Redemption: Danielle Smith aims to be ‘force of unity’ as new Alberta premier
By Dean Bennett in Calgary
The political story of Danielle Smith is one of triumph then defeat, followed by betrayal, banishment and, now, redemption.
Smith, a 51-year-old Alberta-born journalist and restaurant owner won the leadership of the United Conservative Party on Thursday to become its new leader and the next premier of Alberta.
It’s a stunning comeback for Smith, who eight years ago was a reviled outcast in the conservative movement after she engineered a floor crossing for the ages.
“(It’s) unfinished business for me,” Smith said in an interview earlier this week when asked why she decided to re-enter politics.
“After everything I’ve done in the past to divide the movement, then try to bring it together the wrong way, I feel like I owe it to the conservative movement to do what I can to be a force of unity.”
Smith was born in Calgary and got into politics in junior high school, after she told her dad that her teacher was lauding the virtues of communism. Her father had roots in Ukraine, where millions died under Josef Stalin, and gave the teacher an earful. He then ensured politics was discussed around the dinner table.
Smith attended the University of Calgary and found herself entranced by soapbox lectures of conservatives like Ezra Levant and Rob Anders.
She joined the campus Progressive Conservative club and soaked in teachings of the “Calgary School” of economists and political scientists advocating for free markets and small government.
She devoured the works of John Locke and Ayn Rand and got tongue-tied when she met her idol, former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She took leadership courses and attended Toastmasters meetings to hone her debating skills and smooth out a public speaking style now considered to be her strongest political attribute.
In 1998, at 27, she won was elected a trustee for the Calgary Board of Education.
It was a short, rocky ride. Smith clashed with the liberal majority on the board and the panel was so fraught with acrimony and dysfunction that the province fired them within a year.
She then moved to media and business advocacy. She wrote newspaper editorials, hosted the current affairs TV show “Global Sunday” and was the Alberta boss for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
By 2009, politics was calling again. A rift was widening in Alberta’s conservative movement.
The Wildrose Alliance, later the Wildrose Party, was hiving off members and money from the governing Progressive Conservatives, under then premier Ed Stelmach.
The PCs, they said, had forgotten their roots, delivered top-down decisions and indulged in profligate spending that delivered multibillion-dollar deficits as oil and gas prices hit the skids.
Smith agreed change was needed and won the Wildrose leadership, telling cheering supporters in her maiden speech: “Ed Stelmach, you haven’t begun to imagine what’s going to hit you!”
The Wildrose grew under Smith and poached floor crossers from the PCs, who in turn kicked Stelmach to the curb and installed Alison Redford as premier.
In the 2012 election, Smith and the Wildrose appeared primed to end the PC dynasty.
But there were late-stage mistakes. Smith questioned the science of climate change and refused to sanction two candidates for past remarks deemed homophobic and racist.
When the votes were counted, Smith and the Wildrose lost to the PCs but captured 17 seats to become the Opposition.
Smith began trying to rebuild the party brand and reached out to marginalized groups.
The Tories, meanwhile, continued their descent into infighting and disarray. Redford quit in 2014 amid scandal and was replaced by former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice.
As Prentice took over, the Wildrose began to fray. The party lost four byelections to the PCs, then Wildrose rank-and-file voted to roll back a policy to respect all Albertans regardless of differences, such as sexual orientation.
Some of Smith’s caucus began bolting to Prentice and eventually Smith agreed: if the goal was to keep the conservative movement strong and Prentice would give them what they wanted, let’s roll.
A week before Christmas, Smith led eight more members across the floor, leaving five shell-shocked Wildrosers and staffers getting pink slips for the holidays.
“Tighty Righties” was one cheeky tabloid headline at the time that appeared beneath a photo of a beaming Prentice and Smith.
The fallout was swift and merciless. Smith and the other crossers either didn’t win their PC nominations or their seats in the 2015 election.
