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The reinvention(s) of Danielle Smith

How Alberta’s next premier talked her way out of political oblivion to become the Great Right Hope

Danielle Smith smiles and waves to the crowd after being chosen as the new leader of the United Conservative Party and next Alberta premier in Calgary Thursday.
Danielle Smith smiles and waves to the crowd after being chosen as the new leader of the United Conservative Party and next Alberta premier in Calgary Thursday.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Bobby Painter was so angry, he recalls, he used to have to turn off the radio when Danielle Smith’s talk show came on.

It was 2015, barely a year after she’d made the move that, up until now, was the defining move of her political life — crossing the floor from his beloved Wildrose Party into Jim Prentice’s Tory government, and Smith was trying to resurrect herself in broadcasting. Painter, an ardent Wildroser, didn’t want to hear that voice on his AM radio — not in his farm tractor, not at home, not in the school bus he drove part-time.

Eventually, the semi-retired farmer from the tiny east-central Alberta hamlet of Huxley gave Corus Radio’s Danielle Smith Show a shot. Her segments slamming deficit budgets, the interviewees doubting the urgency of climate action, the radical solutions floated to remedying Alberta-Ottawa relations — it all reminded Painter that Smith was as soundly conservative as he was.

His bitterness about the floor crossing drifted away. “Once I got over that, I listened to every episode, every chance I got,” Painter told CBC News in September. He’d just finished listening to Smith again — at her United Conservative leadership campaign event at the community hall in the town of Three Hills, 120 kilometres northeast of Calgary.


He sported a baseball cap that said, “More Alberta, Less Ottawa.” Painter’s excited that she promised to deliver on that old conservative slogan and stick it to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with plans for Alberta to go it alone on police and pensions, and more with her Alberta Sovereignty Act.

With that approach, along with her plans to overhaul Alberta health care and redress the grievances of the vaccine hesitant and anti-restriction crowds, Smith found her way back to become Alberta’s Great Right Hope — the chosen one to succeed where many conservatives feel Jason Kenney let them down.

Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, left, and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice stand close together by two podiums, smiling for the media.
Smith and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice stand close and smile as they speak to media in Edmonton on Dec. 17, 2014. At the time, Smith defended her decision to cross the floor with eight other Wildrose MLAs to join Prentice's Progressive Conservatives, calling it a 'victory' for the Wildrose Party. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Danielle Smith’s rise to UCP leader and premier caps one of the most remarkable political comebacks in Canadian history. Eight years after she’d led a mass walkout of the opposition party she led, leading to an NDP provincial victory and her own political oblivion, she’s risen anew, to a level that even she’s admitted she wasn’t ready for in her Wildrose days.

Media to business advocacy to politics — then repeat

But comeback isn’t new for Smith. She’s spent decades reinventing herself, over and over.

She’s not the first person to have retreated to media after bombing out of politics, nor the first to use airtime and a media spotlight to relaunch a political career. But there may not be anyone else who’s done what she’s done — gone from politics to media to business advocacy to politics to media to business advocacy and then to politics yet again.

Through these seasonal cycles of Smith, some things don’t seem to change: her conservatism, (Margaret Thatcher’s Iron Lady determination with a dollop of Ayn Rand libertarianism); communications savvy; smarts paired with an insatiable curiosity, which can lead her to some wooly ideas; and clashes or miscalculations leading to the turbulent end to her job, and not just in elected politics.

Despite the harshness of her exit after the floor-crossing — her constituents even denied her the nomination to run again in 2015 — she didn’t let her long-standing political dreams die. “I always hoped that I’d be able to have a chance to come back,” Smith said in an interview with CBC News earlier this week.

She’s included apologies and regret for that tactic in virtually every speech she’s given since in villages and cities throughout Alberta, and appreciates that so many conservatives are willing to give her a second chance.

Painter goes a step further: the fact Smith did it before, and admitted her mistakes, tells him she’ll never make such a political misstep again.

The young Progressive Conservative

When Calgarians Doug and Sharon Smith had their eldest daughter and second child on April 1, 1971, they named her Marlaina Danielle, a homage to a catchy little love song, Marlena by The Four Seasons. But she’s always been known as Danielle, or D (seldom Dani, she said).

