blog post from an Edmonton candidate named Allan Hunsperger surfaced during the last week of the campaign. In it, he said that gay people would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering.” It quickly became known as the “Lake of Fire'' incident, and Smith’s refusal to condemn his statements or remove him as a candidate swung the election back in favour of the PCs. In the end, they took 61 seats to Wildrose’s 17, and Smith crossed the floor to join the PCs just two years later.
Not surprisingly, Smith’s UCP spent the months leading up to this coming election doing what it could to prevent a repeat of this incident. Back in November, they rejected the candidacy of Nadine Wellwood, who as the CBC reported “had advocated for debunked COVID-19 treatments like ivermectin and compared vaccine passports to policies enacted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.”
They turfed Torry Tanner, their candidate in Lethbridge-West, a few months later for her pre-election comments that teachers were supposedly exposing students to pornography and helping them change their gender identity. And someone within the party surely encouraged Chelsae Petrovic, their candidate in Livingstone-Macleod (the same riding Wellwood was disqualified from running in), to offer up a pre-emptive blanket apology for years of offensive social media comments that have yet to come to light.
But while those potential lakes of fire have been avoided, the party hasn’t had as much success in steering clear of the biggest one of all. After spending years as a radio host and public commentator, especially during a Zoom-heavy period like the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a rich vein of recent statements and comments from Smith for her opponents to mine.
Her campaign has tried to insulate her from her numerous interventions on behalf of greater privatization of health care that included her report published by the University of Calgary highlighting the benefits of people paying to see their family doctors. Smith has since strived to inoculate herself by making a big fuss out of signing an oversized novelty “public health guarantee.” She’s also spoken repeatedly of having “made mistakes” in the past and wanting Albertans to judge her on what she’s done, not what she’s said.
Well, no wonder. On Monday, someone mining that vein of past statements struck paydirt when they resurfaced a video from November 2021 in which Smith compared the behaviour of the vast majority of Albertans who voluntarily got vaccinated to the followers of Nazi Germany in that they “fell for the charms of a tyrant.” She also linked politicians who implemented vaccine mandates (like former UCP leader and Alberta premier Jason Kenney) to the Nazis themselves. “Their actions are exactly the actions that our brave men and women in uniform were fighting against [in the Second World War].”
Those comments, which included her newfound disdain for the poppy and what it now apparently represents, came during a Nov. 10, 2021 talk with a Calgary wealth management firm on “Essential Human Needs — Energy, Free Speech, Functioning Health Care & Honest Politicians.” The comments managed to elicit criticism from B’nai Brith Canada, the Calgary Jewish Federation, and the Royal Canadian Legion. And while she tried to reassure Albertans she has “always been and remain a friend to the Jewish community, Israel and our veterans,” it’s hard to see how a friend would throw around comparisons to Hitler and Nazi Germany this casually.
Alberta’s doctors will have a bone to pick with that video, too, given she tried to suggest shutting down the use of ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19 was some sort of failure on their part. “The problem — and I would never do this again — with putting doctors in charge is they seem to be hard-wired against criticism. They seem to have a medical profession that is almost like a military command structure, where the person at the top cannot be argued with, cannot be contradicted — otherwise it’s some crime that’s worthy of punishment. And if that’s the way the medical profession operates, then I don’t think we can have them in charge again in a future pandemic.”
In the 2012 provincial election, it was the outrageous comments from a Wildrose candidate (and Danielle Smith's refusal to condemn them) that cost her the election. This time, she might want to look in the mirror. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver
This is where her most recent apology falls the flattest. In it, she suggests that “COVID was a divisive and painful period for many, including myself, but is thankfully now over. I would hope we can all move on to talk about issues that currently matter to Albertans and their families.”
I’m sure she would. But I suspect there are many Albertans out there, including some who have voted conservative in the past, who are worried about how a Smith government might respond to a future crisis, whether it’s a pandemic or something else. Her obvious inclination towards crackpot theories and the voices espousing them should worry anybody who prefers evidence-based policymaking to the prescriptions of Dr. YouTube.
We’ll find out in a few weeks whether Smith’s latest dive into the political lake of fire ends up costing her the election or not. If nothing else, we know there will be more apologies to come. The question is whether enough Albertans are still willing to accept them or not.
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