Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
Danielle Smith won the United Conservative Party leadership – and became Alberta’s 19th Premier – by tapping into grievances related to the COVID-19 pandemic, public health restrictions and vaccine mandates.
Ms. Smith’s career as a talk-radio host gave her a front-row view of how business shutdowns, restrictions on daily life and vaccine passports fomented a potent anger that became a defining issue for a small but vocal segment of the province and of the UCP membership.
She was an opponent of such measures herself, using her radio show, newsletters and podcasts to criticize those restrictions and call into question some of the science driving the response to COVID-19. She generated controversy for promoting debunked treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, acknowledging that she was disciplined by her radio station over her coverage. She has said she expected to remain unvaccinated but instead travelled to the United States for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of Alberta’s vaccine-passport system. And when Ms. Smith quit her radio show, she said she was leaving in large part because she felt restricted in what she could say about the pandemic.
Ms. Smith’s views about COVID-19 played a central role in her leadership campaign. She promised never to shut down businesses, require masks or require vaccines again. She pledged to protect vaccine choice in Alberta’s Human Rights Act. She used the prospect of Ottawa requiring children to be vaccinated – something that has not been proposed or even a subject of debate at the federal level – to argue for her proposed sovereignty act, which she claims would give the province the power to ignore federal laws.
There was speculation, as there always is during party leadership races, whether Ms. Smith would temper her views once in office, particularly in a province where nearly 90 per cent of people have had two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and where polling earlier in the pandemic found broad support for vaccine passports and some public health measures.
But Ms. Smith’s first week in office put that speculation to bed. She wasted little time after winning the leadership election to talk about vaccines, telling supporters early in her victory speech that “we will not be told what we must put in our bodies” to raucous applause.
On her first day of office, she went further. Hours after she was sworn in, The Globe and Mail’s Carrie Tait asked Ms. Smith about her Human Rights Act proposal and why people who choose not to get vaccinated should be given the same protection as people discriminated against based on their race, gender or sexuality.
“They have been the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” Ms. Smith said. “That’s a pretty extreme level of discrimination that we have seen. I don’t take away any of the discrimination that I’ve seen in those other groups that you mentioned but this has been an extraordinary time in the last year in particular and I want people to know that I find that unacceptable.” (You can watch the entire exchange on the government’s YouTube page)
The comment was widely condemned and by the next day she offered what she described as a clarification. She didn’t apologize but said did not intend to “trivialize” the experience of other groups.
The Opposition New Democrats seized on the comments, criticizing Ms. Smith for not apologizing while condemning the Premier’s remarks as an international embarrassment.
The Globe’s Kelly Cryderman writes that Ms. Smith’s comments about the unvaccinated was no first-day flub. Instead, the remarks offered a window into the Premier’s soul – and serve as an early warning that she may not be electable in a general election.
“Ms. Smith is not just a radio host or columnist now. Every single word she says carries weight. While she might embrace the province being viewed as the Florida of Canada, many Albertans will not.”
Gary Mason writes that the vaccine comments made for a disastrous first week on the job and that they were “not just tone-deaf, but profoundly hurtful.”
Marsha Lederman offered some suggestions of people that Ms. Smith should keep in mind when she thinks the unvaccinated are the most discriminated-against group in the past half century. They include AIDS patients who were treated like pariahs, the women gunned down in the Montreal massacre, and Indigenous children in residential schools.
Ms. Smith is no doubt eager to put the week behind her as she prepares to announce a new cabinet next weekend and prepare legislation for when she secures a seat in a by-election in a safe riding that she is almost certain to win.
But the vaccine issue is sure to follow her as some of that legislation, notably the proposed changes to the Human Rights Act, is centred on this very issue.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.