Danielle Smith’s UCP base has big demands. She’s wary of going quite that far

Alberta’s premier leads a party whose most active members almost unanimously want the province to refuse to house trans women in women’s prisons, and require schools to tell parents if their children want to secretly change their pronouns, as New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have controversially done.

United Conservative Party members also voted unanimously at their convention to eradicate diversity and inclusion offices at universities and colleges, ban safe drug consumption sites, and prohibit electronic vote tabulators — on suspicion that election tampering may happen (or already has).

Many of these ideas would mark large shifts in provincial law or policy if a grassroots-minded premier like Danielle Smith were to embrace her members’ wishes — and many members came here likely believing she would, after some leaders of their “freedom movement” told them they could take “control” of politicians at this weekend’s annual gathering in Calgary.

But as much as Smith is championed by the UCP’s activist base as a response to what they viewed as ex-premier Jason Kenney’s top-down style, she was downplaying these UCP policy resolutions to reporters before members even voted.

“We look at that as advice from our members,” she told a news conference. “When you’re government, you have to govern for all Albertans.”

Smith says she would run policy ideas by stakeholders and others outside her party base before deciding.

Parental rights and the political right

That sighing you hear, largely concentrated in Edmonton, is from Alberta NDPers who sincerely hoped their rival would embrace those ideas or at least give them more oxygen, so they could more easily pillory Smith for pursuing what New Democrats would call radical and polarizing reforms.

But on both sides of the trans-youth pronouns debate that’s roiled other jurisdictions, Albertans will be keen to know exactly what Smith meant with one remark she made that lit up this UCP event.

Trans kids are not political pawns sign
A poster at an August rally in Saskatoon, where hundreds protested against sexual education and pronoun policies in Saskatchewan schools. UCP activists want Alberta to adopt identical rules. (Pratyush Dayal/CBC)

Her leader’s speech on Saturday was largely a regurgitation of Alberta’s throne speech from just days ago. But she threw in a section she’d omitted from her government’s ceremonial mission statement. 

“Regardless of how often the extreme left undermines the role of parents, I want you to know that parental rights and choice in your child’s education is and will continue to be a fundamental core principle of this party and this government,” Smith said. “And we will never apologize for it.”

Smith’s mention of parental rights, a rallying cry for those who are fighting trans-friendly content or practices in schools, prompted the largest, longest standing ovation the UCP leader received. This group wants for Alberta what Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have done, and they want it passionately. 

When New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs went this route, it triggered a caucus revolt and cost him multiple cabinet ministers.

When Saskatchewan’s government enacted its pronouns policy, opponents sought an injunction. A judge granted one, ruling that “individuals affected by this policy, youth under the age of 16 who are unable to have their name, pronouns, gender diversity, or gender identity observed in the school will suffer irreparable harm.”

Scott Moe, that province’s premier, responded by recalling an emergency legislature session to protect that policy from Charter of Rights challenges with the notwithstanding clause.

Smith’s been asked repeatedly about the flashpoint policy, and has consistently suggested wariness of going there, saying she’d rather “depoliticize” LGBTQ issues.

She’s spoken of personal convictions, having a non-binary relative and the pride she has in the fact a senior official with Alberta Justice is a trans woman. But with her party so clearly driven in one direction on this, she’s opening the door to some kind of action.

“Well, I’m still hopeful that we can keep the temperature down on it and depoliticize it ” the premier told reporters. “Because I don’t think it matters whether you’re a straight couple or gay couple or whether you’re a trans individual, you want to know what’s going on with your kids.”

But she appears to lean toward something softer than what others have done.

“We have to make sure that we’re respecting the rights of parents but also making sure kids feel protected and supported,” Smith said.

Sea of grassroots green

It’s not clear how much compromise the UCP grassroots will accept. Many people at the AGM attended recent rallies against the handling of gender identity issues in school, and speak about them in stark tones.

“Children and teens should be educated in school, not brainwashed by woke activists who do not have their best interests in mind,” said Edmontonian Michelle Bataluk, who is in favour of Smith following Higgs and Moe on pronouns.

Blaine Badiuk, a Lethbridge student who identifies as trans, urged UCPers to reject the policy.

“We need to enhance parental involvement, but it cannot come at the cost of vulnerable kids.”

In a room of about 2,000 party members, perhaps two dozen red “NO” delegates’ placards were raised for that motion, against an ocean of green “YES” cards. 

People hold up a sea of green "yes" signs
Delegates cast their votes at the United Conservative Party annual general meeting in Calgary on Nov. 4. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The policy debates and elections to the party’s board drove massive activist interest in this convention, with nearly 4,000 delegates crowding the BMO Centre. The UCP had to move the event to Calgary’s largest convention space from a First Nations casino hotel deemed too small.

Members put outsized stock into picking the board, and the winners will be more keen than before to hold Smith and MLAs’ feet to the fire on party wishes. New president Rob Smith, a rural constituency organizer, told a forum last month that he assumes the premier “recognizes that politicians ignore the decisions made by their members at AGMs at their peril.”

What’s united these conservatives

Danielle Smith has struggled to deal with social conservatism and division before when she was Wildrose leader. In the 2012 election, she got punished politically for not sanctioning a candidate who said gays would die in a “lake of fire,” and two years later a Wildrose convention defied her in a policy vote against LGBTQ rights.

But when the rural-based grassroots-empowering Wildrose Party debated hot-button issues like that, there were clear divisions among members, like there are in general society.

At the UCP’s 2023 convention, moderates were nearly non-existent. Members overwhelmingly voted to crack down on issues they call “woke,” like diversity initiatives and drug policy, while a few rather lonely delegates warned about risks of the party being tagged as discriminatory, or the risk of addicts dying.

The gender issue animates this group, as do policies related to their residual disdain for COVID public health rules. Consider how David Parker of Take Back Alberta expressed his support for a resolution on informed medical consent: “This is why many of us are here, so let’s vote for it,” he said.

Nearly everyone did.

WATCH | How Take Back Alberta came to be so powerful:

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Featured VideoMeet the group that’s pushing to have a big impact at the United Conservative Party’s Annual General Meeting this weekend. Rob Brown dives into who’s behind Take Back Alberta and what they want.

When one UCP delegate extolled the virtues of banning vote-counting machines — in echoes of Donald Trump’s claims the 2020 election was stolen — he noted with a hint of conspiracy that in six ridings in the Alberta election, paper ballots favoured the UCP while the electronically tabulated ballots went NDP. (This is true, but it’s because NDP supporters widely came out more for advance polls, which were machine-counted.)

If one needed any further sign that the Progressive Conservative wing of the party has largely checked out, six years after Kenney merged that party and Wildrose into one entity, consider the hot-selling swag at the UCP convention: sweatshirts bearing the slogan, “More Alberta, less Ottawa.”

That phrase came out of the Alberta agenda or firewall letter two decades ago. A few rural activists in the governing Tories embraced the message, but then-premier Ralph Klein and his team wouldn’t go anywhere near it.

Now, the “more Alberta, less Ottawa” apparel was among the first to sell out on the governing party’s convention floor even as Smith works to persuade Albertans to get behind the old firewall idea of Alberta’s own pension plan.

She didn’t mention that spicy topic in her convention speech, instead choosing matters that she likely knew this crowd would more readily embrace.

a woman sorts through sweatshirts on a rack
Sweatshirts with an old anti-Ottawa slogan sold out early at the UCP convention. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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