Premier Danielle Smith touts party unity ahead of 2023 election

Premier Danielle Smith tried to rally party members who have just come through a year of division marked by a leadership review followed by the resignation of former leader and premier Jason Kenney. 

UCP annual general meeting the first under Smith's leadership

Premier Danielle Smith held her first news conference Saturday since her inaugural day in office. (Nathan Gross/CBC )

Alberta's new Premier Danielle Smith says the United Conservative Party is ready to fight and win the next provincial election in May 2023. 

In a keynote address at the governing party's annual general meeting on Saturday, Smith tried to rally party members who have just come through a year of division marked by a leadership review followed by the resignation of former leader and premier Jason Kenney. 

"Our team is now unified, our team is now ready to fight for Albertans," Smith said to loud cheers from at least 1,800 members who crowded into a conference hall on the Enoch Cree Nation, west of Edmonton.

"And come hell or high water, we are going to beat the NDP in 2023."

Smith was chosen leader on Oct. 6 after winning 53 per cent of the votes on the sixth ballot. Grande Prairie-Wapiti MLA Travis Toews, who will rejoin cabinet on Monday, came second with 47 per cent of the vote. 

In her 20-minute speech, Smith outlined how her team has been transitioning into government and how MLAs bonded during a three-day caucus retreat earlier this week. 

Smith received the loudest and longest cheers from the crowd by declaring the proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act would push back against federal overreach of what she says is provincial jurisdiction. 

"When Ottawa seeks to take control of our sovereign areas of provincial jurisdiction, our UCP government will not enforce those laws or policies in this province, period," Smith said. 

Smith addressed critics who have suggested she would start softening the intent of her legislation now that she has secured the party leadership. 

"My friends, I did not campaign by saying things to win your favour and your votes only to change the channel on you later," she said. "We will get this done."

Smith said the party's priorities going into the next election include health care reform and easing the impact of inflation on Albertans. 

Early controversies

Smith's first ten days in office have been marked by apologies and clarifications of past controversial remarks she made on social media and in her newsletter.

During a live stream with the Western Standard on Friday, Smith criticized an agreement Alberta Health Services signed with the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In 2020, the WEF invited AHS to join the Global Coalition for Value in Healthcare. An AHS release said the coalition looked at "shaping future healthcare on the international stage." 

Since then, the WEF has featured in right-wing conspiracy theories.

Smith refused to clarify what she meant by those remarks when questioned by reporters at a news conference following her keynote speech. 

About 1,800 party members turned up to hear new UCP leader and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

When challenged on her statements, Smith brushed them off.

"There are certain forums that are entertainment forums," she said. 

"I was on an entertainment forum for a long time, Corus Entertainment. I recognize that you're in the industry of making sure that you find the most outrageous statements so that you can get a lot of clicks."

Smith was also asked about her promise to grant amnesty to people who were fined for breaking COVID rules. 

Smith said she wants to get legal advice to determine whether she has that power. She said her focus would be on people fined for not wearing masks or church leaders who refused to follow capacity limits. 

As for the negative news stories from her first days as premier, Smith said the media was engaging in a "parlour game" by finding controversial things she had said or written about in the past. 

"I"m turning the page on the past 27 years," she said, adding that the job of government is much different than being a columnist or talk radio host. 

New board candidates

The UCP was formed after the former Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties united in 2017. 

Smith's call for unity comes in response to the divisions that arose during the long process to get the party to agree to a review of Kenney's leadership, the actual vote and the four-month leadership process. 

Smith has tried to heal tensions among supporters of her opponents by offering five of them seats on her cabinet. Chestermere-Strathmore MLA Leela Aheer, who placed last in the contest, will remain in the UCP backbenches. 

Take Back Alberta, a grassroots coalition formed to oust Kenney as leader, appears to have succeeded in its quest to get its chosen candidates on the UCP executive. The group said they thought the board was too friendly toward Kenney. 

At the first UCP AGM since Smith became leader, she said the party's priorities going into the next election include health care reform and easing the impact of inflation on Albertans. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

UCP members voted on 20 policy resolutions on Saturday. 

A resolution proposing a prohibition on teaching students about white privilege, intersectionality, anti-racism and diversity and inclusion was defeated. 

Party members passed a resolution that would give parents say over whether their children could be taught about "identity, sexuality, and morality" in school. The resolution proposed that parents not be forced to accept when a child has a gender identity that differs from their sex at birth. 

While resolutions passed by members become party policy, they aren't always implemented by the government.


Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.