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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith shares the government's vision for the Alberta economy at a luncheon hosted by the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce on July 20.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

In this summer of extreme heat, forest fires and labour unrest, Albertans will forever recall the striking image of their Premier strolling with a donair.

Well, strolling with a person in a donair costume, that is. The mascot-like getup came out of the shadows of a dusty storage site thanks to reporting from AB Today’s Catherine Griwkowsky, who regularly keeps tabs on the weird world of Alberta government online auctions. She noticed the custom-made ensemble was for sale and tweeted photos this week.

A bidding war ensued among restaurants in Edmonton, Calgary and, of course, Halifax, the original home of donair. Ms. Griwkowsky then wrote a story that included the strange history of the costume, which was originally designed for an impaired driving campaign that never saw the light of day.

Premier Danielle Smith’s appearance with the now-famous donair on Thursday was her idea, said her staff. “She noticed Albertans were having a lot of fun with this donair auction and naturally wanted to join in on the fun,” says press secretary Sam Blackett.

The Premier was photographed laughing and holding hands with the anthropomorphized seasoned beef wrapped in a pita and tinfoil. Global TV went live to Ms. Smith noshing through the Taste of Edmonton festival, the costumed volunteer trailing behind at a respectful distance, in a manner resembling that of a faithful consort of the British monarch.

Yes, everyone who saw it laughed, and the Premier was in on the joke. It was similar to early this year when Ms. Smith was being lambasted for her weak handshake with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Upon her return to Alberta, she made a point of shaking hands with all the reporters seated in the front row of her first news conference.

But behind the lightheartedness, there’s a more practical reason for sharing an inside joke with journalists – or a walk with a donair. It speaks to Ms. Smith’s understanding of the power of visuals and likeability, and how those factors can transcend controversy in this polarized world.

Just hours before her stroll with the donair, Ms. Smith had given a speech at the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. Afterward, she told reporters about her belief that it’s bad management in Alberta Health Services, the province’s centralized health organization, that is causing the massive problems in the health care system, including long wait times and shuttered emergency services. Ms. Smith might focus on management, but her critics would say worker burnout, a dearth of front line staff and a lack of confidence in the government’s direction on public health are more to blame.

And earlier this month, Ms. Smith’s government revived an old sore spot with a mandate letter to Finance Minister Nate Horner, asking him to examine a plan to exit from the Canada Pension Plan. This is a deeply unpopular idea with most voters, to the point where the United Conservative Party mostly refused to talk about the issue during the May election campaign.

But now, post-election day, the governing party’s warm feelings for the wildly complicated and risky plan have returned. Mr. Horner’s mandate letter from the Premier asked him to release a long-awaited report on the province going it alone and to consult with Albertans on the findings to determine whether a referendum should be held.

Ms. Smith’s desire to be viewed as the leader of a somewhat boring, mainstream conservative government also continues to run into hitches. On Thursday, one of her closest advisers, Rob Anderson, tweeted his admiration for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has a history of leading campaigns against vaccines, as the Democratic presidential candidate spoke about free speech at a congressional hearing. The NDP’s Lizette Tejada pointed out that Mr. Kennedy made the baseless claim this month that the COVID-19 virus may have been “ethnically targeted” to spare members of the Chinese and Jewish communities. The Calgary Jewish Federation called on Mr. Anderson to apologize.

(Late Friday, Mr. Anderson said in a message to The Globe and Mail: “RFK Jr. is a far left-wing democrat with whom I disagree with on a vast majority of issues. The portion of his speech I was referencing in my tweet is his repeated plea for a return to respectful democratic debate, working across party lines and putting an end to censorship and cancel culture with those we disagree with. I have been and always will be a defender and ally of Israel and the Jewish people.”)

Ms. Smith has spent most of her professional life in columnizing, hosting and punditry and pays close attention to media, both old and new school. It is often highly critical of her government. Still, there is so much noise on social media that many people can’t keep track of every political controversy.

The Premier understands that a carefree, even self-deprecating image at a summer festival can send an emotional communiqué to voters that will, for some, soften their distrust of her government. Thanks to the donair, Ms. Smith might still count this week as a net-positive.

Thousands of kilometres away, in Belleville, Ont., a decidedly unfun scene played out as Mr. Trudeau attempted to navigate a meet-and-greet. His outing was cut short when he was swarmed by dozens of protesters, some calling the Prime Minister a traitor, others informed by the darkest corners of the internet saying much worse.

Mr. Trudeau’s government is down in many polls, marred by criticism of its handling of foreign interference accusations and the economy and the performance of cabinet ministers. Still, the retail politics Mr. Trudeau is known for was on full display. Despite the disruption in Belleville, the Prime Minister just kept on greeting people and taking selfies.

Likeability is not the only thing, but it’s one important factor in politics. Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Smith may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But they both are rhino hides or badger skins – leaders seemingly unaffected by their most vigorous critics – who understand the visual power of smiling and wading through it all.

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