The Unsteady Reign of Danielle Smith

Alberta’s premier rode into office declaring war on the federal government—and won by a tiny margin. Can she keep her rebellious rural base happy, without sparking a national crisis?
by LUC RINALDI
230227_AS-Macleans-DanielleSmith-FINAL_9422

September 14, 2023

Retraction and Apology
In the original version of this article, certain views were attributed to Caylan Ford which she does not hold. That section of the article has been removed. Maclean’s apologizes to Ms. Ford for any harm suffered by her from the now-retracted section of the article.

On a sunny Saturday morning this past April, one month before Alberta’s provincial election, about 200 boisterous supporters of the governing United Conservative Party descended on a parking lot in suburban Calgary. The throng—seniors, families, bearded guys in cowboy hats, bearded guys in UCP-blue turbans—were there for a campaign-launch rally, steeling themselves for a long day of door-to-door canvassing. The atmosphere was electric: polls showed a dead heat between the UCP and the NDP. The former was expected to handily win rural ridings, the latter to sweep Edmonton. It was here, in Calgary’s too-close-to-call suburbs, that the election would be won or lost. The fate of the race depended on these placard-peddling canvassers.

The volunteers congregated around a stage where, after a few opening speakers, UCP Leader Danielle Smith appeared. She was already premier—she had been since October of 2022, when her predecessor, Jason Kenney, stepped down following a disastrous leadership review. This spring, she was asking Albertans at large for a mandate. From the podium, she delivered a six-minute speech the door-knockers could parrot: the UCP would lower taxes, curb violent crime, build the Flames a new arena and, most importantly, defend the oil and gas industry. She pledged, as she unfailingly does, to defy Justin Trudeau’s edicts to decrease fossil-fuel emissions. She pitched a roguishly romantic vision of Alberta, where hard-working citizens could live and let live without the big, bad government getting in their way. Then she shouted, “Let’s go knock some doors!”

Canvassing is exhausting—awkward hellos, argumentative strangers. But that morning was especially deflating. Here, in ridings that had gone blue for decades, voter after voter confessed the unthinkable: they might defect to the NDP. The problem wasn’t the UCP or its platform, they said. The problem was Danielle Smith.

Smith is the most polarizing politician in Alberta—and arguably in Canada, thanks largely to her inability to keep her foot out of her mouth and her susceptibility to some truly out-there ideas. In the lead-up to the campaign, she mused about privatizing hospitals and claimed that cancer is preventable until stage 4. She baselessly claimed Cherokee ancestry and refuted the existence of mass graves around residential schools. Last March, on a right-wing social-media platform called Locals.com, she trumpeted the fiction—embraced by QAnon—that Russia invaded Ukraine to fight neo-Nazis and shut down U.S.-funded bioweapons labs.

She has been especially vocal when spreading misinformation about COVID-19. She’s compared vaccinated Canadians to supporters of Hitler and called unvaccinated people “the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed.” In one of her first acts as premier, she implored her justice minister to drop criminal charges against Artur Pawlowski, a preacher who flouted lockdown restrictions. Like Ron DeSantis, the self-declared “anti-woke” presidential hopeful for whom she’s expressed admiration, Smith can’t quit COVID.

But it wasn’t just her out-there pronouncements that inspired queasiness among moderates. It was also that she’d embraced—and been embraced by—the fringiest elements of the province’s right wing. That includes an insurgent far-right group called Take Back Alberta, which emerged out of anti-lockdown protests and ended up giving Smith the ballots she needed to take control of the UCP.

During the campaign, two former Progressive Conservative MLAs denounced Smith and endorsed the NDP. They couldn’t stomach the thought of Smith running the province, especially with Alberta confronting multiple challenges: record-breaking population growth straining housing and infrastructure; hospitals critically short of doctors, nurses and beds; a school system grappling with shortages of teachers and cash; and one of Canada’s worst opioid crises. The scandal-prone Smith did not seem to be the steadying hand the province needed.

