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Awkward moment or conscious message? Political experts weigh in on Danielle Smith-Justin Trudeau handshake


An "awkward" attempt at a handshake between Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and the prime minister Tuesday is another example of leaders from the western province hesitating before shaking Justin Trudeau's hand, say political experts.

Smith, in the nation's capital for the First Ministers' Meeting on health care, and Justin Trudeau exchanged brief remarks during a photo opportunity to discuss yet-to-be-tabled legislation addressing the energy transition to a lower carbon future.

The meeting began with Trudeau reaching for a handshake and Smith offering a somewhat hesitant palm. The prime minister smiled, took her hand and held it as Smith presented a clipped smile.

"It was incredibly awkward," said Keith Brownsey, an author and Mount Royal University political scientist.

"When I grew up, if you didn't shake someone's hand who offered a hand and you didn't shake it, you were being extremely rude," he added.

While Smith's terse exchange may not have been planned, Richard Sutherland, a Mount Royal University political scientist, said it still sent a message of hesitancy.

"Keeping your distance politically means sometimes keeping your distance physically when actually confronted with the prime minister," Sutherland said.

"It does send the message that Smith is not altogether comfortable with this moment," he added. "Part of it may simply be recognizing that it is awkward [to meet] someone that you have been really running against politically for the last almost a year. 

"It is kind of an interesting moment when you are finally confronted with this person right there in front of you."

In the fall, Smith's first sitting as premier was dominated by the passage of the sovereignty act, legislation giving her government the ability to challenge what it determines to be federal overreach.

Last month, she vowed to "fight" Trudeau's government over the "just transition" framework, which she believes is phasing out the province's oil and gas sector. 

In an interview with CTV News Edmonton then, Smith revealed all options were on the table to combat that bill, including using the sovereignty act. 


To Sutherland, hesitation before a handshake with the prime minister seems to have emerged as an Alberta "tradition" during Trudeau's tenure.

"I think part of it is the optics: It is a long-running aspect of Alberta politics that you can't be too close to the federal government," Sutherland told CTV News Edmonton. 

In May 2019, then-premier Jason Kenney also hesitated as Trudeau offered his hand at a meeting on Parliament Hill. A year earlier, during Trudeau's visit to Edmonton, Premier Rachel Notley also took a moment before ultimately accepting a handshake at the photo opportunity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley meet in Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday September 5, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Both Kenney and Notley ultimately shook the prime minister's hand. 

While Quebec's Francois Legault may have tensely accepted the gesture, Brownsey couldn't think of another time when a premier outside of Alberta recently pulled a similar stunt.

"In the 1980s, even after contentious negotiations over the constitution, contentious negotiations over the national energy program, Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed had the good sense and the manners to shake Pierre Trudeau's hand," Brownsey said.

"They even toasted the agreements to which they came to. You don't see those kinds of signals today in Alberta."

Pre-Trudeau, Sutherland said Alberta premiers were always willing to show cordiality with the prime minister.

"[Ralph] Klein, although he certainly had a troubled relationship with Ottawa at times, he probably wouldn't have made such a show of this," Sutherland said. 

Overtly using handshakes as visual campaign symbolism or to play to a politician's base is more of a recent development, especially as the tone between Ottawa and Alberta has become sharper, he said.

"Running against Ottawa is a tried and true technique for premiers across Canada," Sutherland added. "Alberta has pushed that a little bit more than most."

"Certainly, Kenney and Smith's continuous tradition has been that Ottawa has been the problem for Alberta, personified by Justin Trudeau," he said. "So it becomes much more personal than Klein and Chretien back in the day."

In an era where negative attack ads and social media posts are widely used, the shakedowns could be a way to limit how political opponents or groups can use those moments, says Chaldeans Mensah, a MacEwan University political science professor.

"This behaviour could be interpreted as the leaders wanting to maintain political distance from an unpopular political figure in their home province," Mensah said. 

"My sense is that Alberta leaders are wary of being portrayed as being too close to the prime minister, even with an innocuous act as a handshake," he added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offers his hand to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick


On Tuesday, the federal government proposed a health transfer increase to Canada's provinces and territories of $196.1 billion over the next 10 years to help improve health-care systems.

Neither Trudeau nor the premiers planned to walk out of Tuesday's "working meeting" with deals in hand.

Each provincial and territorial government will now develop "action plans" describing what the dollars will go toward. Further discussions between the premiers are expected in the coming days before the final funding agreement is ironed out.

When asked if Smith's shakedown was foreshadowing of the province's stance on the federal health-care transfer increase, both Brownsey and Sutherland said the gesture was more likely contained to sending a message to the premier's political base.

For Brownsey, the move "doesn't do Alberta any good."

"It just isolates and embarrasses Alberta," he said, adding it shows a "weak" relationship with the prime minister.

"I don't think Smith would tend to hold out just on her own for a better in this case simply because the possibility of walking away from more federal funding probably isn't a real vote winner, no matter who your base is, " Sutherland said. 

"I don't think enough Albertans would want to say no to that just to prove a point."

With files from CTV's Rachel Aiello and CTV News Edmonton's Sean Amato Top Stories


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