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Danielle Smith celebrates after being chosen as the new leader of the United Conservative Party and next Alberta premier in Calgary on Oct. 6.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Danielle Smith won the leadership of Alberta’s United Conservative Party and will become the province’s next premier after a campaign that was driven by COVID-19 grievances, disdain for the federal government and opposition to Jason Kenney.

Ms. Smith, who spent years as a political outcast after a tumultuous period a decade ago leading the now-defunct Wildrose Party, said she will travel to Edmonton to be sworn in as premier on Tuesday. She doesn’t have a seat in Alberta’s legislature but has said that several MLAs have already offered to step aside in their rural ridings to allow her to run in a by-election.

“I’m back,” Ms. Smith said to a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 UCP supporters at the start of her victory speech at the BMO Centre in downtown Calgary.

The new UCP Leader must now do what Mr. Kenney, the outgoing Premier, could not: unite a party that has become increasingly divided over pandemic restrictions, vaccine mandates and growing impatience that the UCP government was not doing enough to take on Ottawa.

Ms. Smith took the stage and urged her party to unite in order to keep the New Democratic Party from winning the general election in 2023. While Ms. Smith spoke and the crowd cheered, senior members of Mr. Kenney’s cabinet sat quietly near Travis Toews, who finished second to Ms. Smith.

Danielle Smith is the new leader of the United Conservative Party. Her career and campaign promises so far

Opinion: Danielle Smith’s sovereignty act could flex new federalism muscle

Her signature promise, the sovereignty act, presents an immediate threat to unity within the UCP after becoming a divisive issue in the race. She argues that the act would give Alberta the power to ignore federal laws it considers an intrusion on provincial jurisdiction. The proposal is popular with the right wing of the party.

“No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free,” Ms. Smith told the crowd. “We will not have our voices silenced or censored. We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order that we may work or travel.”

That line, a reference to vaccine mandates, prompted roars of support from the crowd.

“We will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by virtue-signalling prime ministers,” she added.

Blue and white balloons fell from the rafters at the end of Ms. Smith’s victory speech.

As she concluded, UCP members sitting in bleachers behind Mr. Toews politely applauded. One of those ministers, Tanya Fir, had tears in her eyes while comforting another supporter. Mr. Toews declined to speak to reporters and quickly exited the convention hall when Ms. Smith’s speech wrapped up.

Mr. Kenney, who co-founded the UCP but said he would step down after garnering only 51-per-cent support in a leadership review in May, did not attend the event. Seven candidates vied for his job.

Mr. Kenney saluted his successor in a tweet and pledged an orderly transition.

“Congratulations to Danielle Smith on winning a majority of the vote in the UCP leadership, and to all of those who participated in the process for their commitment to the democratic process,” he tweeted.

Ms. Smith’s challengers, Mr. Kenney and constitutional experts all warned that the new leader’s sovereignty act would be illegal and could damage the province’s economy. Ms. Smith rejected those critiques but conceded she will have to work with MLAs to find workable language for the proposed bill.

Roughly 85,000 UCP members voted in the contest, which was decided by ranked ballot. It took six rounds of voting for Ms. Smith to secure the leadership. In the end, she captured support from 53.77 per cent, with Travis Toews finishing second at 46.23-per-cent support.

Brian Jean, who returned to politics in order to push out Mr. Kenney, was knocked off after the fifth ballot, leaving Ms. Smith and Mr. Toews.

Ms. Smith also pledged to pursue sweeping changes in health care, such as dismantling the provincial board in favour of giving local leaders more power. She said she would do all this without calling a snap election, waiting instead until the next general election, currently scheduled for the spring.

As her momentum grew during the campaign, some MLAs who previously endorsed other candidates defected to her, indicating a willingness to unite behind the new face of the party. Ms. Smith has said she would appoint some of her competitors to cabinet.

The UCP distributed roughly 124,000 mail-in ballots to members in September and the Jean campaign calculated there were about 40,000 members who had not voted by Wednesday. On Thursday, there was a four-hour window available for in-person voting in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Taber and Slave Lake.

