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The UCP Leader’s career has gone across party lines, and in and out of controversy. On May 29, voters decide where the story goes

When she was young, Danielle Smith’s favourite books were from the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The classic 1980s-era novels gave readers a way to determine the outcome of each story.

“Have you ever read those books?” the United Conservative Party Leader asks at a campaign office on the south side of Calgary. It conjures an image of an adolescent Smith in her childhood home in the city’s suburb of Beddington Heights, turning the pages of Survival at Sea.

“As you read them, sometimes you end up going down a path and it leads to absolute calamity and destruction. And then sometimes you go down a path and it leads to the treasure chest, or whatever it is at the end of the pathway.”

It’s a description that invites the comparison to her history in Alberta politics. Ms. Smith, 52, has had a political career that has included both treasure chests and calamity. Well before her 40th birthday, she was a political star – becoming the telegenic leader of the Wildrose Alliance. But just five years after that, she appeared to be a spent force.

A disastrous floor-crossing by her and eight other Wildrose MLAs to the governing Progressive Conservatives made Ms. Smith a self-described social pariah. She now calls it “probably the biggest political blunder anyone’s ever made.” She lost the PC nomination in her Highwood riding south of Calgary a few months later.

“I’ve had some wrong turns, that’s for sure,” Ms. Smith says in the interview with The Globe and Mail earlier this month. “But I always look at every blunder that I’ve had as being a learning experience, and I’ve had a lot of blunders, which means I’ve learned an awful lot.”

Ms. Smith is not the first Alberta politician that the Conservatives have punted, but she didn’t shrink into obscurity.

She spent seven years in media, appearing at conferences, and then lobbying for a business group. She opened a diner in a classic train car with her husband, David Moretta, staying in High River.

When Jason Kenney celebrated a UCP victory on election night 2019 at the Big Four Building at the Stampede grounds, Ms. Smith was in the crowd, being asked to pose for selfies.

Still, most politicos would have never believed a scenario where she would be back in the running for Alberta’s top political job. Even she believed Mr. Kenney would be premier for a dozen years.

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Jason Kenney celebrates in Calgary on April 16, 2019, the night of the election where his United Conservatives won a majority.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

It wasn’t until Mr. Kenney’s approval ratings plummeted, his caucus and party divided by anger against health restrictions and vaccine mandates, that she contemplated entering politics again.

Open to espousing many outlandish ideas about the pandemic and treatments, she was boosted by Alberta conservatives who didn’t trust Ottawa, the provincial government or the media. As the pandemic subsided, this group gave her the edge in the UCP leadership contest last October that made her premier.

And now Ms. Smith is asking mainstream voters to look past a torrent of disconcerting or anti-science or ahistorical pronouncements from her past.

But the blunders haven’t stopped. On Thursday, just hours before the only leaders debate of the campaign, the province’s ethics commissioner found that she contravened the Conflicts of Interest Act – as premier – in a conversation she had with her Justice Minister on a high-profile criminal case related to a pandemic-mandate blockade.

The campaign for the May 29 election has become more about the polarizing Ms. Smith than the UCP record. Once relegated to the political wilderness, Ms. Smith is back on another political quest.

She’s in the race of her political life against Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley. And it’s unclear what’s at the end of this particular adventure, treasure or calamity.

Ms. Smith and NDP Leader Rachel Notley, shown at campaign stops in Calgary, lead the two main parties vying for control of Alberta in the May 29 election. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press; Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi tells a story about the amazing assembly of politicos that walked the halls of the University of Calgary in the early 1990s. It was a time when the “Calgary School” of conservatism was in ascendancy and then-Reform party leader Preston Manning was often on campus. Peter Lougheed taught a political leadership course.

Not only was Mr. Nenshi in the legendary former premier’s class, but so were a hodgepodge of others who would become future somethings, including right-wing MP Rob Anders, right-wing media publisher Ezra Levant and Liberal strategist and lobbyist Kevin Bosch. Also in the class was a future premier, then president of the campus PC club. “She got along with everybody. She was nice and she was pretty, and all the nerdy political guys thought she was pretty cool,” Mr. Nenshi said of Ms. Smith.

She married one of those guys, Sean McKinsley, later a onetime executive assistant to Mr. Kenney when he was a federal politician. Though the union would end in divorce, the couple’s home was often a hangout for other young conservatives.

