Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has clarified a widely condemned comment she made that people who choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine are the “most discriminated-against group” of her lifetime – though she stopped short of a retraction or an apology.
“I did not intend to trivialize in any way the discrimination faced by minority communities and other persecuted groups both here in Canada and around the world, or to create any false equivalencies to the terrible historical discrimination and persecution suffered by so many minority groups over the last decades and centuries,” Ms. Smith said in a Twitter statement on Wednesday.
Instead, she said, she was trying to “underline the mistreatment” of people who opted not to immunize themselves against COVID-19 and were therefore “punished” by not being able to work, travel or, in some instances, see loved ones.
Ms. Smith made the original comment that put her under fire on Tuesday, during her first news conference as Alberta Premier – hours after being sworn in. She has long been a vocal critic of vaccine mandates, holding off on getting her own COVID shot until the province implemented a passport system in September, 2021.
Last week, Ms. Smith replaced Jason Kenney as United Conservative Party Leader after a campaign that focused heavily on anger related to COVID public-health measures. She promised to amend Alberta’s Human Rights Act to protect people who choose not to be vaccinated from discrimination.
The Wednesday statement says Ms. Smith is committed to learning and addressing issues affecting minority communities and would meet with stakeholders in the coming days, adding Canadians need to work together to end discrimination against those communities.
During the Tuesday news conference, the Premier was asked why she would give vaccine choice the same protections as gender, sexuality and race, which don’t involve a choice. She replied that she could not think of another situation in her lifetime where someone was fired, not allowed to visit a loved one in hospital or watch their kids play hockey.
“They have been the most discriminated-against group that I have ever witnessed in my lifetime,” Ms. Smith, who was born in 1971, said on Tuesday. “That’s a pretty extreme level of discrimination that we’ve seen.
“I don’t take away any of the discrimination that I’ve seen in any of those other groups that you mention, but this has been an extraordinary time in the last year in particular. And I want people to know that I find that unacceptable.”
The Jewish Federation of Edmonton, which serves the Jewish community in Alberta’s capital and northern region, said on Wednesday morning it was aware of Ms. Smith’s Tuesday news conference and had reached out to her office to “express our concerns surrounding these comments.” The organization said it was keen to discuss “antisemitism, discrimination in our community [and] others in Alberta, the need for mandatory Holocaust education [and] the story of Alberta’s Jewish community” with the Premier.
John Horgan, British Columbia’s Premier, derided Ms. Smith’s initial comment in a radio interview Wednesday.
“I can’t respond to that because it’s laughable, quite frankly,” he said.
Rachel Notley, the New Democratic Party Leader, called Ms. Smith’s Tuesday comment “completely disrespectful and tone deaf” in light of the work toward truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people.
The Official Opposition Leader said First Nations communities are “still dealing with the effects of genocide, and for the Premier of this province to ignore this trauma … flies in the face of all the work we must still do.”
Ms. Smith came to power after running a campaign invigorated by anger over public-health measures for COVID, with promises to never again “lockdown” the province, outlaw vaccine mandates, reorganize the health care system and not renew the current Chief Medical Officer of Health’s contract.
Mr. Kenney, her predecessor, struggled to keep the UCP caucus united during the height of the COVID crisis, and ultimately garnered support from just 51 per cent of UCP members in May. He said he would step down as leader when UCP selected a replacement, which members did Oct. 6.