The Wildrose rebounded under new leader Brian Jean to retain Opposition status. Jean called Smith a “betrayer of family.”
Rachel Notley and her NDP won government for the first time ever, taking advantage of vote splitting between the Wildrose and PCs in key Calgary constituencies.
Smith began a six-year stint as a daily current affairs radio talk show host in Calgary.
“It was not easy deciding to stay in the public eye after what I’d done and the visceral reaction people had,” said Smith.
“It was unpleasant the first three months I was on the air — the texts and the emails that came in and the people who were so furious at me.”
It was three years before she began attending conservative meetings again, after a friend told her: “you can’t keep hiding.”
“I had dear friends from my Wildrose days that I’d go in for the hug and they’d give me the hand, or they’d walk away,” Smith recalled of the first few events.
“It was a seven-year process of trying to get people to forgive me. Not everyone has, but a lot of people have.”
Smith said she never discounted running again for premier, but figured Jason Kenney had a long-term lock on the job after he united the PCs and Wildrose in 2017 to form the new United Conservative Party.
Kenney won the UCP leadership, then made Notley’s NDP a one-and-done government in 2019.
When Kenney quit over caucus and party discontent in May, Smith said she decided to run by courting the UCP base — rural members frustrated with Ottawa, mainly over health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She was an agent of chaos and confrontation, promising to pass a law allowing Alberta to ignore federal laws deemed offside with its constitutional prerogatives. She pledged no more health restrictions or COVID-19 lockdowns and promised to fire health board members en masse.
As premier, she must now pivot to make the UCP palatable to the broader population, quell a divided, angry caucus and answer the question of whether politician Danielle Smith 3.0 can break her pattern of splashy political entrances and even crazier exits.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022.
Alberta’s province wide state of emergency ends as wildfire situation improves
Wildfires and smoke are shown in British Columbia and Alberta in this satellite image taken Thursday, May 18, 2023. Alberta’s public safety and emergency services minister says a province wide state of emergency that was declared nearly a month ago to deal with unprecedented wildfires will end Saturday night at midnight. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO – Co-operative Institute for Research on the Atmosphere (CIRA) at the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Alberta’s public safety and emergency services minister says a provincewide state of emergency that was declared nearly a month ago to deal with unprecedented wildfires ended Saturday at midnight.
Mike Ellis told a news conference the wildfire situation in Alberta remains serious but, overall, things have improved significantly and it’s anticipated they will continue to improve.
He says support will not stop for communities affected by active wildfires, including Fort Chipewyan, which remains evacuated due to a large fire burning about seven kilometres away.
The state of emergency was implemented May 6 to expedite co-ordination of firefighting resources and support for evacuees.
Christie Tucker with Alberta Wildfire says the Rocky Mountain wildfire which threatens Fort Chipewyan remains a top priority and 85 Canadian troops were on the way to the area on Saturday afternoon
Tucker told the news conference the blaze was quiet on Friday until the evening, but crews are working to prevent flames spreading to the community and rain is expected in the area in the next day or so.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2023.
Saskatchewan landowners fight against illegal drainage washing out land, roads
WAWOTA, Sask. — Lane Mountney spreads a map over his kitchen table at his farmhouse in southeast Saskatchewan, pointing to yellow and orange arrows slithering across the document.
Many of the arrows represent existing channels and ditches, moving across fields and out of wetlands to drain water. The arrows eventually make their way to a creek, causing what he describes as a deluge of problems downstream.
“All these years, guys have gotten away with draining water and the next guy figures he can get away withit,” Mountney said in an interview at his farm near Wawota, Sask., about 200 kilometres southeast of Regina.
“If this keeps going like it has, I don’t know what Saskatchewan’s going to look like in 10 years.”
Mountney’s map depicts what’s called the Wawken Drainage Project, a plan developed by the local watershed group that has since been taken over by the Water Security Agency, which is responsible for overseeing drainage in Saskatchewan.