Ms. Smith’s entrance into Alberta politics came in 1998 as a trustee with the Calgary Public School Board, which was marred by infighting between right-and left-leaning members. In 1999, the province’s then-learning minister, Lyle Oberg, declared the board “completely dysfunctional,” and canned them all. In an interview this month, Dr. Oberg, now a supporter of Ms. Smith’s, said he could not pick and choose which board members to keep. “Danielle was not part of the reason the board was fired,” he noted.

After that came six years at the Calgary Herald as an editorial board writer, and a job on air as host of the current-affairs program, Global Sunday, where she met Mr. Moretta, then a producer on the show. They married in 2006.

It was a time when the policies of Progressive Conservative premier Ed Stelmach were stirring unrest, especially for Albertans with a strong connection to the oil patch. Mr. Stelmach’s government royalty rate hikes in 2007, just before the global economy went into a tailspin, did not go down well with many in the energy sector. That frustration helped cement the rise of the Wildrose, which became a new home for unhappy conservatives. It was often ahead in the polls as Ms. Smith took up the reins as leader in late 2009, winning in part because she was seen as being more in touch with mainstream Albertans than her socially conservative rival.

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Ms. Smith and Alison Redford – then leaders of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties, respectively – spar at an election debate in Edmonton in 2012.Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters

Polling also suggested her party was headed toward a win in the April, 2012, election. But the PC brand was still strong, leader Alison Redford ran a solid campaign and Ms. Smith stoked concerns by questioning the science of climate change. Keenly, in the days right before the vote, two lightly vetted Wildrose candidates stirred controversy. One made a comment about the electoral advantages that come with being Caucasian, and the other had written a blog saying gays will spend eternity in a “lake of fire, hell.”

Ms. Smith stood by the candidates. “We focus on the issues on which we agree. We don’t rip ourselves apart talking about divisive social issues.”

But after losing, Ms. Smith acknowledged her party suffered self-inflicted wounds. This week, it seemed she remembered that lesson. Jennifer Johnson, the UCP candidate in Lacombe-Ponoka, apologized after an audio recording emerged of her comparing transgender students to feces in cookie dough. Ms. Johnson was told Thursday she wouldn’t be welcome in the UCP caucus, should she win her seat.

Like all political leaders, Ms. Smith had moments where she struggled with what parts of herself to reveal to the public. Brandi Morin, an Alberta-based Métis journalist, has criticized Ms. Smith as premier, including a video filmed in front of the House of Commons in which she said Indigenous peoples and settlers “united to tame an unforgiving frontier” to ensure the “prosperity of future generations.” That characterization of history, said Ms. Morin, leaves out the land and resources grab.

But Ms. Morin said she has long admired Ms. Smith’s smarts and ambition, which is why she took a job with the Wildrose for a stint in 2014. A memory that stands out is a legislature speech Ms. Morin wrote for Ms. Smith to mark a final event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The speech focused on Theodore Fontaine of Winnipeg, who wrote a book about the horrific abuse he endured as a child in residential school. Ms. Smith was forced to pause, to compose herself, as she cried telling his story.

Ms. Morin was moved by the leader’s emotion in the delivery but afterward, Ms. Smith told her: “Yeah, I couldn’t handle it and I broke.” Ms. Smith was upset with her public display of emotion, Ms. Morin recalls. “When I think of her being upset because she cried, it’s because it’s a man’s world.”

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Ms. Smith joins then-premier Jim Prentice after a caucus meeting in December of 2014.Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Then there was hope the party would pick itself up. But when Ms. Redford resigned, the leadership win of former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice injected new life into the PCs. The loss in four by-elections in October, 2014, was a crushing blow.

At an AGM that fall, Ms. Smith said she would resign as leader if she didn’t win the job of premier in the next election. Right afterward, two Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to the PCs, including Ms. Smith’s close friend Kerry Towle.

It all led to that pivotal moment in Alberta political history. In Western democracies, it’s almost unheard-of for an Official Opposition party leader to cross the floor. But in December, 2014, for a brief moment, it seemed like a brilliant idea – couched in the name of conservative unity – before being widely denounced as an opportunistic betrayal of voters’ wishes.

Promises for cabinet positions for Ms. Smith and high-profile Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson were soon ditched once Mr. Prentice heard the anger from within his own caucus. “Prentice walks in and says, ‘they’re crossing to us.’ Everyone gets furious,” said former PC MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, recalling that time.

Ms. Smith acknowledged people were disappointed. Early in the new year, she apologized, saying “it has angered a lot of people.”

