Danielle Smith

There is a certain irony in Opposition Leader Danielle Smith’s distress this week at the thought someone might have recorded meetings of the Wildrose Party’s Legislative caucus.

That someone, according to Smith, was former caucus member Joe Anglin, who on Sunday asked Speaker Gene Zwozdesky to reseat him as an independent MLA posthaste when it became apparent he was about to be kicked out of the Opposition party’s caucus.

Anglin, the MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, firmly denies the allegation, calling it “a fabrication.”

Nevertheless, Smith told the Calgary Herald on Monday, “He records conversations and I have no idea what he does with the tapes when things are recorded. When you want to be able to have a full open conversation and you’re worried that your conversations might be recorded, then that creates a bit of a chill on a discussion.”

Certainly, if there was any danger of private conversations being aired, it just might have just the kind of chilling effect that concerns Smith.

Nevertheless, a similar circumstance seemed not to trouble Smith very much back in 1999 when she sat as a school trustee on the Calgary Board of Education, the city’s public school board.

Memories are short in the digital era, so only the most alert readers can be expected to recall Smith’s key role as a trustee on the dispiritingly dysfunctional Calgary school board during the late 90s. The board’s notorious troubles seemed to have arisen after the 1998 civic election from an ideological rift between trustees committed to public education as traditionally funded and supported and a couple of right-wing trustees more sympathetic to market fundamentalist nostrums — one of whom was Smith.

Before long, discarded notes handed between some trustees were fished out of a boardroom trashcan, a coffee cup or some other receptacle and presented to the media after a contentious Calgary Board of Education meeting had adjourned.

The rude unsigned notes that ended up being published in the Calgary Herald, the National Post and Alberta Report, the Byfield Family’s now-defunct loony right news magazine, included uncomplimentary references to Smith’s hairdo and board chair Teresa Woo-Paw’s suits, plus negative reviews of their abilities as trustees.

Smith told the Herald at the time she had seen the trashed notes and thought the handwriting on them was that of trustees Jennifer Pollock (a well-known Liberal in Calgary) and Judy Tilston.

Liz LoVecchio, another trustee unsympathetic to Smith’s views, later told the Herald she had written some of the notes, adding, “the only way somebody could’ve got hold of these was either they ruffled through garbage and pieced them back together, or they stole them from me.”

For her part, Smith defended her use of the notes in another Calgary Herald story (published on April 2, 2012 and no longer available on the Herald’s website) as “opposition research.” She denied retrieving them from a garbage can, but said she found them stuffed in cups left on the boardroom table after the meeting. 

Jane Cawthorne, who succeeded Smith as a CBE trustee, argued in a blog post published a few days later that it’s not important where Smith found the “mean girl” notes. “The point here is that Smith made it an issue, found the notes and made them public. She wanted those notes in the media. The media in turn were delighted to outline all the details of who said what about who’s hair and someone’s ugly suit.”

Needless to say, this all had a distinctly chilling effect on the board’s discussions.

Indeed, soon after, Woo-Paw — who is now the Conservative MLA for Calgary-Northern Hills and Premier Jim Prentice’s Associate Minister of Asia Pacific Relations — approached then education minister Lyle Oberg and asked that the board be dissolved as too divided to function.

Oberg complied in August 1999, appointing an administrator to run the board. Soon after that, Smith, who was 29 and had no journalistic experience, was hired by Calgary Herald editorial page editor Peter Stockland as an editorial writer and columnist.

With labour relations rapidly deteriorating at the Herald and Smith’s role as a just-hired supporter of the employer arousing fears among unionized editorial staff, she was unkindly known for a spell by some of her colleagues as “Trashcan Dani.” In retrospect, perhaps it should have been the “Coffeecup Kid.”

Regardless, when the Herald’s journalists went on strike in November 1999 in a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful eight-month struggle to win the first contract to which unionized Alberta workers are supposedly legally entitled, Smith regularly crossed their picket lines and worked throughout the strike.

After that, her media career took off and segued naturally into her present political role — one in which she has understandably if ironically grown more concerned about the chilling impact of repeating private conversations in public than she was as a school trustee.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary. Full disclosure: David Climenhaga was vice-president of Local 115A of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada throughout the Calgary Herald strike.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...