Danielle Smith is her own Lake of Fire
I promise, I’m not deliberately writing every column lately about Danielle Smith and the UCP. But when they give me this much to work with, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity. Here’s hoping the next seven days give me something else to talk about. In the meantime, here’s a full helping of Alberta politics. You might want to grab something to help you wash it down.
Danielle Smith is her own Lake of Fire
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 November 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.”
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.
Young Albertans are getting screwed
The NDP and UCP disagree about almost everything in this election, but they’re united on one key fact: the future of the province is at stake. Their competing interpretations of the future and what’s best for it vary greatly, of course, but young people should pay close attention to what that means for them.
Young Albertans should also pay attention to Danielle Smith’s first budget as premier, if they haven’t already. Generation Squeeze, a Vancouver-based think tank that focuses on intergenerational equity, noted the 2023 provincial budget “legislates one of the biggest gaps in spending between citizens aged 65-plus and those under age 45. This gap is larger than in B.C. and Ontario, the two other most populous, English-speaking provinces.”
Showering senior citizens with money has long been a popular political strategy, and it may still work in Alberta despite the premier’s curiously COVID-friendly comments. Smith’s first budget will spend approximately $16,7000 for each of the 777,000 Albertans who are 65 and older, and only $9,900 for the 2.9 million Albertans under 45.
As Generation Squeeze noted, “The generational tensions in Alberta’s budget risk pitting grandparents against grandchildren, rather than making the province work for all generations.” It’s an issue that ought to get more attention than it’s gotten so far. But given the prospect of more offensive comments coming from Smith, it might not get the daylight it deserves.
Ontario Liberals get one last shot
Provincial Liberal parties have become increasingly irrelevant across the country over the last decade or so, from the total destruction of the Alberta and Saskatchewan Liberals to the growing irrelevance of the Quebec Liberal Party. Don’t even get me started on the party formerly known as the BC Liberals, who never had any ties with the federal party to begin with. And while Ontario Liberals never do very well when the Liberal Party of Canada is in power federally, they’re at their lowest ebb in decades right now.
Nate Erskine-Smith, the current MP for Beaches-East York, might be their best bet to reverse that trajectory. After the party’s disastrous showing in the 2022 provincial election, and leader Steven Del Duca’s subsequent resignation, a leadership race was inevitable. Former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Yasir Naqvi and current Ontario Liberal MLA Ted Hsu are exploring leadership bids, but Erskine-Smith was first out of the gate with his announcement on Tuesday. And while he has the Liberal brand next to his name, he’s hardly a blind party loyalist. In his first term in office, he voted against his party 37 times, and he’s been a vocal critic of the government’s failure to follow through on its promise to deliver electoral reform.
Erskine-Smith’s candidacy will be a litmus test, of sorts, for his policy-heavy brand of politics. His podcast, Uncommons, is a wonkish exploration of ideas and substance, not partisan loyalties and left-right sorting, and it stands in stark contrast to the sort of political conversations that seem to dominate the discourse right now. “There's such an utter lack of seriousness and competence to the politics we see at Queen's Park right now,” he told Politico. “And so I think across party lines, there is a desire for seriousness, thoughtfulness and competence.”
Will it work? As he said, “I guess we’re about to find out.” We’ll know more after Nov. 25 and Nov. 26, when Ontario Liberal members cast their ranked ballot votes to choose their next leader.
On the latest Maxed Out podcast, I had pro-nuclear environmentalist Zion Lights on to discuss how her thinking evolved on the issue — and why she thinks other climate-conscious people should do the same. I’ve long been skeptical of nuclear, in large part because of the fossil fuel supporters it tends to attract, but our conversation definitely shifted me more in its direction.
I wrote about the UCP’s botched attempt to weaponize a report on net-zero electricity, and what it portends about the next stage of federal-provincial climate conflict in Canada.
And in last week’s newsletter (in case you missed it!), I pointed out that Rachel Notley is more like Peter Lougheed than Danielle Smith could ever be.
As always, please share this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy it — and, if you’re feeling mischievous, even a few of the ones who wouldn’t. If you want to reach out with a question or comment, send me an email at [email protected].