Danielle Smith took to a stage in Calgary on Thursday after being elected the new leader of the United Conservative Party and proclaimed a new chapter for a province long-known for its testiness.
“It is time for Alberta to take its place as a senior partner in building a strong and unified Canada,” Smith said.
Her victory capped five months of campaigning to be the next premier of Alberta and marks the end of three combative and contentious years under the premiership of Jason Kenney, who focused much of his energy on fighting against those he saw as enemies of the province’s oil and gas industry — including the federal government.
Throughout the campaign, the focus was on Alberta autonomy and standing up for a province perceived to be under threat as the world churns and changes. The economy and inflation were top of mind. Ottawa, Justin Trudeau and Trudeau’s so-called climate police, too.
Missing, as candidates played to a devoutly conservative base, was much attention on the environment and climate change, unless in regards to how either of those two things could impact the economic well-being of Alberta.
It remains to be seen whether that will change as the new premier moves from wooing the base to convincing Albertans as a whole that the United Conservative Party deserves another chance to govern.
But on Thursday night, Smith, a former newspaper editorial writer and host on radio and television, was clearly focused on uniting the party around its opposition to federal environmental laws and healthcare policies such as vaccine mandates, which were adopted to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
“No longer will Alberta ask permission from Ottawa to be prosperous and free. We will not have our voices silenced and censored. We will not be told what we must put in our bodies in order to work or to travel,” she said.
“We will not have our resources landlocked or our energy phased out of existence by virtue-signalling prime ministers.”
Sovereignty Act would take aim at emissions reductions, carbon tax
Smith did offer at least one glimpse into her thinking on climate change and the environment during the first debate of the campaign in July, and her answer was consistent with the current government.
Asked about her priorities on the environment, she said she’s come full circle from 2012 when as leader of the Wildrose Party, she said the science wasn’t settled. She then advocated for the advantages of a net-zero future through carbon capture utilization and storage and transforming to a hydrogen economy.
“Once we get the issue of CO2 out of the way and people see that we are serious about solving it and getting there faster than anywhere else,” Smith said, “we also have to tackle the issues of air quality, of water quality, of making sure that we’re doing habitat protection, which our farmers and ranchers do so well and I can’t wait to sell that message.”
Smith’s support for net-zero targets, however, was denounced by fellow candidate and former Alberta finance minister Travis Toews, who said in a tweet that net-zero targets would “bankrupt” the province. Smith and her rivals said little else about the topic for the remainder of the race.
“I think that’s really because the base that’s voting in this election, it’s not important to them, they don’t want to talk about it,” Janet Brown, a pollster based in Calgary, tells The Narwhal. “And the leaders [didn’t] want to raise issues that might inflame that core base.”
Not only did the environment and climate drop off the radar, the tone of the rhetoric changed as well.
One month after the debate, Smith was posting misinformation about Environment and Climate Change Canada hiring enforcement officers, part of a wider campaign by right-wing groups to stir up controversy by suggesting the officers were part of a plot to lock up Canadians who run afoul of climate regulations.
Her contentious central platform plank, the proposed Sovereignty Act, offers the most compelling evidence that a Smith government won’t move aggressively toward climate action if it interferes with perception of provincial autonomy and wealth creation.
Her act, which she claims would allow Alberta to refuse to enforce federal legislation it disagrees with but which has widely been panned as unconstitutional and unworkable, doesn’t target specific legislation, though she has offered examples of what she’d like to see blocked.
Among those limited examples, she cites federal impact assessments, oil and gas emissions reductions — which she mischaracterizes as mandatory production cuts — and fertilizer emissions reductions, which she mischaracterizes as mandatory fertilizer reductions.
On Oct. 4, she also told The Calgary Eyeopener that she wants to relitigate the carbon tax, after the province lost a Supreme Court challenge of the tax in 2021.
“We have new information,” she said. “We have a war in Ukraine. We have a world global increase in prices. We have global instability. We have an affordability crisis.”
She reiterated that on Thursday to a cheering crowd, making it clear she intends to focus on the carbon tax as one more cost being piled onto Canadians as inflation takes its toll.
It’s the sort of thing University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young has characterized as “fantasy federalism” — proposals based on wishful thinking meant to excite supporters and with “no realistic chance of achieving their intended objectives.”
Today’s rhetoric not ‘your grandpa’s alienation’
The leadership campaign and the heated rhetoric from most of the candidates fits into a long history of agitation on the prairies — and Alberta in particular. Farmers taking on Ottawa and the railways, Social Credit, the rise of the Reform Party and now a resurgence in separatism.
Young argues what is happening in the province now, however, “isn’t your grandpa’s Alberta alienation.”
