If Danielle Smith ever had a youthful flirtation with the left, she’s kept it well hidden. From campus to career conservative, Smith has found a comfortable home on the right side of the spectrum, and it has served her well.
Smith graduated, after nine years of study, from the University of Calgary in 1997 with BAs in economics and English. She also served as president of the Progressive Conservative Campus Club. She parlayed her education and conservative bona fides into one of seven internships at the Fraser Institute inVancouver, an organization so often referred to as a “right wing think tank” that it might as well be part of its name. Smith worked on a cross-national study on environmental trends in Canada and the US and helped build an index of leading environmental indicators for each country. Jason Clemens, a Fraser Institute senior fellow and now director of research at The Pacific Research Institute inSan Francisco, remembers Smith as “incredibly driven, smart and curious about how the world worked, and committed to conservative principles.
“Danielle has an incredible work effort that is laser-focused on achieving results rather than just talking about them,” Clemens says.
After returning to Calgary, Smith landed the position of managing director of the Canadian Property Rights Research Institute (CPRRI) in 1997, which had been founded by Alberta ranchers and farmers that same year to promote landowner rights. She worked there for two and a half years. The group is now disbanded, but according to a 2001 story in the Ottawa Hill Times, CPRRI under Smith mainly worked to oppose federal and provincial endangered-species legislation and municipal anti-smoking bylaws, “recruiting US religious organizations in its fight against smoking bans,” and counted Ezra Levant as a member of its board.
The lessons learned at CPRRI certainly seem to have stuck with Smith—in her acceptance speech upon winning the leadership of the Wildrose Alliance, she made three references to property rights.
If Smith was in 1997 a mere blip on the conservative radar, she made a quantum leap in public perception by running for, and winning, a trustee seat on the Calgary Board of Education in the October 1998 civic election. According to her LinkedIn profile, Smith won on “a platform of school choice, responsiveness to parents, zero tolerance for violence on school grounds and improving governance.” She was 28 years old.
Jennifer Pollock was serving her third term as trustee when Smith joined the board. Smith and another newcomer, Peggy Anderson, were labelled “the Reform trustees” by Pollock. Anderson worked as Reform MP Jason Kenney’s executive assistant, and Smith was “involved” in the party, says Pollock. Smith, in turn, labelled Pollock and two other trustees “liberals.”
Things went badly right from the start, Pollock says, when Teresa Woo Paw, the “least competent politician” on the board, was named chairman after “a major suck-up” to Anderson and Smith by talking about waste in the school system and proposing cuts.
Pollock saw Smith as a mere lackey of the province. “To paraphrase what she said: ‘We are here to rubber-stamp this Conservative government’, ” Pollock says. “Right off the bat, I was not impressed by Danielle’s willingness to learn or her level of understanding. I just saw that she was somebody else’s pawn, and she would do what they said. That’s not a good character trait in a politician.”
Smith went her own way as a trustee, taking the unusual stand of advocating school closings, suggesting up to 30 schools should be closed. “There’s no way around school closure,” Smith said in a 1998 interview with the Calgary Herald. “I think in most cases what we’ll try to do is lease schools that are closed.”
Pollock says Smith had no interest in attending meetings with the public, and claims that Smith told people: “We’ll tell you what we want you to know.” Smith and Anderson, Pollock says, only wanted to hear opinions from the public that reflected their own views, and were not interested in more “esoteric” matters, such as art education.
I wasn’t impressed by Danielle’s willingness to learn. I saw that she was a pawn.” –Pollock
She feels Anderson and Smith used tactics borrowed from the federal Conservatives to disrupt committee work, claiming they couldn’t attend meetings and telling the CBE administration what they wanted to hear. Pollock says that Smith, on at least two occasions, declined to vote on contentious matters, instead leaving the council chamber. This would be a violation of the School Act, which states that a trustee cannot abstain from voting.
“I thought, ‘Hey, what a coincidence’, ” recalls Pollock. “We’re talking about something that has to do with support for Aboriginal communities, and these guys (Smith and Anderson) got up and left the boardroom.’ ”
The second time it happened, Pollock and Smith had a run-in that was played up in the media as a “physical altercation.” After hearing a presentation from a group called “Save Public Education, Act for Kids,” Pollock moved that the board offer its thanks and public support to the group. Pollock admits it was a bit of mischief-making on her part, knowing full well that Smith and Anderson did not approve of the group: “To them, the group opposed the Conservatives.”
When the time came to vote, Pollock says Anderson left the chamber and that she noticed Smith getting ready to leave as well. Since Pollock sat next to Smith, she moved to block her. Pushing her chair in front of Smith, she says she leaned into Smith and said: “Danielle, stay in the boardroom and be accountable for this vote.” Smith’s response? “She said ‘get out of my way,’ and went around me.”
Pollock admits she did attempt to stop Smith from leaving. “I just tried to catch her before she was to leave. But, yes, I played football and basketball; I know how to position myself between you and the basket.” Smith told a Herald reporter that she came back and voted on the matter, which Pollock says is not true.
After an extremely rocky start, Pollock says the board was getting better at working together, including Smith. But Pollock believes the government found the board to be a nuisance. Since they couldn’t get rid of one or two trustees, and didn’t want to wait for the next election, the entire board was turfed after Woo-Paw complained to Education Minister Lyle Oberg that the group was “dysfunctional.” Oberg took the rare step of disbanding the entire board in August 1999. (Woo-Paw is now the Conservative MLA for Calgary Mackay.)
