Since winning the United Conservative Party’s leadership ballot last week, Danielle Smith has already raised eyebrows as Alberta’s new premier.
At her first press conference on October 11—the same day she was sworn in—Smith called unvaccinated people “the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.” After public outcry, she issued a statement claiming she “did not intend to trivialize in any way the discrimination faced by minority communities” or “create any false equivalencies to the terrible historical discrimination and persecution suffered by so many minority groups.”
Smith promised to meet with “minority community stakeholders” but stopped short of an apology.
It’s not Smith’s first time showing her disregard for marginalized communities. In previous political roles as leader of the Wildrose Party and a Progressive Conservative lawmaker, Smith has refused to apologize for a candidate’s anti-LGBTQ2S+ remarks, advocated against funding gender-affirming surgery in Alberta and supported so-called “conscience rights” legislation that would allow healthcare providers and marriage officiants to legally discriminate against LGBTQ2S+ people.
Four LGBTQ2S+ Albertans spoke to Xtra about their feelings on Premier Smith’s election and what she may mean for the province.
“I don’t even know what to say about politics in this country right now,” Glynnis Lieb, executive director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services in Edmonton, tells Xtra over a video call. “I’m struggling to remain optimistic.”
A decade ago, Danielle Smith’s first attempt to be premier was thwarted by refusing to disavow a candidate who wrote in a blog post that LGBTQ2S+ people would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire.” Lieb says the political atmosphere felt markedly different back in 2012.
“It was the pre-Trump era. I think that folks didn’t recognize that it was so easy for us to take giant social leaps backward,” she says. “These things were offensive, people jumped on them, but I don’t know that people felt the same degree of fear and apprehension that they do today.”
What worries Lieb the most about Smith’s spot as new premier is that she is willing to ally herself to extreme views—even if she does not personally share them. “I would be surprised if Danielle Smith actually has non-progressive beliefs about the LGBTQ2S+ community,” Lieb says. “But the scary thing is, that doesn’t matter.”
Smith has previously described herself as “pro-gay marriage,” saying she has “friends in the LGBTQ2S+ community.” In 2012, she attended the Edmonton police department’s Pride event. But Smith’s professed support for the LGBTQ2S+ community is not reflected in her current positions, Lieb says.
“Danielle Smith is willing to be whomever and say whatever she needs to, in order to position herself where she wants to be,” Lieb says.
Union organizer and labour education facilitator Cole Rockarts says that it’s not just Smith’s record on LGBTQ2S+ issues that should concern people.
“The election of Danielle Smith is pretty horrendous,” they tell Xtra. “I think she represents more of the libertarian, fringe, anti-health, anti-science factions of the United Conservative Party.”
After Smith lost her seat in the Alberta legislature in 2015, she worked as the host conservative talk radio program The Danielle Smith Show for six years. She resigned in January 2021, blaming “mob of political correctness” for her departure, and began an eponymous podcast soon afterward. Many of her guests peddled misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.
A comment Smith made last year about paying some workers less than minimum wage was particularly concerning to Rockarts, as many LGBTQ2S+ people struggle with financial security.
“Who are workers? They’re queer [and] trans people, they are racialized people,” Rockarts says. “When you look at particularly young folks, and particularly young queer folks, and young folks of colour who face barriers to employment, a lot work minimum wage jobs.”
Smith has said she won’t call a snap election, ensuring she will stay in charge of Alberta until the scheduled provincial election in 2023.
“Eight months is a lot of time to decimate healthcare and education,” Rockarts says. “I think those are going to be her main priorities.”
But they hope organizations and unions will use the time to plan “an actual campaign and make sure that she doesn’t get elected in 2023.” “It’s up to folks who believe in progressive values to be actively organizing against this kind of [regressive] element that has taken hold in Alberta,” Rockarts says.
Pam Rocker, an activist from Calgary who works in LGBTQ2S+ and religious spaces, says that the current political climate in Alberta is already hostile to queer and trans people.
“Right now, I’m getting more hate mail than I’ve gotten in my entire 10 years of working professionally in the intersection of faith and queerness,” Rocker tells Xtra. “These days, evangelical Christianity has become unrecognizable to me from what it used to be.”
Kenney, as a conservative Catholic, also appealed to right-wing evangelical communities in his personal-responsibility-focused approach to COVID-19. Smith is continuing in that mode, with campaign adverts promising to stand up for “freedom of religion and expression.”
Rocker says that the social conservatism of the provincial government under the United Conservative Party has led to many LGBTQ2S+ people losing trust in Alberta leaders, with some leaving the province entirely.
“What I’ve seen in Alberta happen under the UCP leadership is heartbreaking,” she says. “I know so many queer folks who are just continually saying, ‘I just don’t feel like Alberta wants me here anymore.’”
Although Smith did win the UCP leadership vote, the party has 124,000 members out of a province of 4.4 million people and Smith is broadly unpopular with the public. Rocker says that Smith’s victory is not representative of most Albertans’ opinions.
“I think most Albertans are very sensible, communal-thinking people, which is very encouraging,” Rocker says. She hopes that more allies will speak out against a vocal, if powerful, minority. “Religious attack requires a religious response. We have to speak the same language back.”
Women’s and LGBTQ2S+ community advocate Anna Murphy says that Danielle Smith could use her newfound power as premier to enact some policies that help the LGBTQ2S+ population she has previously claimed to support.
“On one hand, Premier Smith has the greatest opportunity at her fingertips, which is to address the crisis that trans healthcare is,” Murphy tells Xtra. She points to former Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford, who reinstated funding for gender-affirming surgeries in 2012, as an example of right-wing Albertan politicians supporting trans rights.
“Then we have the other option, which is the terrifying option, which is that Premier Smith goes into her party’s [annual general meeting] in November and her party adopts policy like conscience rights in healthcare,” Murphy says. “The tone of the party very much does signal that these policy resolutions will be adopted.”
While Smith’s support of conscience rights did not shape legislation in her previous stint in politics, Bill 207 was introduced by UCP politicians as recently as 2019. The legislation would have allowed healthcare workers to deny treatments like hormone replacement therapy or birth control without providing a referral. It was voted down at the time, but the UCP under Smith might be more radical.
Murphy points out that Brian Jean, the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche representative who finished third in the leadership election, campaigned using “very gross and disgusting language” regarding trans athletes. Smith has yet to announce her cabinet, but if she appoints Jean, it could indicate support for adopting more aggressively anti-LGBTQ2S+ policies that may appeal to a socially conservative base.
“I am all for free speech, you can have your opinion, but you also have to have some responsibility and some accountability,” Murphy says. “That, quite frankly, is lacking in Premier Smith. There has not been a meaningful accountability for her words, or for the actions or lack thereof, by her party.”