At first, the party tried to offer up a gentler version of Smith: the folksy everywoman. And it’s true that Smith’s personal life is exceedingly vanilla. She drinks pinot grigio with friends at standing Sunday-night dinners. She relaxes by walking her dogs, Caine and Colt. Her go-to hobby is reading. She splits her time between the legislature in Edmonton and her home in High River, a quaint frontier-town-turned-suburb south of Calgary. Until recently, she and her husband, the former broadcasting executive David Moretta, ran a restaurant there out of a historic railway carriage.

ALTA Premier-Designate  20221011
(Photograph by Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

When the everywoman angle didn’t take, Smith’s team adopted a more cynical argument: vote for the party, not the leader. Don’t worry about Danielle, her colleagues told apprehensive voters. She’ll be gone in no time.

On May 29, those voters held their noses and elected Smith’s UCP, albeit with a smaller majority than any conservative government in decades. Now Albertans are trying to figure out which Danielle Smith they’re going to get. Will it be the poised, palatable, plain-spoken leader? The paranoid populist who spouts disinformation online? The Alberta sovereigntist who has all but promised to provoke a constitutional crisis to win concessions from Ottawa? And what of those extremist forces that helped propel her to power—how much, exactly, is she indebted to them? Smith’s mandate may be temporary, but whatever chaos that follows will shape Alberta, and Canada, for years to come.

One day, when Smith was in Grade 8, she came home from school singing the praises of communism—a left-leaning social studies teacher had eagerly introduced her class to socialist ideals. Her unwaveringly right-wing parents, Sharon and Doug Smith, realized it was time to teach their children about politics. Sharon was a blue-collar Catholic with a job at a drive-through diner, and Doug worked for Firestone Tires. They’d married as teenagers, moved into subsidized housing and had five kids; Danielle was their second. After his daughter’s brief Marxist indoctrination, Doug started bringing her photocopied newspaper articles, saying, “Read this.” At the dinner table, he taught her about conservative icons like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Peter Lougheed, the revered premier who led Alberta from 1971 to 1985.

Smith was a bookish kid who dreamed of writing fantasy and sci-fi novels. She worked at McDonald’s and an oyster bar to pay her way through her studies at the University of Calgary, where she majored in English before switching to economics. But politics were inescapable at the U of C in the early ’90s. Preston Manning, the father of Canada’s modern conservative movement, occasionally visited campus, tailed by an introverted grad student named Stephen Harper.

Smith jumped at the opportunity to take a political science elective taught by Lougheed, whom her father had lionized. His class took the form of a mock first ministers’ meeting, with students representing different provinces. It was a petri dish of budding political talent. Naheed Nenshi, the future mayor of Calgary, and Kevin Bosch, who later became a federal Liberal strategist, acted for Quebec. Smith role-played as a parliamentary reporter, interviewing them about the Charlottetown Accord. Lougheed’s students came from programs in commerce, history and economics—but their majors hardly mattered. “I once missed my bus and had to walk home because we were busy debating constitutional policy at the bar after class,” says Bosch. He remembers Smith as a star student: warm, friendly and extremely smart.

Smith’s political education continued at the student centre, where crowds gathered by the stairwell for informal debates called Speakers Corner. She watched students standing on lunch tables, facing off over taxes, reproductive rights and whether the cafeteria should stock Coke or Pepsi. In a typical matchup, Rob Anders, a political science student who was later a founding member of the Conservative Party of Canada, duked it out with Ezra Levant, who would found Rebel News and become one of Canada’s most notorious right-wing agitators. Smith loved watching the debates, but Nenshi doesn’t recall if she ever took part. She didn’t fit in with the big mouths and big egos, he says—she was a head-down achiever who’d rather read Ayn Rand than showboat.

At Speakers Corner, Smith met Sean McKinsley, a political science student she later married. (They’ve since divorced, but remain friends.) After debates, McKinsley and Smith would debrief over beer and wings at the Den, the smoke-filled campus pub. Smith was always brimming with ideas, recalls McKinsley, but she was hardly a radical. She supported staid, centrist candidates like Jean Charest—practically a Liberal by Alberta standards. “If she comes across as a feisty agitator, I don’t know if that portrays the person she is,” McKinsley says. “She’s a severely normal human being.”