Anger has swelled as the world slowly moves away from the fossil fuels that have created the modern province and which Young says is inextricably linked to the conservative politics many have tried to tie to the province.
Jared Wesley, a political scientist from the University of Alberta, says a lot of the rhetoric has also been misleading.
“I think the courts have been pretty clear that the federal government has policy room in this space,” he says of climate policies.
He says any efforts to stop emissions reductions would only result in a delay.
Efforts by the largest producer of emissions in the country and the home to most of its oil and gas production to slow reduction strategies could have a big impact, particularly as the federal government moves to reduce emissions on a tight deadline and aims to achieve net zero by 2050.
That sort of failure could pose a problem for any leader who has promised to fight back and who fails. Jason Kenney, the departing premier, is just one example.
“He was elected because he was talking tough. He became unpopular because he wasn’t following through on them,” Brown says.
Smith also previously found herself targeted by similar anger in 2015, losing a nomination battle to represent her party in that year’s election after she crossed the floor from the Wildrose to join the Progressive Conservatives led by the late Jim Prentice, who was the Alberta premier at the time.
She would later return to her roots in the media, hosting a Global News radio show for the next six years, before resigning in January 2021 due to what she described as the “mob of political correctness.”
Campaign rhetoric an issue for industry
A disappointed and angry base isn’t the only thing the new premier might have to contend with. As the campaign ends and the task of governing comes into focus, there will be pressure to walk back some of the promises made.
Speaking at a Calgary Chamber of Commerce lunch on Oct. 4, federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was diplomatic when it came to the topic of Alberta’s next premier and working with them.
“My view is that while you sometimes see in the press, heated rhetoric between governments, I will tell you that behind the scenes the discussions are typically far more collaborative,” he said.
“And I look forward to working with whoever wins the UCP leadership and forms the next government in Alberta, to advance the interests of Albertans.”
But he also emphasized what he says is a consensus between the government and the oil and gas industry that emissions need to come down.
Debra Yedlin, the CEO of the Chamber, was more direct.
“We are very concerned about certainty for businesses and certainty for investment, and what we’re looking for in new leadership is to make sure that that certainty for investment and the ability to attract capital, talent and opportunity in this province is maintained,” she said.
Despite the increasing emissions from the province’s oil and gas industry, as well as a range of ongoing and significant issues — from abandoned and orphaned wells to wildlife impacts to tailings ponds — the industry has voiced support for net-zero targets as long as governments are there to support them.
A focus on attracting investment through improved environmental performance would put the large players in conflict with the rhetoric of the campaign.
But the rhetoric could also come into conflict with the wider electorate — a different cohort than the base that elected Smith.
“The idea that Albertans don’t care about climate change, and we’re a bunch of knuckle-dragging Luddites, I mean, that’s not the case,” Brown says.
According to a 2021 Abacus Data poll, just 12 per cent of Albertans believe there is little or no evidence the Earth is warming, compared to seven per cent nationally.
Brown’s own research for the Pembina Institute has shown 68 per cent of Albertans support achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Brown says a lot of the contention comes down to timing and tactics rather than an outright resistance to things like achieving net-zero emissions.
Previous Alberta governments have faced backlash over rollbacks
The outgoing government focused its environmental energy into policies and regulations that would encourage the energy sector to pivot — to use natural gas to produce hydrogen, to capture carbon to keep the oilsands alive.
But it was no stranger to more controversial attempts to rewrite environmental norms.
It faced enormous backlash when it tried to quietly rewrite the rules for open-pit mining on the eastern slopes of the Rockies and faced a prolonged and vocal campaign against moves to remove sites from the provincial park system.
“Albertans have proven particularly attuned to environmental issues, like damage on the eastern slopes and so on,” Wesley says.
“That’s an encouraging sign, in that I don’t think today you’d see even a conservative politician openly campaigning to roll back environmental regulations.”
That doesn’t mean the environment will become a priority. Wesley and Brown both say it never floats to the top of issues that are top of mind for Albertans. And right now, it’s the economy and the cost of living that are most occupying voters.
So that encouraging sign that Wesley highlighted about not rolling back environmental regulations does come with a caveat.
“They’re not going to openly campaign [on environmental regulations] and as a result they can pay the price at the polls for having some kind of hidden agenda,” he says.
But Thursday night, the campaign now done, Smith was back to talking about emissions, but clearly in the context of economic gains.
Alberta, she said, could be the solution to the world’s energy needs, providing LNG in the place of coal and helping Europe navigate its current energy storm.
“We can become the nation that develops the breakthrough technologies that make continued fossil fuel use not only possible but preferable for fuelling the energy needs of this generation and the next,” Smith said.
She’ll start that next campaign on Oct. 11 when she says she’ll be sworn in as the next premier — with no seat in the legislature and no election until May of next year.