That March, she lost the nomination. She was out of politics before the May, 2015, election that would mark the end of the PC dynasty, and the rise of the NDP.

Ms. Notley speaks with voters in Calgary, an important electoral battleground. No Alberta premier has returned to that office after their party was unseated by another, but Ms. Notley hopes to be the first. Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Both Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley have had personal political losses, and both are seeking redemption. And Albertans will vote based on the histories of the two parties, the state of the economy and their concerns about health care or the environment.

But for many voters, this election is a referendum on the UCP Leader herself. And the Alberta political world is divided into two camps: Those who stand in admiration of Ms. Smith’s political comeback, and those who don’t like and don’t trust her.

Some of the latter group will still vote for the UCP. James Cole, the Wildrose candidate in Calgary-Elbow in the 2012 election, wrote an “anybody but Smith” letter during last year’s UCP leadership race. Once a strong supporter, he was disillusioned by the mistakes of the 2012 campaign. He argues the UCP Leader is incompetent and untrustworthy.

Still, Mr. Cole will vote for the UCP. “I have more reservations about Rachel Notley.”

But in key Calgary battlegrounds, there are those who might be persuaded to vote for either party. The swayable voters are the most important group in a contest showing the NDP and UCP neck-and-neck. And with them, questions about what Ms. Smith says and means keep coming up at the doors.

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A protester holds an anti-Kenney sign at the Alberta legislature early last year, where the crowd opposed measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

When Ms. Smith entered the leadership race last year, it was her provincial autonomy policies that initially received the most attention. Critics branded her Sovereignty Act as dangerous and unworkable. But it was embraced by those who thought Mr. Kenney, for all his combativeness, had been too amicable with Ottawa.

Her Sovereignty Act law, passed last fall, has been barely mentioned since. In the election campaign, it’s her remarks on health and the pandemic that have come under scrutiny. There’s a lot to look back on. After losing the PC party nomination in 2015, Ms. Smith was back at work as a radio show host at News Talk 770 CHQR. Her listeners, over a number of uneasy years, mostly forgave her for the floor crossing.

After leaving talk radio in early 2021 – pointing to “the mob of political correctness” – she was appointed president of the Alberta Enterprise Group, a business lobbying group. She also wrote newsletters and had her own podcast.

With her media community, she entered the leadership race last summer as the spokesperson for a movement of Albertans deeply opposed to government vaccine mandates and health restrictions – actions that society at large had decided was the best course for preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, and COVID-19 deaths.

Most famously, in a 2021 interview, she compared the vast majority of COVID-19 vaccinated Canadians to those who fell into line under tyrants such as Hitler. She also said the politicians of the pandemic era had ruined wearing Canada’s Remembrance Day symbol, a poppy, for her that November. Both Jewish and veterans groups strongly objected.

“COVID was a really difficult and frustrating time for everyone, including me,” Ms. Smith explained this month. “Sometimes I let my frustrations get to me during that time. I clearly shouldn’t have.”

While running for the leadership, Ms. Smith called on cabinet ministers to apologize for COVID-19 “lockdowns.” But she didn’t offer a full apology regarding her comments on preventative health measures. While speaking to a naturopathic doctor on a broadcast last year, she seemed to suggest cancers were “completely within your control” before Stage 4. She later said she was talking about there being more options with an early diagnosis.

Her tendency to put mainstream medicine on trial can have real world effects. Jon Meddings, the past dean of the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, is concerned about the dwindling number of medical graduates who want to take up residency spots in Alberta.

“It certainly doesn’t help that we have a government that openly muses about ridiculous things,” said Dr. Meddings, a gastroenterologist. “Having the highest levels of government call into question the value of vaccination, call into question different types of treatment for cancer, these types of things make a physician’s job very hard.”

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Ms. Smith says she shouldn't be judged for provocative things she said as a radio host, because that was an 'entertainment forum.'Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

But Ms. Smith plays down her past remarks. “People forget that I was on radio for six years and I spent my time talking to thousands of people.” She also believes she shouldn’t be judged by things she has said as a radio host because it was said “in an entertainment forum.” Last fall she said she had been “in an industry of making sure that you find the most outrageous statements so that you can get a lot of clicks.”

Mr. Nenshi – a critic of hers since their university years – asks then, does that mean she didn’t mean what she said in the past and “she was always playing her listeners as chumps?” Mr. Lukaszuk, another ardent detractor, has a list of reasons why Ms. Smith is unqualified to govern: “I want to talk astronomy, she talks astrology. I want to talk science, she talks quackery.”

