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“Most discriminated-against group’: Alberta premier pledges to protect unvaccinated

‘I will ensure…those rights and freedoms are protected and will never be taken for granted again’
Danielle Smith arrives to be sworn in as Alberta premier in Edmonton on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Danielle Smith, sworn in Tuesday as Alberta’s new premier, said she will shake up the top tier of the health system within three months and amend provincial human rights law to protect those who choose not to get vaccinated.

“(The unvaccinated) have been the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” Smith told reporters at the legislature.

“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.

“We are not going to create a segregated society on the basis of a medical choice.”

Earlier in the day, Smith was sworn into the job by Lt.-Gov. Salma Lakhani at a ceremony at Government House.

In a speech there, Smith said, “Albertans have been through so much over these last 2 1/2 years. Our rights and freedoms have been tested.

“I will ensure as head of this government that those rights and freedoms are protected and will never be taken for granted again.”

Smith, 51, ran and won the United Conservative Party leadership race last week to replace Jason Kenney as leader and premier.

She ran on a promise to provide human rights protections for the unvaccinated and fire the top management of Alberta Health Services, the province’s front-line provider of care.

She said AHS botched the job during the COVID-19 pandemic by not fulfilling cabinet direction to increase surge capacity as hospitalizations soared, while also implementing vaccine rules that depleted staffing levels.

“When they fail to meet targets and fail to meet direction, you change the management. And so that’s what we’re going to do,” said Smith. “My intention would be to have a new governance structure in place within 90 days.”

Smith also announced she plans to be replace Dr. Deena Hinshaw as Alberta’s chief medical health officer.

Hinshaw was lauded in the early days of the pandemic then faced criticism as hospitals were overwhelmed.

“I appreciate the work that Dr. Deena Hinshaw has done, but I think that we are in a new phase where we are now talking about treating coronavirus as endemic, as we do with influenza. So I will be developing a new team of public health advisers,” said Smith.

Smith will also serve as intergovernmental affairs minister and plans to announce a revised cabinet on Oct. 21.

Prior to the swearing-in ceremony, Kenney formally submitted his resignation as premier. He announced he was quitting months earlier following an uninspiring 51 per cent vote of support in a party leadership review.

Smith and Kenney sparred publicly during the leadership campaign. He characterized her core promise to create an Alberta sovereignty act to reject federal laws and court decisions as “nuts” and a fuse to light a powder keg of political and economic turmoil.

Smith said she hasn’t heard directly from Kenney since her victory last Thursday.

“I reached out to him and he has not accepted my invitation for a meeting,” she said. “I think the premier needs a little bit of time and I’m prepared to give him a little bit of time. It’s a big adjustment.”

Smith doesn’t have a seat in the legislature but announced over the weekend that she will run in a byelection to fill a vacant seat in Brooks-Medicine Hat in southern Alberta.

Elections Alberta has called the byelection for Nov. 8.

Almost all of Smith’s leadership rivals and others in the UCP caucus have criticized Smith’s proposed sovereignty act as unconstitutional and untenable.

In Calgary, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she and justice critic Kathleen Ganley have written to every UCP caucus member and asked them to oppose it in person in the legislature.

“If they were speaking the truth on the leadership contest trail, the bottom line is they cannot allow this bill to pass. It is time to put province before party and do the right thing,” said Notley.

The next general election is set for May 29 and Smith has said she won’t call an earlier vote.

—Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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