Nenshi says he often wonders what happened to that version of Smith. He and a few alumni still maintain a group chat where they try to trace her metamorphosis from affable bookworm to pugnacious firebrand. Some say that, deep down, she’s always been like this and simply found her voice later on. Others think it’s a vote-grabbing act. Most agree that something changed.

The transformation seems to have started in Smith’s senior year, when she was elected president of the campus Progressive Conservatives. At the time, the PCs were an unfashionable choice. By the mid-1990s, many Albertans had soured on the centrist, tax-friendly federal party. The fiery Reform Party, a populist movement born of Western discontent, was emerging as the standard-bearer of Canadian conservatism. Most of Smith’s conservative classmates—McKinsley, Anders, Levant—were Reformers. Smith shared a 150-square-foot office with the heads of the other political clubs, where they badgered her to the right.

Her true conversion, though, began when she took a class taught by political science professor Tom Flanagan. He belonged to a group known as the Calgary School, which also included U of C professors Barry Cooper, Ted Morton and Rainer Knopff. It espoused old-fashioned fiscal conservatism. Most members were also social conservatives, variously opposing gay marriage, abortion rights and sovereignty for Indigenous people. Above all, the group was informed by a deep wariness of the federal government.

Of course, discontent with Ottawa is as old as Alberta itself. Throughout the 20th century, Western politicians argued that Alberta—agrarian, traditional, conservative—would be better off without the influence of Eastern liberal elites. The Calgary School reflected a new era of Western alienation that began in 1980, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program, a federal policy that siphoned oil and gas profits out of Alberta. The group’s solution was to radically decentralize Canada, handing more power to provinces. In 2001, three of the School’s professors co-signed a document that became widely known as the “firewall letter,” urging then-premier Ralph Klein to kick the RCMP, CPP and CRA out of Alberta and replace them with a provincial police force, pension plan and tax-collection agency.

Flanagan saw promise in Smith, and became a mentor to her. She soaked up the School’s philosophies, adopting them as foundational pieces of her own political persona. She was such a strong student that, when she graduated, Flanagan recommended her for an internship at the Fraser Institute—a Vancouver-based think tank that advocates for free markets. Around that time, Smith also accompanied Levant and McKinsley to the Leadership Institute, a bootcamp in Virginia that trains young conservatives on how to get elected, pass policy, take over school boards and infiltrate newsrooms. Its alumni include Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell.

By the time Smith returned to Alberta, her new ideology was fully formed. She was no longer a soft-spoken moderate but a fed-bashing libertarian, immersed in a world of hardline reformers and Western populists—the same circles that incubated Harper, Kenney and premier Ralph Klein, one of Smith’s political idols. In 1995, Smith met another hero when the Fraser Institute invited Margaret Thatcher to Vancouver to speak about her book The Path to Power. As the Iron Lady signed a copy, Smith told her, “I hope to run for office myself one day.”

Twenty-seven years old and fired up with partisan zeal, Smith could have run for city council, or even the provincial legislature. Instead, in 1998, she took her piss and vinegar to a stranger place when Peggy Anderson, an early aide to Jason Kenney, invited Smith to run alongside her for a trustee spot on the Calgary Board of Education. Despite having no kids, nor any apparent interest in education, Smith agreed. The board, until then managed by a cadre of more progressive trustees, was grappling with school closures and a $35-million budget shortfall. Smith and Anderson campaigned to bring accountability to the board. What ensued was chaos—just a hint of the mayhem that has followed Smith everywhere since.

Jennifer Pollock, one of the board’s trustees, says Smith arrived to an early meeting declaring, “I don’t know why we have to meet so much.” Within weeks, Smith started skipping votes. Once, Pollock blocked Smith from leaving the boardroom before a vote about supporting Indigenous communities. “Don’t be unaccountable,” she said. Things didn’t run much smoother when Smith did show up; she and Anderson were consistent contrarians. The other trustees wanted to address their financial crunch by collecting new taxes directly from Albertans. Smith wanted to close 30 public schools instead.

