Danielle Smith may be the leader of a conservative party, but her core beliefs are libertarian through and through. That’s why she’s always been an outlier among Canadian conservatives when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and why some people expected her to refrain from the sort of anti-trans policies (and politics) that have animated other conservative premiers in Canada like Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs.
They were wrong. Her government’s new package of policies aimed at the trans community is the most aggressive and restrictive in Canada and will only amplify the fear and loathing that is already being directed at its members. As former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said about Smith during a rally on Saturday, “I’ve known you for 30 years. You’re better than this. You need to be better than this.”
Maybe. Until now, Smith has been conspicuously reluctant to participate in the sort of red-meat culture wars that have animated other conservatives. She supports access to abortion, for example, and has spoken out passionately in the past in support of the LGBTQ community. As she said in 2022, "I have a non-binary family member and I believe these decisions are very personal, and it should not be debated in public.”
So much for that.
Ironically, the last time “parental rights” were being talked about in Alberta politics, it was Smith pushing back against them. When the Prentice government introduced Bill 10, which would have let school boards decide whether to allow so-called “gay-straight alliances,” Smith was part of a small group of MLAs who voted against it. Her unlikely allies included NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman and PC MLA Thomas Lukaszuk.
In a powerful speech delivered in the legislature, Smith said, “In the case of these mature youths, this really is a case of life or death for some of them. We really do have a number of youths who have nowhere else to go if they’re not accepted by their community, not accepted in their home environment.” Sound familiar?
Now, almost a decade later, Smith is deliberately putting the same group at risk. It’s tempting to suggest it’s the result of spending a day with Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson — Smith, by her own admission, does not have a “crazy radar” — but this policy has been in the works for a while now. Her biggest applause line at last fall’s UCP convention was reserved for her promise to protect parental rights, and the issue clearly animates the power behind her throne. As Take Back Alberta (TBA) leader David Parker said at the time, “Those who do not listen to the grassroots, or attempt to thwart their involvement in the decision-making process, will be removed from power.”
Smith must believe that the political threat posed by her own personal Rasputin is far more urgent than anything the general public can muster. After all, she has a majority and the next election is three years away. And while Saturday’s massive rallies in Edmonton and Calgary were a heartening display of support for the LGBTQ community, the broader public is probably still on her side here. A recent Angus Reid poll showed that 35 per cent of Alberta parents think they need to be informed if their child wants to identify differently, while 43 per cent think they should be informed and have to give consent for that change. That’s nearly 80 per cent of the public that supports some version of what Smith is doing, at least in theory.
This isn’t the first time she’s betrayed her supposed allies to advance her own interests. Back in 2014, after all, she crossed the floor to join the governing Progressive Conservatives in one of the most stunning moves in Canadian political history. It didn’t take long for that decision to backfire, with the NDP defeating the PCs just a few months later to form the first non-conservative government in Alberta's history.
Danielle Smith has long claimed to be a friend of the LGBTQ community. Her government's raft of new policies on trans issues suggest otherwise and raise an important question: Who wouldn't she betray to stay on Take Back Alberta's good side?
There are all sorts of ways this latest act of political cowardice could still come back to haunt her, like enticing Nenshi into the NDP leadership race and provincial politics. Even so, that bill won’t come due until 2027. The one the rest of us should be worried about is the debt she clearly still owes to Parker. Now that he’s got what he so clearly and vocally wanted on this issue, what will he ask for next? An attack on access to abortion rights, maybe? How about a broader war against teachers, school boards and post-secondary institutions?
After all, if Smith is willing to sell the LGBTQ community out to placate Parker and TBA, there probably aren’t many people she wouldn’t betray to stay in power.