Her parents juggled kid-raising, jobs and commerce degrees to obtain jobs in the oil patch; when Danielle was old enough, she’d babysit her three younger siblings. The family instilled a strong work ethic: she’d work through high school at a bingo parlour and at McDonald’s, and put herself through her University of Calgary arts degree by progressing from busing tables to supervising at the oyster bar Cannery Row.

Outside work and English seminar classes, she fell hard for the University of Calgary campus politics of the early 1990s, which spanned the spectrum with other future luminaries like Naheed Nenshi and activist-cum-media mogul Ezra Levant. She was active in the campus Progressive Conservatives, dabbled in provincial campaigning, and met Sean McKinsley, a fellow undergrad she began dating and would later marry.

After graduating, she followed a dream of film acting to Vancouver; she had a few crummy extra roles and spent more time earning wages the more traditional English major way — waiting tables.

Pierre Trudeau shakes hands with Margaret Thatcher
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, whom Danielle Smith grew to revile, shakes hands with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Smith's longtime hero, while the two leaders met in Ottawa in 1983. Smith has a framed photo in her home of herself with Thatcher. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

She returned to U of C for another degree, one that would help her carve out a living. She majored in economics, honing her fiscal conservative ideas, but her bond with political science professor Tom Flanagan would prove most formative. Not only would he be campaign manager for her Wildrose Party 2012 election, but in 1996 he also recommended her for an internship with the conservative think-tank Fraser Institute, back in Vancouver.

There, she was giddy to attend a book-reading by Thatcher, who by then had become a hero to her. Britain’s resolutely Conservative first woman prime minister didn’t just inspire Smith’s ideology and desire to enter politics; the Iron Lady also influenced her to try speaking in a lower voice register, to add gravitas and clarity. She’d enrol in Toastmasters and Dale Carnegie courses to further hone her communication skills and confidence.

'I was a little more strident'

Back in Calgary, she joined a property rights advocacy group that critiqued, among other things, endangered species legislation and indoor smoking restrictions. Meanwhile, another young star was rising: a Reform MP first elected in 1997 by the name of Jason Kenney. He’d worked alongside her partner McKinsley at the Alberta Taxpayers Association, and later in his Parliament office.

Smith and Kenney became conservative allies, and when his constituency aide Peggy Anderson ran for public school board trustee, Smith ran too, winning a post in 1998.

Smith and Anderson became the unofficial Reform bloc on the Calgary Board of Education, getting into regular spats with more progressive trustees. The future premier, testing out her political chops, would boldly show public support for higher school fees and school closures, for the sake of better budgeting.

“I was a little more strident,” she’d later tell the Calgary Herald. “I was probably not as open-minded about some of the other legitimate issues that the other trustees raised.” The right-left squabbles and acrimony became so great that the provincial education minister intervened and turfed the entire school board. After 11 months, Smith’s first political gig was toast.

Her first media gig followed swiftly. Her intelligence and clear-eyed views impressed Calgary Herald management, who hired her in late 1999 to author newspaper editorials and columns. She racked up hundreds of bylines over the next several years, from health reform pleas to pleading for fiscal prudence at City Hall.

Later on, old opinions would get dredged up to deride Smith — when she was campaigning as Wildrose leader in 2012, her Tory rival Alison Redford flagged a piece proposing a prostitution red-light district in Calgary, and this summer the NDP-aligned PressProgress reminded the world she’d once written a piece claiming some health benefits of moderate tobacco consumption.

TV producers spotted her flair for provocative discussion, too — she became host of the national Global Sunday current affairs program, for around three years until its cancellation in 2005.

Danielle Smith stands centre frame with a tray full of glasses, smiling at the camera.
Danielle Smith works the Dining Car Restaurant in High River in 2018. She opened it with her husband that year. (The Dining Car at High River Station/Facebook)

She also caught the eye of producer David Moretta. A few years after her marriage ended with McKinsley, Smith and Moretta wed. They remain a pair, and co-own a restaurant in High River, south of Calgary. She does their bookkeeping and weekend dishwashing, roles she never had in her younger restaurant days.

(Moretta and Smith tried to have kids together and fertility treatment proved unsuccessful, a fact Smith publicized in 2012 when a Tory aide tweeted smugly about the Wildrose leader’s childlessness.)

The PCs woo but the Wildrose wins

In 2008, Premier Ed Stelmach’s crew dispatched a rookie Tory MLA to try talking some sense into Danielle Smith. She’d left the Herald and was now Alberta director for a small-business association, but remained politically vocal.