The board never resolved this dilemma. Instead, it imploded. After reviewing her colleagues’ expenses, Smith complained that one trustee had racked up $4,500 worth of cellphone bills in a year and that the board had spent $25,000 on travel. The press ate up the story of the profligate board. Smith and Anderson then aggravated the situation by publishing board documents online without consulting other trustees.

In the summer of 1999, the tensions became all-out war. During a meeting in August, Smith noticed two trustees passing notes to one another, which they tore up and discarded. When the meeting adjourned, Smith retrieved the notes, pieced them back together and handed them over to reporters. The National Post and Calgary Herald reprinted the messages, which read like excerpts from a Mean Girls–style burn book. Smith, one said, had “crappy hair.” Another called her a “slow learner.” At the next meeting, Pollock intentionally discarded a note that read “Fuck you. Publish this on the front page of the paper. I don’t give a fuck.”

In response, Alberta’s education minister, Lyle Oberg, dismissed all seven trustees, though one of Oberg’s senior staffers called Smith and urged her to run again; he’d only fired her because the law required him to can everyone. But Smith declined. Another opportunity had popped up, as a columnist with the Calgary Herald.

Peter Stockland, who edited the paper’s op-ed page at the time, says that Smith was a sharp thinker whose contrarian views made for engaging copy. Her curiosity and willingness to challenge colleagues’ ideological positions, he says, made her a valuable asset. “She was willing to admit when she was wrong,” says Stockland, “but she never changed her principles.”

Danielle Smith
(Photograph by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Not everyone at the Herald was so impressed. Some staffers took issue with her behaviour at the school board, calling her “Trash Can Dani.” Others were annoyed that, at 28 years old, she’d landed a coveted writing gig without any journalistic experience. And around the time she joined the paper, the newsroom went on strike. Smith crossed the picket line, inviting more ire.

Yet she stuck around for years, pumping out columns criticizing the Chrétien government, defending property rights and lauding the privatization of pretty much everything. Her columns challenged conventional wisdom and, foreshadowing her future COVID claims, often questioned medical orthodoxy. She once even wrote that smoking cigarettes could reduce the risk of disease. Doug Firby, who edited Smith in the early 2000s, says her columns often read like mouthpieces for whatever sources she’d spoken to. “There was a kind of naïveté at play,” says Firby.

In the mid-2000s, Smith added a few more roles to her CV, hosting two talk-radio shows as well as a current-affairs program on Global Television. To many of her media colleagues, Smith seemed like a politician first and a journalist second. Once, when Stockland was covering a conservative conference, he was surprised to find Smith sitting with the delegates, voting on party matters. “Danielle, you can’t do that,” he told her. “We’re journalists.” Firby suspects that, for Smith, journalism was a means to an end—a way to boost her profile and lay the groundwork for another run at elected office.

As Smith inveighed against Liberals and the federal government in the Herald, the conservative dynasty that had governed Alberta since the ’70s—the longest winning streak in Canadian political history—was falling apart. In the late 2000s, under premier Ed Stelmach, the government amassed a massive deficit, shifted to the centre on social issues like LGBTQ rights and hiked royalties on oil and gas companies, a controversial move as the industry reeled from the 2008 financial crisis. Even steadfast supporters were growing uneasy.

This discontent created an opening for the fledgling Wildrose Party. Like Reformers before them, the Wildrose promised a platform of small government, low taxes and traditional values. The party had momentum, but it lacked a high-profile leader. When Wildrose co-founder Paul Hinman stepped down in 2009, he courted Smith, by then known more for her inflammatory columns than the school board debacle. Her competition was Mark Dyrholm, a hard-right candidate supported by several activist church groups. Smith, a libertarian who supported gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose, campaigned as a big-tent uniter, someone to bring conservatives together, rather than marginalize the Wildrose as an intolerant fringe movement. She won, with more than three-quarters of the vote.