But the other side to the Smith story is the belief that she is the living personification of Alberta being the land of second chances.

“We’re older and wiser. Danielle is a testament to that,” said Bruce McAllister, another Wildrose MLA who crossed the floor and now heads the Premier’s Calgary office.

“If you ask Danielle a question, you’re going to get an answer,” Mr. McAllister said. “I would rather somebody be frank and explore all possibilities, and put things out there to be considered. That doesn’t mean that’s the direction and policy.”

Ian Donovan, a former MLA, left the Wildrose Party for the PCs in November, 2014 – in part because of his lack of faith in Ms. Smith’s leadership. But today, he said, he has more respect for her than ever. “She’s got skin thicker than a badger.”

On policy, Ms. Smith says her critics haven’t recognized the improvements already made to social services and health care, including ambulance services. She talks about the recent health care agreement with Ottawa, where there was a pledge to uphold the principles of the Canada Health Act, in response to critics who emphasize her past ponderings on whether people should pay a fee to see family doctors.

What are her guiding principles? She declined to be sworn in as premier on a Bible. She is agnostic and pro-choice, and has spoken of the importance of bodily autonomy. She struggled to persuade members of the Wildrose a decade ago that battling on socially conservative issues was a political dead end. Her government has become particularly attached to a policy she once lobbied for – a plan to clean up old oil wells, one that will give public dollars to companies that even many oil-and-gas insiders don’t support.

She has described herself as a rural conservative and a “libertarian populist.” In a 2021 newsletter where she wrote about the “vilification campaign against those of us who were unvaccinated,” she described herself as a “libertarian conservative.”

“That means I fight like hell for freedom, but I am also a rule follower. It’s not my nature to defy authority. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing,” added Ms. Smith, who wasn’t comfortable with mRNA vaccines, but did get the Janssen vaccine during a U.S. trip.

She has voiced esteem for controversial U.S. governors such as South Dakota’s Kristi Noem and Florida’s Ron DeSantis. “Any time I hear a politician talking about freedom, then I’m going to admire that,” she said in the interview.

She has also characterized the UCP as a union of libertarians and social conservatives. In the interview, I ask her whether Take Back Alberta – the anti-establishment group that grew out of the pandemic, which has emphasized traditional roles for women – has undue influence on her party and leadership? “They wanted to end mandates. I wanted to end mandates. Mandates are over.”

Ms. Smith has also been effective at rebuilding some party unity, and rounding up advisers from her past. Mr. Anderson and Ms. Smith didn’t talk much for years after the floor crossing, but were brought back together as friends by “frustrations with lockdowns and Ottawa,” according to Mr. Anderson.

He considered running for the UCP leadership himself when Mr. Kenney left but decided against it, saying Ms. Smith’s years outside of politics prepared her for the role. He’s now responsible for some of the most-combative messaging from her office.

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Supporters surround Artur Pawlowski as he walks out of the courthouse after he was found guilty on charges related to the 2022 protest blockade at the Coutts border crossing, in Lethbridge, Alta. on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.Ian Martens/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Smith is asking people not to examine every utterance in her life before re-entering politics. But even as a leadership candidate and premier, there’s been a series of controversial statements and missteps. Most clearly, this is shown in her decision in January to speak to Artur Pawlowski – a man now found guilty of mischief, for encouraging protesters to keep going at the border blockade in Coutts last year.

In the phone call with him early this year, recorded by Mr. Pawlowski and posted online, she sounded sympathetic.

The province’s Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler says just a few hours after that phone call, Ms. Smith phoned Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to talk about Mr. Pawlowski’s case. “She wanted him to make it go away, although she did not direct him to do so,” wrote Ms. Trussler, who concluded that was a contravention of the Conflicts of Interest Act.

In her interview with The Globe, well before the release of the report, Ms. Smith spoke of her call with Mr. Pawlowski. “The only way that I can make good decisions is by being open, being willing to talk to a lot of people and to say, ‘hey, look I’ll check into that. I’ll get back to you.’ That’s just sort of a standard line that politicians say.”

Many didn’t see it just 18 months ago, but Ms. Smith knew she had enough of a following from her media work that she could unify the UCP. Now, she acknowledges there’s a difference between being a media personality – where her job was to talk ideas – and governing, where you must have wide support for your choices.

“That’s one of the transitions I’m going through right now,” she says in the interview. “In the Choose Your Own Adventure book, I’m not quite done yet.”

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