Irked by spending increases in Stelmach’s budget, she began musing about joining the Wildrose side, which then had no legislature seats but remained a right-of-centre, rural-based threat to the governing PCs. Enter Rob Anderson, young lawyer and fiscal hawk from Airdrie, who took her out for a series of coffees.

“I was trying to recruit her to come fix the old PC party from within because at the time it still had some good parts to it and we just needed a bit of renewal, in my view,” recalled Anderson, who served as Smith’s UCP leadership campaign chair. “But she won that debate, and the rest was history.”

Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson looks on as party Leader Danielle Smith speaks to reporters in 2011.
Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson looks on as party Leader Danielle Smith speaks to reporters in 2011. They'd cross the floor into the Tory government together in 2014. This summer, he ran her campaign to lead the UCP. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A year later, she ran for and easily won the Wildrose leadership; Kenney lent her his campaign team. Anderson, still struck by how articulate, intelligent and ideologically driven she was when he tried to woo her into the Tory fold, crossed the floor in early 2010 into her opposition camp.

By the time the 2012 campaign rolled around, Smith’s Wildrose Party was poised to slay a dynasty. Then-premier Redford led a government swamped by controversy and cronyism allegations, and Wildrose led the polls.

But with the premiership so close, Smith watched opportunity slip away. When Wildrose candidates’ controversial utterances emerged, most notoriously one pastor’s old sermon that gay people would burn in a “lake of fire,” she stood by her fellow Wildrosers in the name of free speech. And then she acknowledged during forums that she didn’t believe the science was settled on climate change. The polls proved wrong: Wildrose won 17 seats, the Tories 61.

Danielle Smith bends over to talk to one dog while a second races off.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith takes her dogs, Caine, left, and Turk, for a walk while making a campaign stop in Calgary on March 31, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Smith insists she’s learned from the failures of the only provincial election she’s contested, about not reining in teammates who say or do the unthinkable. Yet she’s also emphasized the hazards of “cancel culture” in her campaign rhetoric.

On climate change, Smith professed at one recent debate she’s “come around full circle” since doubting the scientific consensus in 2012. But what she’s shifted to support in 2022 is the oil industry’s technological solutions to curb emissions, not climate change’s causes or the urgency.

Asked about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s resounding stance on the causes of the environmental crisis this week, she resisted taking a position herself.

“I’m not a scientist,” she said. “I’m not a scientist. I defer to what the industry has agreed. This industry accepts the consensus and they’re working on practical solutions, and it’s my job to support them.”

In Opposition, then out

Amid defeat in the 2012 election, Smith could celebrate having grown her opposition party several times over. She couldn’t have known at the time that she was about orchestrate her Wildrose Party shrinking back to rump status.

Between Smith’s relentless opposition, some solid investigative journalism and internal Tory sniping, Redford was drummed out of office, to be replaced as premier in fall 2014 by Jim Prentice, the former federal Conservative cabinet minister.

This Tory renewal seemed to send Smith’s party into tailspin. Wildrose lost all four byelections Prentice called after winning his leadership; two MLAs defected to the Tories, and more threatened to bolt; party executives, riding presidents and donors were fed up. Before she led Anderson and seven other Wildrose MLAs into the Tory benches — leaving just five Wildrose members in the legislature — her leadership was already clouded in doubts, including her own.

Prentice was able to lure her over, without the guarantee of a cabinet post — which she had requested, but which Tory MLAs at the time fiercely opposed at their first caucus meeting the day the floor-crossing was announced, several of them told CBC News.

Danielle Smith looks forlorn after losing a riding nomination in 2015.
Months after the floor-crossing, Danielle Smith looks on as Progressive Conservative members choose somebody else to run for the party in Smith's southern Alberta riding in spring 2015.

Smith has since framed it as her awkward attempt to unite the right, years before Kenney fused together the PCs and Wildrose into UCP. The Wildrose grassroots seethed, and Tory members chose somebody else to run for the party in her High River riding.

Alberta voters chose somebody else to run the province, too, rejecting both the Tories and Wildrose and electing Rachel Notley’s NDP.

Smith has repeatedly declared her remorse about how she, while besieged by Wildrose discontent, crossed over to Prentice’s party without consulting her own faction’s members. She knows now to listen before acting so rashly.