Over the next few years, Smith reformed the party in her image, rolling out a platform hearkening back to her Calgary School roots: decentralizing education and health care, championing oil and gas and fighting against federal incursions. She hired her old mentor Tom Flanagan as campaign manager for the 2012 provincial election and pledged to enact elements of the firewall letter, including a provincial pension plan. She built a base of voters by holding rural town halls, where she promised to run a balanced budget, institute tax credits for young families and save $2 billion by scrapping the PCs’ carbon-capture program. Ian Donovan, a former Wildrose MLA, says Smith shone on the road. “She’d talk with someone at a rally in Athabasca, then meet them again in Lethbridge and say, ‘I remember you,’ ” he says. Pollsters predicted a landslide Wildrose win.

Instead, the crackpot wing of the party re-emerged in very public fashion. In one interview, a candidate claimed he had an advantage over his opponent because he was white. And just days before the election, a blog post by Edmonton candidate Allan Hunsperger surfaced, claiming that gay people would “suffer the rest of eternity in a lake of fire.” Ever the libertarian, Smith defended Hunsperger’s freedom of speech—but her defence also stemmed from disastrously miscalculated political optics. She simply didn’t realize that Albertans would recoil at such vehement homophobia. On election day, her seemingly assured victory evaporated. Moderate Albertans’ fears seemed confirmed—that behind the grassroots veneer, the Wildrose was really a bunch of racists and rednecks.

That perception hardened after the election. In 2014, as the official Opposition, Wildrose members voted against adopting a relatively banal statement affirming the rights of Albertans regardless of race, religion and sexual orientation. Smith started looking for the exit. Privately, she negotiated with premier Jim Prentice to meld the moderate wing of her Wildrose caucus with his PCs. In 2014, Smith and eight other Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to join the PCs. She framed it as a way to unite the right—and it did, against her. Thousands of Wildrose diehards—the volunteers, candidates and donors she’d cultivated for years—felt betrayed. No Canadian opposition leader had ever joined a sitting government. Voters punished her and her fellow floor-crossers in that year’s provincial election; all lost re-election bids. Even worse, with the PCs and leftover Wildrosers splitting the right-wing vote, the NDP snuck up the middle, stunning everyone by winning a majority. Smith’s career in elected office, it seemed, was over.

Banished to the political hinterlands for a second time, Smith again retreated into media punditry. In 2016, she landed a talk-radio show on the Calgary airwaves. The program was signature Smith: wonkish interviews with MLAs, energy experts and property-rights advocates. She couldn’t help but opine on her old party, which had merged with the PCs to become the United Conservative Party. And she waltzed right into the growing culture wars. Whatever her own social views, the staunchly libertarian Smith has complained about the hazards of cancel culture and the supposed silencing of conservative voices in mainstream media. Among hundreds of guests, she welcomed John Carpay, a lawyer who had compared rainbow flags to swastikas, and Tom Quiggin, an Islamophobic former RCMP officer.

Then came COVID. Smith consistently erred on the side of medical quackery, promoting bogus cures and giving airtime to vaccine-skeptical doctors. She chafed at mask guidelines and lambasted UCP premier Jason Kenney for kowtowing to federal health mandates. During a panel discussion on conservative news site the Western Standard in January of 2022, she cheered on the coalition of anti-vaxxers, free-speech activists and Christian fundamentalists who had coalesced in a tiny border town in southern Alberta called Coutts to protest vaccine mandates on health-care workers and restrictions on religious gatherings. Smith never visited the demonstration, which blocked the U.S. border for 17 days, but it became a springboard for her political comeback.

Among the crowd in Coutts was a political operative named David Parker. A home-schooled, 34-year-old pastor’s son from a tiny town in rural Alberta, the bearded and bespectacled Parker had served as an adviser to Stephen Harper and worked in Smith’s Wildrose war room. The blockade, he saw, had the makings of a movement that could reform the United Conservative Party and push it further to the right.

