Alberta’s Opposition NDP leader says Premier Danielle Smith has made the province an international embarrassment by proclaiming those who didn’t get vaccinated during COVID-19 endured the worst discrimination she’s seen in her lifetime.
Rachel Notley says the United Conservative Party premier needs to withdraw the comment, apologize and be clear where she stands on previous controversial statements, including that smoking isn’t necessarily bad for your health and about patients having control over whether they get early-stage cancer.
“Over the last 48 hours, I’ve been overwhelmed by thousands and thousands of folks reaching out to me who feel deeply hurt and frankly a little fearful as a result of the comments coming from our new premier,” Notley said Thursday.
“We understand that hundreds of thousands of Albertans face discrimination each and every day because of characteristics over which they have no choice.”
Notley said the story has made international headlines, including one published online earlier Thursday in the U.S.-based Forbes magazine, which is published in various editions around the world.
“This is a story about Alberta in one of the world’s most well-read economic publications,” said Notley.
“It is a story that hurts Alberta’s reputation, and we will now have to spend months undoing it.”
Smith, 51, made the discrimination comment at a news conference Tuesday, hours after she was sworn in as premier.
“(The unvaccinated) have been the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” she said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a situation in my lifetime where a person was fired from their job or not allowed to watch their kids play hockey or not allowed to go visit a loved one in long-term care or hospital, not allowed to get on a plane to either go across the country to see family or even travel across the border.”
Minority groups, health professionals and some premiers across Canada condemned the remarks as ridiculous and insensitive, pointing out that in Smith’s lifetime there was still forced sterilization, residential schools and bans on gay marriage.
As furor escalated Wednesday, Smith’s office issued a statement clarifying that she did not seek to minimize the experiences of other discriminated groups. The statement did not withdraw her original comment or offer an apology.
Smith’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Smith won the leadership of Alberta’s governing UCP last week to become the new premier on a promise of no more vaccine mandates or health restrictions that violate personal liberties.
A former journalist, Smith stated in early 2021: “My entire adult life and career has been spent questioning authority and institutions and conventional wisdom.”
In a May 2003 column for the Calgary Herald newspaper, she questioned whether smoking is harmful to one’s health. “The evidence shows moderate cigarette consumption can reduce traditional risks of disease by 75 per cent or more,” she wrote.
In October 2012, as leader of the Opposition Wildrose Party, Smith said those in poverty should be fed beef tainted with E.coli, so the unsellable product didn’t go to waste.
“We all know meat can be safely eaten if cooked properly,” Smith tweeted.
As a radio talk show host in 2020, she retweeted — and later apologized for doing so — a false claim that the drug hydroxychloroquine could defeat COVID-19. A year later, she backed ivermectin, a livestock anti-parasite medication, which was touted and later debunked as a possible COVID-19 cure.
This past July, during the UCP leadership campaign, Smith released a video of her interview with a naturopath in which Smith says responsibility for early-stage cancer is within a person’s control. Patients and health professionals called the comment profoundly misinformed and cruel.
Smith’s leadership opponents criticized her, including one who had lost his son to cancer, and she apologized for the hurt she had caused.
She said she had expressed herself “awkwardly” and meant to say preventive health measures are just one more way to combat early-stage cancer.
—Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press