“I may not have been ready then. I’m ready now,” she told the Canadian Common Sense podcast in April.

'Danielle, you have no crazy radar'

Smith spent close to six years, three or more hours every weekday, trying to erase from Albertans’ minds the bitterness many felt from her floor-crossing — to prove she could listen, and say things they wanted to hear.

CHQR, a Calgary talk radio channel, hired Smith weeks after the NDP’s mid-2015 victory as a host. It quickly became her own show, three hours per day to question newsmakers, field callers, and share her own takes on Alberta and the world.

Jacqueline Sinnett, her longtime show producer, recalls the extensive preparation Smith would do, the pages upon pages of handwritten notes she’d make daily about her guests and topics. But she’d also be open-minded to other rabbit holes, she recalls.

“Sometimes we would get people calling into the show with what I would think would be an absolute crazy idea.” Sinnett recalls. “And she would be like, ‘No, let’s really dig into this.’”

This habit had carried over from her days as Wildrose leader. “When I was in politics, my staff said, ‘Danielle, you have no crazy radar,’” Smith told a podcast called Cancel This in 2021. “Because I couldn’t really tell when someone wanted to approach me about an issue if they might have been a little unhinged or a little conspiratorial.”

Off the air

This dynamic bubbled to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early on, she tweeted falsely there was a 100-per-cent cure in hydroxychloroquine, which turned out to have no impact on virus outcomes. Global News, which by then ran her station, cracked down, and Smith apologized publicly for her comment.

Smith’s interest in questioning the established, mainstream scientific findings about public health continued. She’d later assert that her bosses had dissuaded her from dozens of interviews or takes on the pandemic.

Finally, in early 2021, Smith announced she’d soon leave her longtime talk show, to evade the forces of “political correctness.” After she left in February, Smith posted to her newly launched newsletter Global’s disciplinary letter from months earlier against her handling of pandemic information.

She’d go on to say that dozens of topics or guests were discouraged because of their questionable nature, and she felt pressure to hew to the medical establishment and consensus line on public health.

A promotional image for a Danielle Smith
After leaving mainstream radio, Danielle Smith began hosting web videos with medical figures and other COVID restriction critics that she says her old bosses wouldn't let her interview. (Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms/YouTube)

“I’m allergic to having somebody tell me I have to say something I don’t believe,” she told a Sept. 25 virtual campaign town hall.

After she left, she was hired to lead Alberta Enterprise Group, an Edmonton-based business advocacy group. She also hosted video interviews with the conservative website Western Standard, hosting some of those same doctors and other advocates who questioned the otherwise accepted science about the efficacy of masks or vaccines and much of the body of medical research around COVID.

She embraced the vaccine-skeptical “freedom” movement long before the convoys. And she herself resisted getting the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Canada’s most common jabs. Before the travel mandates she’s opposed were enacted in 2021, she travelled to Arizona to get the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine.

New and improved and battle-worn

Danielle Smith announced her re-entry into provincial politics last November, after controversy boiled over about Jason Kenney’s late-game decision to impose vaccine mandates on some provincial employees and restaurant-goers. She formally launched her campaign on May 20, the day after Kenney announced his departure after a lousy leadership review, and she mused about making an apology tour for those Alberta had wronged in their pandemic rules enforcement.

She’s insisted the years of hearing out Albertans on talk radio has given her more focus. Those around her say she’s learned from her Wildrose-era mistakes, and won’t be so prone to thinking policy out loud like she used to.

“You have to, as a leader, be disciplined,” Anderson said. “And if you can’t do that, it is going to be really hard to survive in the political environment with any success.”

Danielle Smith, facing away from the camera, sits in the rain under and umbrella while her audience gathers under the cover of a building.
Danielle Smith, in red overcoat, stays dry at a campaign stop in central Alberta in June. (Danielle Smith/Facebook)

Anderson says Smith survived this leadership campaign with few “slip-ups.” One would inarguably be a video her campaign recorded with a naturopath, during which she opined about cancer: “everything that built before you got to Stage 4 and that diagnosis, that’s completely within your control and there is something you can do about that that is different.”

She tried to walk back her statement, but ultimately it proved not to dent her UCP leadership bid.

The party’s grassroots have moved on and forgiven her for all that she did last decade to botch her last party leadership. Now Danielle Smith becomes premier, and she will no doubt be curious to find out what Alberta’s broader public thinks about that.

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