CALGARY — Danielle Smith began her first day as incoming Alberta premier mending fences with a fractured caucus and telling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that they’ll get along just fine so long as he stays in his lane.
“I think we can have a constructive relationship with Ottawa if they recognize we expect the same level of respect that they give to Quebec and the same level of deference that they give to Quebec,” Smith said Friday after meeting with her United Conservative Party caucus at McDougall Centre.
“We have exclusive rights to develop and manage and export our resources. And, unfortunately, the prime minister and his environment minister have not been respectful of that.
“(The relationship) hasn’t been very constructive over the last seven years and we need to do some work.”
Alberta and Trudeau’s Liberal government have long been at odds over federal rules the province says make it harder to approve and launch energy megaprojects. Alberta also fought a tanker ban off British Columbia’s north coast.
In 2018, Trudeau’s government spent $4.5 billion to ensure completion of an expanded Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast.
Smith’s pugnacious tone in federal relations on issues from energy to COVID-19 helped captivate party voters, who catapulted her to victory Thursday in the leadership race to replace Premier Jason Kenney.
Kenney announced he was quitting months earlier following an uninspiring 51 per cent vote of support in a party leadership review.
He had been bludgeoned for months by critics in his caucus and party, who accused him of not being tough enough with the feds and for inflicting health and vaccine rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they called an unnecessary and inexcusable violation of personal freedoms.
Those divisions were evident in the leadership race when five of Smith’s six rivals denounced her signature promise to bring in an Alberta sovereignty act as an illegal, unconstitutional gambit guaranteed to deliver confusion over the rule of law and chaos to the economy.
Smith promised the bill would allow Alberta to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed harmful to its interests.
She also acknowledged that she needs to mend fences after she nearly destroyed the Wildrose Party – one of the two conservative legacy parties that merged to form the UCP – when she nearly collapsed the caucus with a mass floor crossing in 2014.
“We had just a terrific caucus meeting,” said Smith, who posed with her team for a photo after Friday's meeting. Kenney was not there.
“This was just a little bit of relationship building.
“I feel like everybody is really keen to pull together as a group and make sure that we’re prepared for the next election in (spring) 2023.”
Smith said she would be sworn in as Alberta’s 19th premier on Tuesday.
There will be a caucus retreat after that, she said, with a new cabinet announced Oct. 21. The sovereignty act is to be introduced in the upcoming fall session, she added.
Smith does not have a seat in the house but said she plans to run very soon in a byelection.
Earlier Friday, UCP backbencher Michaela Frey announced she is resigning her seat in the southern Alberta constituency of Medicine Hat-Brooks. Smith said she will head there this weekend to see if it’s a good fit for her and for the local constituency board.
Smith captured nearly 54 per cent of the vote on the sixth and final ballot. The runner-up was Travis Toews, a finance minister under Kenney, who had the support of the majority of UCP caucus during the race.
Toews didn’t speak to reporters after the loss but was at the caucus meeting Friday.
He congratulated Smith and, while he had criticized her proposed sovereignty act during the race, told reporters he’s keeping an open mind to see what is ultimately put on paper.
“Many of the objectives of the sovereignty act initiative I’m very much in favour of,” he said.
Toews declined to say if he will run again in the next election.
In Ottawa, Trudeau said, “I wish to congratulate Danielle Smith for becoming the next premier of Alberta.
“I will be speaking with her hopefully in the coming hours to congratulate her on her victory in the leadership campaign and to commit to her, as I do to all Canadians, that I am there to work with premiers of the provinces to deliver concretely for Albertans and indeed for all Canadians.”
In Edmonton, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Smith has no mandate to implement radical promises, including the sovereignty act or a promise to fire the board of Alberta Health Services over what Smith has called an abysmal performance during COVID-19.
Notley said a Smith government will bring more party infighting and a renewed round of performative fights with Ottawa, while Albertans struggle with real-life concerns on rising prices and an overwhelmed health system.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.
— With files from Bob Weber in Edmonton
Colette Derworiz and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press