Despite the friction between them, Pollock credits Smith with being hard-working and confident, but “not very open and willing to listen, which is not new for politicians… I think there was a lot more spin to her than substance. I don’t know how much closer she’s got to substance.”
Did Pollock see any leadership signs in Smith? “I think she’s bold enough. I looked at her as the person on the board, along with myself, who would be a leader, who would most likely work together to make things happen.” She saw Smith as a potential leader for her ability to earn others’ support, but “not based on her thought processes.”
“I did respect her. I’m older than she is, so I discounted some of her bad politics to her youth. And I still do.”
“Smith only wanted to hear opinions from the public that reflected her view.” –Pollock
Did Pollock like Smith as a person? This question leads to a long pause. “My daughter has an expression,” Pollock finally says. “I don’t mind cocky as long as you can back it up. She can back up about 40 per cent of her cocky. I don’t mind that. In politics, it’s not about liking a person or not, it’s about respect. And I respect her.”
While Pollock remains circumspect in her opinion, Peter Stockland has no such compulsion—he’s a big fan of Danielle Smith. Stockland was editorial page editor at the Calgary Herald while Smith’s frequent right-wing, libertarian pronouncements were making news.
“I just liked her sort of maverick approach to things,” says Stockland. “She was obviously a very, very conservative person, but a different kind of conservative than I am. She’s very libertarian-oriented, or at least was then.”
Stockland was looking to add new voices to the Herald’s editorial board. “My belief is always that the magic is in the mix,” he says. “She was obviously an incredibly, incredibly, incredibly intelligent person. Put all those things together and you’ve got someone who would make a really good editorial writer.”
Smith, however, had no journalism experience, no writing portfolio to speak of and was only 29 years old when hired in 1999. None of that worked against her in Stockland’s eyes. He saw in Smith someone who had “got her nose into local level politics and got it bloodied a little bit, and stood up and was still proud and willing to fight.”
The reaction from the staff was, to put it mildly, mixed. Stockland says the newsroom environment was “openly hostile to her” and she “took some real crap. Obviously it wasn’t everybody, but some people were ideologically opposed to her. Some of them acted with good grace, but some were ideologically hostile and refused to speak to her.”
But her response to the frosty atmosphere only made Stockland into a bigger supporter. “The way she conducted herself, the way she handled herself… was a wonderful thing to see, especially in someone that young. She handled it with grace, she handled it with real aplomb and was a thorough professional through the whole thing.”
Writing editorials sometimes requires penning an opinion that one may not fully agree with, that was based on a collective decision of the editorial board. Stockland says Smith never had a problem writing editorials that expressed positions she did not fully share.
Stockland says Smith was one of the best “360 thinkers” he’s ever met. “She knows her own ideas so well, she is able to walk around and do a 360 on an idea and say, ‘I get it from there… I don’t agree with it, but I get it.’ She really has an amazing—and I don’t use that word lightly—capacity to do that.”
Smith’s profile rose even higher when she began to write regular columns for the paper, another move Stockland supported strongly. He believes the Herald gig may have given her political career a boost—a frequent complaint of Smith’s one-time Wildrose leadership rival Mark Dyrholm—but believes she was destined for political leadership with or without the Herald.
“She’s a highly political person. She didn’t need the Herald to get where she is now,” says Stockland. “But having said that, I think the time she spent crafting arguments, crafting editorials, honing her writing, can only stand her in good stead.”
After Stockland left, Smith worked under editorial page editor Doug Firby, beginning in 2001. He too was impressed by Smith, who was by then an established columnist and editorial writer. Smith had a “very sharp mind” and an especially strong grasp of economics.
Firby says Smith was “very hard-working and put in the extra hours. She was sort of a model employee in that sense.”
While she was to the right in her economic positions, on social issues she was “somewhat liberal,” says Firby. While she held her ground on issues, she would “engage in debate and listen to the arguments… but you’d have to be pretty compelling to convince her to move her position.”
Smith is often described as libertarian, and Firby agrees with that assessment. “She’s very much from the ‘live and let live’ school. She’s a pro-choice individual, and I think that is rooted in her libertarian philosophy.”
Firby doesn’t agree with Smith on some points, but he does “respect her integrity, and we remain friends because of that mutual respect.” He is bothered by her close affiliation with the Fraser Institute, but “that doesn’t change the fact that I think fundamentally she is a very good person.”
Smith made the leap to television, hosting the national current affairs talk show Global Sunday for two years while maintaining her job at the Herald. She then left TV for radio, hosting Standing Ground and Health Frontiers on AM 1060 (the former show examined threats to private property rights; the latter, emerging trends in healthcare).
In October 2006, Smith left the Calgary Herald and the radio station to take the position of director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a lobby that “represents the interests of the small business community in their fight for tax fairness, reasonable labour laws and reduction of regulatory paper burden.” She continued to write columns for the Herald and became a go-to person for business commentary for the Alberta media. Smith left the lobby group in April 2009, after two and a half years at its helm, and in June announced her candidacy for leadership of the Wildrose Alliance.
As for Smith’s future as the party’s leader, Stockland is positively bullish. He thinks serving some time in opposition would be good for her. He calls her “an incredible apprentice…an unbelievable listener and learner.”
Would she make a good opposition leader, or even Premier? “I covered Peter Lougheed, and I would boldly predict that once she’s had a term in opposition, she would make certainly one of the best premiers Alberta has ever had,” says Stockland. “There is no doubt in my mind about that.”
Maurice Tougas is a former Liberal MLA and current news and features editor of SEE Magazine in Edmonton.