Danielle Smith looks to the new year with the aspiration that Ottawa will be deferential to Alberta on an array of energy and environmental policies. It’s a 2023 wish for federal-provincial peace, though unlikely to come true.
“I’m hoping they’ll recognize our jurisdiction. But I’m prepared to fight it out,” the Alberta Premier said in a year-end interview with The Globe and Mail.
And everyone wants to know: Will the political battles play out through the awkwardly titled Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act? That is, of course, Ms. Smith’s signature policy that in theory allows the legislature to pass a motion to disregard federal laws in areas it deems provincial responsibilities. In the past, the Premier has described the controversial legislation as so strong a deterrent to Ottawa overreach that it might never have to be put into actual use.
She has also said it’s a workable law her government could avail itself of in the new year. Yet even after the interview with the Premier, it’s still unclear whether she or her cabinet ministers – who have been asked to identify potential uses of the sovereignty act – will actually use the legislation before the provincial election in May.
“We have a country that’s supposed to be built on co-operative federalism. That’s always my first option, and that will always be our first option,” Ms. Smith said.
But “if there’s something that rises to the level that we need to put forward a motion, then we’ll do that in the spring.”
How the sovereignty act could actually be used also remains an outstanding question. When I asked Ms. Smith how a real-world application of the law will work, she said, “I guess we’ll see.”
When she gives examples of a province asserting its jurisdiction, it’s Justice Minister Tyler Shandro directing provincial prosecutors to take over charges under Ottawa’s firearms laws, or Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe pushing back against federal public servants testing water without the permission of landowners. Neither have anything to do with the sovereignty act.
The mechanics aside, even a partial list of coming clashes between Ottawa and Alberta on the energy file is daunting.
There’s the province’s challenge to the federal government’s Impact Assessment Act, still commonly referred to as C-69, now headed to the Supreme Court of Canada. There’s Ms. Smith’s promise to find a new legal avenue of challenging the retail carbon price in court.
Above all, there’s Ottawa’s push for oil and natural gas industry emission cut of 42 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030, with regulations to be put in place by the end of 2023. Many in Alberta see the aggressive plan as lacking the time and technology to be feasible – and believe it will therefore act as a de facto cap on production. Ms. Smith said this conflicts with the province’s constitutional right to manage non-renewable natural resource production.
“The problem that we have is that we’ve allowed the federal government to determine the terms of the debate. … As a result, I think the federal government signed on to aggressive targets that were unachievable.”
Ms. Smith’s office also told conservative digital media site True North that the Alberta government is considering ways to fight the federal Liberals’ electric-vehicle mandate, including employing the sovereignty act. This was in reaction to the news just before Christmas that, as a stepping stone to the federal goal of having all new vehicles sold in Canada be zero-emission by 2035, regulations would require at least 20 per cent of new vehicles be sold as such three years from now.
There are legitimate criticisms of this near-term timeline: There’s a lack of national infrastructure, uncertainty related to supplies of critical minerals required to make the vehicles and the potential for the regulations to push manufacturers out of Canada – perhaps to the United States, which is rich with incentives for domestic production of electric vehicles. It’s also a policy that risks increasing economic dependence on China – with its extensive critical mineral and battery supply chains – just as Ottawa tries to distance itself from what it calls the “increasingly disruptive global power.”
But Alberta’s argument that it has the right to weigh in on federal EV policy, based on the provincial right to regulate its economy, is also a stretch.
Ms. Smith also doesn’t do herself any favours when she declared in the legislature in December that “it’s not like Ottawa is a national government … the way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions.”
Critics saw it as a veiled attempt at undermining the legitimacy of the federal government or as a misunderstanding of how the country works – or both. Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid said it ominously implied the belief “that because there really isn’t a national government, Alberta might have sovereignty over treaty rights, which are almost entirely a matter between the First Nations and Ottawa.”
What the Premier meant to convey is something different, she said in the interview: “In some jurisdictions, you have a national government that is able to dictate to other orders of government. … Our country has two very different levels of government with different powers. It’s a confederation, which is quite different than a unitary state.”
And to be sure, despite all the conflicts, there is some working together by the two levels of government. Ottawa and Alberta find some agreement in the importance of carbon capture technology, they’re both keen on hydrogen and critical minerals development, and – as the Alberta Premier herself points out – mostly aligned on industrial carbon pricing.
With the drama of the sovereignty act, painting Ms. Smith as an odious disruptor to Canadian unity is easy. Still, Ottawa needs to be realistic in terms of what is achievable this decade, as global energy demand goes up. The Liberal government does not seem to be grappling with the political truth that domestic climate policies will hit oil-producing provinces much harder than the parts of the country that simply consume the oil.
At the same time, the Premier’s promise that she will do “what makes sense for Alberta” and put her province first can’t be code for kicking environmental goals down the road so that no action is required. And someday soon, vague words about how and when the sovereignty act will be used will become old and worn.