Cynthia Moore, the UCP’s president, opened the evening’s events by thanking Mr. Kenney for his service.

“Our leader, Jason Kenney, has put his heart and soul into enhancing the livelihoods of Albertans,” she said. “We are better for his enormous commitment and wish him success in the future.”

The party sold roughly 1,600 tickets to the event and the room at the convention centre was full. Supporters milled around visiting others and sipping cocktails. Ms. Smith and Mr. Toews received the largest cheers from the crowd when the party president thanked all the candidates. A giant Alberta flag was on display behind the podium on stage.

Ms. Smith’s victory marks a comeback in a province where anger lingers over her past stint in politics.

She led the Wildrose Party when it lost the general election to the Progressive Conservatives under Alison Redford in 2012 and then led a mass floor-crossing to Jim Prentice’s governing PCs two years later. She failed to win her own riding nomination as a Progressive Conservative in 2015. During the UCP leadership campaign, she acknowledged she made a mistake when she led the floor-crossing and insisted she had learned from those errors.

Ms. Smith spent the intervening years as a talk-radio host, quitting that job last year because, she said, she was prevented from covering some issues or booking certain guests, particularly when it came to the pandemic.

Ms. Smith previously worked as a columnist for the Calgary Herald and served as a trustee on Calgary’s public school board before the education minister at the time dissolved it because of dysfunction.

She will take over from Mr. Kenney, who co-founded the UCP with Mr. Jean in 2017 by merging the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties. Ms. Smith harnessed the anger of those who believed Mr. Kenney’s public-health restrictions were too aggressive and his approach to Ottawa too passive.

Mr. Kenney is a fierce critic of the sovereignty act, which he has described as a “de facto plan for separatism” that would undermine the rule of law.

Ms. Smith, however, argued that the proposal would give Alberta real power to stand up to Ottawa, insisting that the province would merely be asserting its existing powers under the Constitution. She framed Mr. Kenney’s approach to dealing with the federal government as a weak-kneed letter-writing campaign with little to show for it.

She intends to seek a by-election so she can introduce the proposed law in the legislature herself.

While all seven leadership candidates promised to defend Alberta’s interests against Ottawa, Ms. Smith’s proposed sovereignty act dominated the campaign. Mr. Toews, Mr. Jean, and fellow candidates Rajan Sawhney and Leela Aheer, in early September held a joint press conference to denounce the idea as a misleading “fairy tale” that would damage Alberta’s reputation and economic prospects.

Ms. Aheer has said she would not vote in support of such a bill; Mr. Jean said, as a lawyer, he could not support unconstitutional legislation.

These four candidates stood firm against Ms. Smith’s policy, but they did not suggest the party unite behind a single alternative in order to beat the race’s front-runner.

On the issue of COVID, Ms. Smith pledged to never “lockdown” Alberta again. She also opposed vaccine passports and promised to change the Alberta’s Human Rights Act to protect unvaccinated people from what she considers discrimination. Mr. Kenney imposed a vaccine passport system last September, after previously swearing off such an idea. Alberta Health Services also imposed a vaccine mandate on staff and contractors.

Ms. Smith has said that she would not renew the contract of the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw.

Ms. Smith promised to give every resident a $300 spending account to use on services ranging from dentistry to naturopathy. This, she said, would help Albertans address the mental-health crisis created by COVID and public-health restrictions because it can be used to pay for counselling and psychiatric services.

At the start of the leadership campaign, roughly two dozen UCP MLAs lined up to support Mr. Toews, who presented himself as a steady conservative hand with a focus on fostering the province’s economy. Like other candidates in the race, Mr. Toews promised to defend Alberta against intrusions from Ottawa, but his campaign lacked details. Instead, he argued that political rhetoric and bluster would not help solve disputes and that Ms. Smith’s sovereignty act would scare away investors and destabilize the province.

Mr. Jean’s campaign focused on Alberta “autonomy” and he promised to force Ottawa and the other provinces to reopen constitutional negotiations. He outlined a number of demands, such as Alberta gaining a permanent seat on the Supreme Court of Canada and changes to the federal equalization system.

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