CALGARY—Media personality Danielle Smith, one of the fiercest critics of Jason Kenney’s pandemic restrictions, will replace him as premier of Alberta.
In a contest that stretched to six ballots, Smith defeated former Kenney finance minister Travis Toews, widely viewed as the establishment pick, and longtime Kenney nemesis Brian Jean.
After the results were read, Smith took the stage to cheers that echoed through a cavernous hall in downtown Calgary Thursday night: “I’m back,” she said, with a grin.
“Tonight marks the beginning of a new chapter in the Alberta story,” she added.
The results mean Kenney’s rocky time as premier will soon draw to a close. The race to name a successor was closely watched not only in the province but across the country, as Smith has promised to set the province on a collision course with Ottawa.
In her speech she took immediate aim at Ottawa and said it’s time for Alberta to be a “senior” partner in the country. She said “we will not be told what we must put in our bodies,” a comment that was met with especially loud cheers.
The result came after 85,000 members of the province’s United Conservative Party cast a ballot for a new leader who, in the coming weeks, will be sworn in as premier.
Several hundred people party members and a smattering of UCP MLAs mingled while they awaited results Thursday night. Campaign adversaries, fellow legislature staffers and grassroots members in a mix of semi-formal wear, blazers and the odd cowboy hat sipped expensive beer, snacked on fries, and discussed how the ranked ballot will play out.
As the race stretched into the evening, candidates were dropped off the ballot. Among them, MLAs Leela Aheer and Rajan Sawhney who shared a hug and gave each other high fives after both being knocked out of the race.
The presumed front-runner has long been Smith, a media personality and former leader of a now-defunct right wing coalition called the Wildrose Party.
Smith came close to the premier’s chair a decade ago when her former party, with deep roots in libertarian-leaning rural Alberta, came within spitting distance of victory in the 2012 provincial election. But a series of missteps — including a homophobic comment by a candidate that is still known in the province as the “lake of fire” incident and a controversial floor crossing sent her into political exile.
Until recently. She grabbed headlines early on in the UCP race after she announced that her first bill as premier would be the Alberta Sovereignty Act — a piece of legislation that she said would allow the province to ignore federal laws it doesn’t like.
She has also ridden a wave of anti-vaccine anger, vowing to change the Alberta Human Rights Act to include vaccination status and to thin the ranks of the bureaucracy.
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Of the six other leadership hopefuls, two are considered serious contenders: Toews, who served as finance minister under Kenney and is considered the establishment pick; and Brian Jean, another past Wildrose leader who founded the UCP in 2017 with Kenney.
Thursday night also represents the end of Kenney’s time in political leadership, at least for now, though he has suggested he will stay on as an MLA.
The former federal minister was a primary architect of the United Conservative Party, having come to Alberta on a mission to unite the province’s right wing in the wake of a history NDP win.
He became leader of the UCP in 2017, which combined the long-governing Progressive Conservative party and Wildrose, and then led that party to a sweeping majority two years later.
But his newly united party would soon fracture over public health measures, with some criticizing Kenney’s government for going too far and others saying it didn’t go far enough.
Scandals over MLAs bucking restrictions, Kenney’s boozy, pandemic-rule-breaking meal on a ritzy patio, fights with doctors, education file flubs, questionable personnel decisions, policy gaffes and allegedly not looking tough enough on Ottawa have also fuelled the fire that eventually consumed his leadership.
If Smith wins Thursday, he will hand over his job to one of his harshest critics, who has repeatedly condemned public health measures and one drew fire for tweeting about a study that claimed that hydroxychloroquine cured COVID. (She later deleted the tweet and apologized for “create[ing] confusion.”)
In May, the party held a leadership review for Kenney and while he eventually got 51 per cent support, he surprised his backers by saying it wasn’t enough to stay.
Though in the days leading up to the leadership announcement, Kenney did anything but go gently into that good night, with the government making a whopping 16 announcements on Wednesday on everything from menstrual health to legal aid to the aerospace industry.
On Thursday morning, with hours to go in the voting process, Kenney held a press conference about 50 new intensive care beds and work being done to bring nurses in from abroad to ease labour shortages.
“I’m feeling great,” he told reporters. “I’m just doing my job. I’m trying to deliver on our commitments to Albertans as long as I have this responsibility.”
More to come.
Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd
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