Calgary business elite applaud Danielle Smith as she brags about encampment sweeps and tells lurid, unsubstantiated stories of sexual assault and arson

On Feb. 15, Alberta premier Danielle Smith boasted of her government’s mass displacement of unhoused encampment residents in Edmonton to a formal black-tie dinner at Calgary’s Ranchmen’s Club, making extreme and unsubstantiated allegations about how the camps operated. 

Filet mignon and haskap sorbet were on the menu as Premier Smith said that the “left has their head explode almost every other day to things that we do, we’ve got so much more coming though, they don’t know what’s about to hit them” to uproarious applause and laughter from the audience, which included orphan well corporate welfare king W. Brett Wilson. 

The menu at the Black Tie Dinner featuring Premier Danielle Smith. Vivienne Hausman with W. Brett Wilson at the Ranchmen's Black Tie Dinner on Feb. 15, 2024. Images via Vivien Hausman's Instagram

The event saw “Alberta’s first and only Platinum-ranked private club” bestow an honourary membership on Smith. The Ranchmen’s Club didn’t allow women to join at all until 1993, and continued restricting parts of the clubhouse to men only until 2000. The cost of a membership is not publicized but Smith is now able to access the club’s fine dining areas, lounges, private meeting rooms, art collection, billiard's room, games room, and library whenever she wants.

The premier treaded familiar territory in her remarks when she claimed that encampments contain “organized crime and gang-run drug-use centres and drug-dealing centres,” but took the embellishment in a new direction when she alleged that these gangs were using extortion, arson and sexual assault as a means of exerting control over encampment residents. 

“They're dangerous dudes. They're threatening people. They're making them pay protection money. If they don't pay protection money, they burn them out. There are people who have been burned to death in these tents because they won’t pay protection money to the gangs,” Smith claimed. 

She claimed that gangs use sexual assault as an initiation ritual for new members, referring specifically to a “young nurse who was raped by three people as a part of a gang initiation,” as well as a 16 year-old girl who was “high as a kite, passed around in the camps and sexually assaulted.” 

“Why would we want to keep people trapped in a circumstance like that where they continue to be victimized? Whenever you hear the homeless advocate at the federal level, say, ‘Oh no, keep these encampments,’ absolutely not. [We’re] not going to do that,” said Smith. 

Smith’s office didn’t respond to an inquiry into where she got any of this information from. The fire department referred any questions about suspected arson to the Edmonton Police Service, which didn’t respond to inquiries about the specific crimes the premier alleged.

Premier Danielle Smith at the Black Tie Dinner at Ranchmen's Club in Calgary on Feb. 15, 2024. Image via Government of Alberta Flickr

In her Ranchmen’s Club address, Smith claimed that by displacing encampment residents, the government was able to connect 230 people to 800 different services, including mental health treatment, the virtual opioid dependency program, shelters and medical care. 

According to provincial government figures cited in an update on the city and police’s encampment response city manager Andre Corbould presented to Edmonton city council on Feb. 12, 231 people have visited the Support and Navigation Centre established by the province for encampment residents as of Feb. 8.  

Corbould added that 121 individuals were connected to a shelter, 65 were referred towards housing (although Corbould conceded it’s unclear how many have actually been housed and another official said it would take a minimum of 59 days to get anyone housed), 92 received basic health care services, 117 received identification services, 91 received employment and financial assistance, and 80 had transportation arranged. 

Smith likely arrived at the 800 different services figure by adding these figures together with the number of people who visited the centre. Conspicuously absent from Corbould’s presentation, however, was any reference to the virtual opioid dependency program or mental health care. 

‘We’re engineering a brand new way of doing things’

In response to a question from an audience member at Ranchmen’s about bridging the political divide between urban and rural Alberta, the premier argued that the UCP needs to connect better with voters in the province’s major cities.

But then Smith pivoted to accusing bureaucrats of being a “bunch of … NDP supporters” who are stymying her government’s priorities. 

“We keep on funding people who are going to continue to work against us. So why not find some good conservative folks, and really dig in and figure out how to deliver these programs properly,” Smith said. 

She cited the encampment sweep as an example of “what we’re trying to bring.” 

“We're engineering a brand new way of doing things,” Smith said. “There was no one to go to and ask how do you clear encampments and keep them empty? We had to figure that out.”

Perhaps Edmonton police chief Dale McFee is an example of “good conservative folk.” McFee attended a UCP fundraiser in August 2020, two years before Smith became premier, in which members of the party’s caucus dressed as dinosaurs and raced each other on a horse race track in Lacombe. McFee has worked in lockstep with the UCP on not just encampment clearings but a number of other files

Smith concluded her response to a question about bridging the partisan divide by expressing her desire to establish a “playbook on how to dismantle a massive $25-billion bureaucracy.” 

“We're gonna figure that stuff out. As we figure it out, I think that that will become a bit of a model for other conservative governments to use,” she said. 

With files from Duncan Kinney.