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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks at a news conference after the Speech from the Throne in Edmonton, on Nov. 29.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Update: Alberta to apply sovereignty act for the first time

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, on her weekly Saturday radio show, confirmed that she planned to apply the sovereignty act on Nov. 27, 2023 to protect provincial power companies from proposed federal clean-electricity regulations.

On Tuesday, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith introduced her proposed sovereignty act. The legislation, if approved, would give Alberta’s cabinet wide-ranging powers to amend provincial laws and order government agencies, cities and other entities to refuse to enforce federal laws that are deemed “harmful” to the province. The bill is already facing fierce criticism and questions about whether it is constitutional.

Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about Alberta’s sovereignty act so far.

What is Alberta’s sovereignty act?

The bill, which is formally called the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, would give the Alberta government a legal framework to fight federal laws or policies that it believes will negatively affect the province.

It would give the provincial cabinet powers akin to those available in emergency situations, such as the ability to amend legislation by order in council, rather than going through the full legislative process in the assembly. The cabinet would also be able to issue “directives” to provincial entities, including municipal and regional police forces and RCMP under provincial contract, ordering them not to enforce specific federal laws or policies.

The bill would allow the legislature to identify federal measures – including proposals that have not yet been enacted – that are unconstitutional or “harmful” to Alberta. The act does not define what constitutes harm.

Why does Alberta Premier Danielle Smith want to pass the act?

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Danielle Smith celebrates after being chosen as the new leader of the United Conservative Party and next Alberta premier in Calgary on Oct. 6.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The legislation fulfills a pledge at the centre of Ms. Smith’s successful campaign to lead the United Conservative Party, when she campaigned on defending Alberta’s interests against Ottawa.

“We need the power to reset the relationship with Ottawa,” Ms. Smith told reporters on Tuesday. “You don’t have that relationship change without a push. This is a push.”

Ms. Smith has instructed provincial cabinet ministers to comb federal legislation for instances of policies they believe interfere with Alberta’s constitutional jurisdiction, infringe on Albertans’ Charter rights or are harmful to Albertans. She has ordered ministers to prepare special resolutions under the proposed sovereignty act, for debate in the spring.

“I hope we never have to use this bill. I hope that we sent a message to Ottawa that we will vigorously defend our constitutional areas of jurisdiction and they should just butt out,” Ms. Smith said.

If passed, how will the act be used?

If the act is passed, the province says a democratic process will be used to identify a federal matter and proposed responses. There are three steps required, according to the Province of Alberta’s website:

  1. Motion for resolution: The premier or a minister must introduce a motion for a resolution to use the act. The motion must identify a federal matter deemed unconstitutional or causing harm to Alberta, and proposes measures cabinet should take in response.
  2. Debate and vote: MLAs will debate the motion and then vote for or against it. If a majority of MLAs vote in favour of the motion, the resolution is passed.
  3. Legal review: Cabinet will review proposed next steps to make sure the proposed actions are constitutional and legal.

If such a motion passes, cabinet can then direct a minister to exercise their legislative or regulatory powers, give directives to provincial entities, amend enactments or perform other unidentified actions.

While the legislation gives the province power to issue directives to entities such as municipalities and Crown corporations, there is nothing in the bill that addresses what happens if such a body disregards an order. The directives, the government noted, must be within Alberta’s constitutional jurisdiction.

What does the legislation have to do with Jason Kenney’s resignation?

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Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney ends a 25-year career in politics.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney resigned Tuesday as a member of the legislative assembly, an announcement he made while his successor Ms. Smith tabled a sovereignty act that he vehemently opposes.

The former premier didn’t mention the sovereignty act in his resignation letter, but pointed to political polarization that he said is undermining democracy. “I am concerned that our democratic life is veering away from ordinary prudential debate toward a polarization that undermines our bedrock institutions and principles,” said Mr. Kenney.

Mr. Kenney has called the act “catastrophically stupid” and a “de facto plan for separatism.” He said it would destabilize investor confidence and jeopardize the construction of pipelines, while offering a blueprint for separatism, and he vowed to vote against it.

Instead, Mr. Kenney was not in the legislature for the first reading of the bill – which was the first opportunity for MLAs to cast a vote – and his resignation means he will not be involved as it moves through the assembly.

Is the act constitutional? Here’s what critics say

The legislation has been condemned by Ms. Smith’s leadership rivals, constitutional experts and Indigenous groups.

Legal scholars previously panned the concept of the sovereignty act as unconstitutional, and it has been divisive within the UCP. Mr. Kenney, along with most of Ms. Smith’s leadership rivals, condemned the idea during this year’s leadership campaign.

All of Alberta’s treaty chiefs also oppose the act. In a statement, the chiefs in Treaty 6 declared the bill “self-centred” and “short-sighted” and said the lack of consultation prior to its introduction suggests reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is not a priority for Ms. Smith or the UCP. They said they also worry the act could be used to ignore treaties, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary.

“If Danielle Smith and her UCP government want to erect invisible firewalls around Alberta, they can attempt to do so but our territories will stay intact because we are not giving our free prior and informed consent,” said a joint statement this month.

All but one of Ms. Smith’s UCP leadership rivals are now sitting in her cabinet and the Premier has made it clear that she expects cabinet members to vote in favour of the bill. Her main competitor, Travis Toews, was a vocal critic during the leadership race but recently signalled that some of his concerns have been addressed, though he didn’t offer any specifics.

Alberta’s New Democratic Party MLAs all voted against the first reading of the sovereignty act. Sarah Hoffman, the NDP deputy House leader, told reporters the powers the act would give Ms. Smith and her cabinet are “dictatorial, unconstitutional and undemocratic.”

What’s the response from Ottawa?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa is “not looking for a fight” with Alberta over the proposed bill – but he isn’t ruling out options for dealing with it.

“We know that the exceptional powers that the Premier is choosing to give the Alberta government and bypassing the Alberta legislature is causing a lot of eyebrows to raise in Alberta, and we’re going to see how this plays out,” Mr. Trudeau told journalists as he arrived for the weekly cabinet meeting. “I’m not going to take anything off the table but I am also not looking for a fight.”

He said he will be taking a closer look at the legislation and will closely consider the implications, but that some in the province are already “expressing real concern about the fact that the Alberta government is choosing to bypass the legislature.”

More reading:

Danielle Smith unveils sovereignty act in attempt to shield Alberta from federal laws

Opinion: Danielle Smith’s sovereignty act has come bigger and more undemocratic than advertised

Opinion: Can Alberta ignore federal laws it doesn’t like? Danielle Smith believes it should

With reports from Carrie Tait, Alanna Smith and The Canadian Press.

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