Contrary to its new name, the UCP had been deeply divided from day one. The old PCs clashed with the former Wildrosers. The suit-and-tie conservatives in Calgary didn’t like the gun-toting libertarians from Taber. Edmonton progressives chafed at Christian social conservatives who’d been brought into the fold. And as leader, Kenney was increasingly unpopular with them all, especially with the hard-right faction who resented COVID restrictions.

While the party was searching for its soul, Parker zoomed around rural Alberta in a blue Ford pickup, hosting hundreds of town halls in barns, churches and community centres, telling rural Albertans that it was time to stand up for freedom and religious liberty. He turned this base into a new group, called Take Back Alberta, or TBA. Though the group nominally formed to fight COVID measures, it quickly embraced a range of separatist, pro-privatization, religious fundamentalist and anti-trans views.

Twenty years ago, Parker might have turned TBA into a new far-right party, a spiritual successor to the Wildrose. But Alberta was a different place in 2022: more urban, more centrist, more diverse. It was obvious that splitting the conservative vote would merely hand power back to the NDP. So Parker resolved to take over the UCP itself. He told supporters to buy party memberships so they could pack its board with TBA-aligned candidates. Benita Pedersen, a TBA volunteer from the town of Westlock, told me she thought the plan was brilliant. “Tons of people bought into the concept,” she says. “Some had never participated in politics. But the messaging was so effective at firing people up.”

One of Parker’s goals was to remove Kenney, and he could think of no better replacement than his old boss. Smith’s conspiracy-tinged, libertarian persona resonated strongly with TBA supporters, and though her social views skewed more liberal, she’d soft-peddled bigotry before, in particular during the Allan Hunsperger lake-of-fire fiasco. Anyway, the prize was too alluring. If she could win the leadership, she’d instantly become premier, a position she’d missed a decade earlier.

The strategy worked. Speaking to caucus staff last March, Kenney remarked, “The lunatics are trying to take over the asylum.” In May, the UCP held a leadership review, where Kenney barely squeaked out a win. He announced that night that he’d resign. The following morning, Smith declared her intention to run for the leadership.

Soon, she was accompanying Parker around the province, promising to stand up for the unvaccinated. Parker spoke glowingly at her rallies. She attended his wedding in Canmore. When a reporter questioned Smith about her perceived coziness with Parker—and his influence—she replied, “I’ve got lots of friends.” (Smith declined to be interviewed for this piece, and Parker did not respond to requests.)

Beyond appealing to the COVID-weary and the vaccine-skeptical, Smith’s platform focused on her old standbys: the don’t-tread-on-me tenets of the Calgary School. Conveniently, Barry Cooper, lawyer Derek From and former Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson—today the executive director of the premier’s office under Smith—had just co-authored a policy document called the Free Alberta Strategy, a dense action plan that envisioned a radically different future for Alberta—a nation within a nation à la Quebec that would govern, police and tax itself.

Smith took up their strategy as the blueprint for her Alberta Sovereignty Act. As originally written, it would have allowed Smith’s cabinet to unilaterally rewrite provincial laws and ignore legislation from Ottawa. The act became the controversial centrepiece of her campaign. Party moderates balked at its radicalism, but the TBA base—the angriest people in the room—ate it up. In October of 2022, roughly 900 TBA members showed up at the UCP’s annual general meeting. With their support, Smith defeated rival Travis Toews to become the UCP’s new leader and, at last, premier of Alberta.

The version of the Sovereignty Act that passed last December was watered down after legislative debate—Smith’s cabinet would no longer have the power to alter laws unilaterally. But it still allows the government to direct provincial entities—police forces, schools, municipalities—to ignore a federal law if the provincial legislature declares it unconstitutional or harmful to Alberta. If, for instance, the government wanted to block a federal gun-control bill, it could order police not to confiscate firearms.

The act is a cunning piece of political theatre. As Barry Cooper wrote in the National Post last summer, it is unconstitutional on purpose, an intentional affront to the conventional division of federal-provincial powers. If Smith ever uses it, she’ll almost certainly trigger a constitutional challenge. According to Eric Adams, a constitutional scholar at the University of Alberta, it’s not entirely clear what would happen next. “There is no road map because no provincial legislation has ever walked this road,” he says. It’s possible, he says, that if the act is found unconstitutional and struck down in a challenge, support would grow for a stronger form of separation.

The only guaranteed outcome of its application would be, again, chaos, that recurring feature of Smith’s career. I asked Cooper, who is now 80 years old, how it felt to see a premier take up the blueprint he’s been pushing for the past half-century. “Better late than never,” he said. “These ideas are not news to a lot of Albertans. I learned this stuff from my grandfather.”

But Smith is no longer catering to the separatists of yore—prairie pioneers and octogenarian professors. She is pandering to a more volatile generation of revolutionaries motivated by misinformation and rage. Her ties to Parker and his group helped put her in office, but they’re also her vulnerability. If Smith ventures too far into radical TBA territory, she’ll alienate mainstream conservatives. If she shifts too far to the centre, Parker has threatened to do to her exactly what he did to Kenney. As he put it, “There would probably be a grassroots movement to remove Smith if she didn’t do what she said she’d do.”

So far, Smith has focused her attention squarely in the direction every Alberta conservative can agree on: against Ottawa, and Justin Trudeau specifically. Minutes after her election victory in May, Smith was standing onstage at Calgary’s Stampede grounds, goading the feds in front of a hollering crowd. “Hopefully, the prime minister and his caucus are watching tonight,” she declared, explaining that Alberta would not be meeting the Liberals’ mandated emissions targets or following their electrification plans, which she claimed would ravage the economy. On this, Smith has been a broken record. When the Liberals announced new clean electricity regulations, Smith called them “utterly out of step with reality.” To twist the knife, she announced in August that Alberta would pause development of new wind and solar projects for six months. Smith claimed the moratorium was designed to give the industry time to prepare the electricity grid—but some observers see her motive as sticking it to Trudeau.

That rebellious spirit is spreading. Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe has taken a page directly from Smith’s playbook with the Saskatchewan First Act, giving the province more autonomy over natural resources. He also declared Saskatchewan “a nation with a nation.” Quebec’s François Legault has demanded Ottawa cede control over immigration to his government. And in 2021 and 2022, Doug Ford’s Ontario government invoked the notwithstanding clause—the rarely used clause enabling provinces to override Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms—to pass legislation. These premiers aren’t threatening to blow up Confederation. Their actions can’t all be pinned on Smith, either; Ford’s challenges to federal authority came before she was elected. But Smith is fast becoming the de facto figurehead of a growing strain of anti-federalism.

Still, she knows how to play nice. When she met Trudeau in person at the Calgary Stampede this July—an encounter buzzed about like a cage match—she shook his hand and resolved to reconcile their differences. Trudeau wanted Alberta on board with his net-zero ambitions; Smith hoped to make the most of her province’s fossil-fuel resources while there was still a market for them. They agreed that Canada should reach carbon neutrality by 2050, but disagreed on how fast progress would be in the meantime.

Instead of fireworks, the scrum of reporters at the event was treated to promises of collaboration. It was all so tame, so boring. For a moment, Smith appeared to be the politician that her university classmates had once expected her to become: principled, amiable, even bland.

Smith then fixed a cowboy hat on her head and blundered straight back into controversy. Shortly after the meeting, photos circulated online of Smith posing with a man wearing a “straight pride” T-shirt. The same man appeared in a photo with federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

If the photos mean anything, it’s this: Poilievre is Smith’s federal parallel. Like Smith, he owes his leadership in part to the cohort of Canadians who wave “Fuck Trudeau” flags on highway overpasses. Both must walk a razor-thin line between mainstream and fringe factions of Canadian conservatism. As Smith was to Kenney, Poilievre is an imperfect alternative to a leader many see as past his prime. There may be enough Canadians who, like those voters in suburban Calgary, are willing to hold their noses and vote for change. But those Stampede photos are a reminder that the vitriol, fear and intolerance that propelled Poilievre and Smith to power will always accompany them—and threaten to tear them back down.


A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Smith crossed the floor to join the PCs in 2015, when it was in fact 2014.