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 demand that schools inform parents if their children want to secretly change their pronouns, as have controversially done New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.
Members of the United Conservative Party also voted unanimously at their convention to eradicate diversity and inclusion offices at universities and colleges, ban safe drug use sites, and ban electronic vote tabulators, under suspicion that they may (or have already) occurred) electoral manipulation.
Many of these ideas would make big changes to provincial laws or policies if a grassroots-minded premier like Danielle Smith accepted her members’ wishes, and many members came here probably believing she would, after some leaders of her ” freedom movement” said they could take “control” of politicians at this weekend’s annual meeting in Calgary.
But as much as Smith was championed by the UCP’s activist base as a response to what they saw as former Prime Minister Jason Kenney’s top-down style, she was downplaying these UCP policy resolutions to journalists even before members They will vote.
“We consider it advice from our members,” he said at a news conference. “When you’re government, you have to govern for all Albertans.”
Smith says he would discuss policy ideas among stakeholders and others outside his party’s base before making a decision.
Parental rights and political law
That sigh that is heard, mainly concentrated in Edmonton, comes from members of the Alberta NDP who sincerely hoped that their rival would embrace those ideas or at least give them more oxygen, so that they could more easily pillory Smith for pursuing what the New Democrats would call for radical and polarizing reforms.
But on both sides of the debate over pronouns among trans youth that has roiled other jurisdictions, Albertans will be interested to know exactly what Smith meant by a comment he made that illuminated this UCP event.
Their leader’s speech Saturday was largely a regurgitation of Alberta’s throne speech given just a few days ago. But he included a section he had omitted from his government’s ceremonial mission statement.
“Regardless of how often the far left undermines the role of parents, I want them to know that parental rights and choice in the education of their children are and will continue to be a fundamental 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 fighting against trans-friendly content or practices in schools, drew the largest and 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 took this path, a riot broke out. caucus revolt and it cost him several cabinet ministers.
When the Saskatchewan government enacted its pronoun policy, opponents sought an injunction. A judge granted one, ruling that “those affected by this policy, youth under the age of 16 who are unable to have their name, pronouns, gender diversity, or gender identity observed at school will suffer irreparable harm.”
Scott Moe, premier of that province, responded by calling an emergency legislative session to protect that policy from challenges to the Bill of Rights notwithstanding clause.
Smith has been repeatedly asked about hotspot politics and has consistently suggested caution about going there, saying he would prefer to “depoliticize” LGBTQ issues.
She has spoken about personal convictions, having a non-binary relative and the pride she feels in the fact that a senior official at Alberta Justice is a trans woman. But with her party so clearly headed 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 and depoliticize it,” the prime minister told reporters. “Because I don’t think it matters if you’re a straight couple or a gay couple or if you’re a trans person, what you want to know is what’s going on with your kids.”
But she seems to lean toward something softer than what others have done.
“We have to make sure we respect parents’ rights, but also that children feel protected and supported,” Smith said.
Green base sea
It is not clear to what extent they will accept the UCP’s bases. Many people attended the Annual General Meeting recent demonstrations against the treatment of gender identity issues in school and talking about them in a harsh tone.
“Children and teens should be educated in school, not brainwashed by activists who don’t have their best interests in mind,” said Edmontonian Michelle Bataluk, who favors Smith following Higgs and Moe in pronouns.
Blaine Badiuk, a Lethbridge student who identifies as trans, urged UCPers to reject the policy.
“We need to improve parental involvement, but it cannot come at the expense of vulnerable children.”
In a room of about 2,000 party members, perhaps two dozen red “NO” signs were raised for that motion, in front of an ocean of green “YES” cards.
Political debates and party board elections generated enormous activist interest at this convention, with nearly 4,000 delegates packing the BMO Center. The UCP had to move the event to Calgary’s largest convention space from a First Nations casino hotel deemed too small.
Members put a lot of effort into electing the board, and the winners will be more interested than before in keeping Smith and the MLAs in line with the party’s wishes. New president Rob Smith, a rural constituency organiser, said in a forum last month which assumes that the prime minister “recognises that politicians ignore decisions made by their members in General Assemblies at their own peril”.
What unites these conservatives?
Danielle Smith has struggled to deal with conservatism and social division before, when she was leader of Wildrose. In the 2012 election, she was politically punished for failing to sanction a candidate who said gays would die in a “lake of fire,” and two years later, a Wildrose convention challenged her in a political vote against LGBTQ rights.
But when the Wildrose Party, which empowers the rural grassroots, debated hot-button issues like that, there were clear divisions among its members, as there are in society at large.
At the 2023 UCP convention, moderates were almost nonexistent. Members voted overwhelmingly in favor of cracking down on so-called “woke” issues such as diversity initiatives and drug policies, while a few rather lone delegates warned of the risks of the party being labeled as discriminatory or the risk of let addicts die.
The gender issue animates this group, as do the politics surrounding their residual disregard for COVID public health rules. Consider how Take Back Alberta’s David Parker expressed his support for a resolution on informed medical consent: “That’s why a lot of us are here, so let’s vote for it,” he said.
Almost everyone did.
When a UCP delegate extolled the virtues of banning vote-counting machines (echoing Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen) he noted with a hint of conspiracy that in six Alberta constituencies, ballots favored the UCP, while the electronic ballots tabulated were NDP. (This is true, but it is because NDP supporters turned out more in early polls, which were automatically counted.)
If any further sign were needed that the party’s Progressive Conservative wing has largely retreated, six years after Kenney merged that party and Wildrose into a single entity, consider the best-selling item at the UCP convention: sweatshirts with the slogan “More Alberta, less Ottawa.”
That phrase emerged from Alberta’s agenda or firewall charter two decades ago. A few rural activists from the ruling Conservatives embraced the message, but then-Prime Minister Ralph Klein and his team stayed away from it.
Now, the “more Alberta, less Ottawa” apparel was among the first to sell out at the ruling party convention, even as Smith works to persuade Albertans to back the old firewall idea of Alberta’s own pension plan.
she didn’t mention that spicy topic in his convention speech, instead choosing topics that he probably knew this crowd would accept more easily.