The project is nearly 14 square kilometres and contains 880 wetlands of various sizes representing a total of 2.4 square kilometres of water.
A project document indicates that 88 per cent of these wetlands have been drained, partially drained or farmed. About 12 per cent remain intact.
Most of this water is supposed to flow into a creek that runs through a parcel of Mountney’s land.
The plan developers believe the creek can handle the flows, but Mountney is not convinced.
Last year, he and his wife, Sandra Mountney, dealt with flooding ontheir horses’ pasture. They decided not to use their well water at the time because it was yellow.
“They were very excited to tell us that nobody inside the project area is going to lose acres, but they haven’t even looked at who’s going to lose acres miles down the line.” Sandra Mountney said.
Brent Fry, who farms grain and livestock, said it’s common for his land to flood for three days when people upstream get 50 millimetres of rain.
He said it has caused roads and access points to erode.
“There are about four farms out there and all they’re doing is draining whether they’ve got permission or not,” Fry said. “I don’t even know what to do because the government’s not doing anything — they’re siding with the big guys.”
Farmers have drained water in Saskatchewan for generations and many have done so illegally by digging ditches without permits.
Most producers drain because it allows them to grow more crops, helping them pay for land that has become increasingly expensive. However, it has caused yearly flooding for people downstream. Roads also wash out and habitat gets lost.
At the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities convention in February, reeves passed a resolution asking the Water Security Agency to require those who are illegally draining to remediate their unapproved works.
Saskatchewan legislation requires upstream landowners to receive permission from those downstream when they want to drain, but many say that’s not happening.
Sandra Mountney said the Water Security Agency hasn’t been taking concerns seriously.
“It’s hard to know who’s really protecting our waterways,” she said.
The Wawken project began about three years ago but hasn’t been completed. It’s among many drainage projects underway.
Daniel Phalen, a watershed planner, worked on the project as technician before he left for another job.
He said landowners had been draining water with no permits before the plan. His job was to determine how many wetlands were drained and what works had already been done.
Phalen said the plan was to put in structures that would slow down the drainage to reduce problems downstream.
It’s unclear what work had been done on the Wawken project to mitigate flows since Phalen left. The Water Security Agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Phalen said projects can get held up if affected landowners don’t come to an agreement. Expropriation is allowed but it’s rare, he said.
Another nearby drainage plan, known as the Martin project, has stalled because of landowner concerns.
Researchers have estimated Saskatchewan has lost half of its total wetlands over time for crop production.
Phalen, who also worked on the Martin plan, said it was concerning to see the number of wetlands sucked out.
“The Water Security Agency doesn’t have the manpower to do much about it,” Phalen said. “There’s such low enforcement already that if they had any policies in place, people would just drain anyways. It’s kind of a scary problem to be in.”
Sandra Mountney said she’s worried about losing wetlands because they help recharge groundwater supplies and filter contaminants — particularly important when it’s dry.
The Water Security Agency has released a drainage management framework that aims to prevent flooding and ensure Saskatchewan retains a “sufficient” number of wetlands.
Leah Clark, the Interim Executive Director of Agriculture Water Management, told attendees at a Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association meeting earlier this year that 43 per cent of wetlands are retained within approved projects. She added the province has “thriving” wildlife populations.
However, she said under the policy, landowners would be able to select which wetlands to retain.
“It will achieve a working landscape for landowners to continue to use their land for farming and ranching. This approach will allow for new development while retaining current drainage,” she said.
Phalen said Saskatchewan could look to Manitoba for solutions to retain wetlands.
Manitoba has historically drained most of its wetlands in the agricultural regions, he said, but the province has since developed a policy where landowners are paid for retaining them.
“You know, $100 an acre is not a ton of money, but it’s another incentive to help producers,” he said. “It’s such a complex problem where you got this huge financial incentive to drain.”
Lane Mountney said regulations just need to be enforced.
“It’s almost too late,” he said. “They should have been out there checking stuff before we got this point.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2023.
Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press
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