Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

NDP leader Rachel Notley, left, and United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith take part in a debate in Edmonton on May 18.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The leaders of Alberta’s two dominant political parties faced each other in a televised debate Thursday evening that unfolded more like a series of mini-campaign speeches rather than a tense political standoff.

The televised leaders’ debate delved into topics such as health care, affordability, the economy and education, but both Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley tried to make it about trust. Ms. Smith, the leader of the United Conservative Party, argued her opponent can’t be trusted to keep taxes low and support the oil and gas industry. Ms. Notley, NDP leader, reminded voters of Ms. Smith’s shifting statements on policies like health care and the Ethics Commissioner’s ruling that the UCP Leader tried to influence the justice system.

The debate, while lightly seasoned with the odd quip from both leaders, was short on spicy lines that voters will remember. Neither leader appeared to have been able to puncture the other’s campaign beyond repair. And neither Ms. Notley nor Ms. Smith stumbled in a way that will haunt them when voters cast their ballots May 29.

Ms. Notley tried to capitalize on a report from Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner, released just hours before the debate. The report concluded Ms. Smith, in her role as premier, tried to influence the justice system to favour Artur Pawlowski, the Calgary street preacher who was criminally charged after he addressed protestors at the Coutts border blockade in early 2022.

“Ms. Smith, you’re found to have broken the law in order to interfere with the system of justice to assist with somebody who had been charged with attempting to get people to commit violence against police officers,” Ms. Notley said. “So, you talk about instability, that does not engender trust. More than that, [it] engenders fear on the part of Albertans.”

Ms. Smith also leaned on the report, but only the slice that found no evidence anyone in her office contacted the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, as alleged by the CBC. The report also determined Ms. Smith did not speak directly to prosecutors. Ms. Smith, in late 2022 and early 2023 said she spoke to prosecutors, only to later correct herself, saying she meant officials in the justice department.

“Ms. Notley, it’s you and the CBC who need to apologize [to] Albertans. You flat out lied for several months saying that I and my office have contacted Crown prosecutors,” Ms. Smith said in the debate. “[The Ethics Commissioner] said that is absolutely not true and she also confirmed that I did not direct, or interfere, in any COVID-related cases.”

Both women wore blue, the shade associated with conservatives in Alberta. Ms. Notley needs to convince small-c conservatives to support the NDP in order to form government, while Ms. Smith is desperate to keep progressive and moderate voters from leaving the UCP fold.

When Ms. Notley and the NDP formed government in 2015, that year’s debate held a key moment in that historic campaign. In it, Jim Prentice, then the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, quipped that “math is difficult,” sparking waves of backlash and questions over whether it was sexist given Ms. Notley was his main challenger.

This year’s debate lacked such controversy.

Ms. Notley pointed out in all her time in office, she has never breached the conflict-of-interest legislation, again referring to the report from the Ethics Commissioner.

Ms. Smith, in turn, noted the NDP once had an MLA who “hacked our health care system,” a reference to Thomas Dang, who Ms. Notley removed from caucus after allegations he attempted to break into the province’s vaccine records portal.

Ms. Notley interrupted Ms. Smith on this point. “Do you really want to talk about our candidates and our MLAs? Like, seriously, I do not think you’re gonna win that one. It is not one you want to do,” Ms. Notley said.

The UCP has a handful of candidates who are creating turmoil for the party. The controversial candidates are affiliated with Take Back Alberta, the network of libertarians and social conservatives that make up the UCP’s right flank and who were surprisingly not mentioned in Thursday night’s debate. Beyond her lone quip about comparing candidates, Ms. Notley did not dive deeper into the crisis marring the UCP’s re-election campaign that flared brightly earlier in the day.

In the hours before the debate, UCP strategists and candidates sparred over how to deal with transphobic comments from one candidate and racist statements from another.

Ms. Smith, in a statement late Thursday morning, said Lacombe-Ponoka candidate Jennifer Johnson would not be permitted to sit in the UCP caucus if she wins her rural riding, which is a safe conservative seat.

The decision came days after an audio recording emerged of Ms. Johnson comparing transgender children to feces. In the recording, captured in September, Ms. Johnson also stated without evidence that transgender children are being chemically castrated.

Ms. Smith said Ms. Johnson “used offensive language and a vile analogy.” She said the candidate’s comments do not reflect the values of the UCP or the province but added “there are certainly legitimate policy discussions to be had on youth transgender issues.”

Ms. Johnson, a former UCP provincial board member, on social media Thursday afternoon, said she intends to earn back her seat in the UCP caucus if she gets elected.

Ms. Johnson, speaking at a forum about schooling in September, said Alberta’s education system is in the world’s top 3 per cent, but spoiled because of transgender children. She compared the situation to adding a teaspoon of feces to a batch of cookies, according to an audio recording that captured the event.

“We can be top 3 per cent but that little bit of poop is what wrecks it,” Ms. Johnson said. She incorrectly stated teachers are placing litter boxes in classrooms for kids who identify as cats and that children as young as 14 are undergoing “double mastectomies and getting chemically sterilized.”

Lars Hallstrom, a political scientist from the University of Lethbridge, said this election is playing out like a Washington political drama.

“You could not write a better script the day of the debate,” he said. “This is a lot of ammunition for the NDP.”

Meanwhile, UCP Calgary-Fish Creek candidate Myles McDougall apologized on Thursday for comments he made on Facebook in 2020, including saying Black people are not interested in quality education and engage in “ghetto culture.”

Mr. McDougall said he intended to have a “sincere conversation” on addressing racial disparities but “quoted several statements that were racially insensitive and offensive, particularly to the Black and First Nations communities” in the process.

“It is clear to me now that those comments are ill-informed and made without the requisite knowledge or life experience to fully understand the issues being debated,” the candidate, who is aligned with Take Back Alberta, said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe