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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks at a press conference after the Speech from the Throne in Edmonton on Nov. 29, 2022.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

When Danielle Smith introduced her first bill in the legislature last fall, making good on a promise to roll out an act designed to defend Alberta against what she views as an overly intrusive Ottawa, she instructed ministers to draw up lists of federal policies that could be remedied by her proposed sovereignty act.

“We are finally telling the federal government: ‘no more,’ ” the Premier said to reporters in late November after introducing the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. “It is time to stand up for Alberta.”

Ms. Smith pitched her legislation as a shield that Alberta could use to defend itself against Ottawa, capable of protecting the province from everything from paper straws to a gun grab. But she has since shied away from bringing the act into battle, recently remaining non-committal about whether she would use it before the provincial election in May.

She has also played down the possibility of using it in response to the federal government’s “just transition” plan for green jobs, which she has cast as a plan to systematically destroy the province’s main industry.

Her apparent caution when it comes to the sovereignty act risks alienating her energized base, which is itching for a fight with Ottawa. If she deploys the bill, it may reveal the legislation’s shortcomings and prompt moderate conservatives to flee.

Alberta’s sovereignty act empowers the legislature to declare a federal law or policy unconstitutional and then send the issue to cabinet, which could order a list of provincial agencies, local governments, postsecondary institutions and others to refuse to enforce federal laws.

The initial draft of the bill allowed cabinet to rewrite provincial laws outside of the normal legislative process but amendments removed that power. Constitutional experts have argued that the act is illegal and impractical.

Lauren Armstrong, a consultant at Navigator Ltd. and former UCP staff member, said the sovereignty act’s greatest risk to Ms. Smith is that she might use it. The bill was a result of a leadership campaign promise geared toward a segment of the UCP that was displeased with the party, she said. While it dominated the UCP race, the broader public is more keen on Ms. Smith when she’s talking about affordability or health care, Ms. Armstrong said.

“If she’s talking about the sovereignty act, voters aren’t interested,” she said.

Albertans, Ms. Armstrong said, want leaders to stand up to Ottawa, but within reason. Launching an unwieldy and unpredictable constitutional battle via an untested act months before an election would be unwise, she added. While this may upset the right flank of the UCP, Ms. Armstrong noted that this is a risk to all leaders, regardless of political stripe. The left wing of the NDP, she argued as an example, often poke at their leaders for not being aggressive enough on climate change.

“This is what every party leader deals with: Bringing their most radical voices along for the ride without losing them,” she said.

David Parker, the founder of Take Back Alberta, a far-right organization that backs Ms. Smith and has close ties to people who blocked the Canada-U.S. border near Coutts and clogged downtown Ottawa in protest of COVID-related public-health measures, expects the Premier to use the act but said timing is key.

“There is a very clear understanding that we have to beat the NDP and a lot of people don’t understand the importance of protecting what we have in Alberta to the same degree, and they might be frightened by the use of the sovereignty act,” he said.

Swaths of Ms. Smith’s supporters will be disappointed if she never uses the sovereignty act against what they view as a meddling Ottawa, but Mr. Parker said Ms. Smith bought herself time with that segment by passing the act in the first place. “Because she did that, she built up a lot of political capital,” Mr. Parker said.

The UCP’s inaugural leader, Jason Kenney, stepped down after being unable to appease the party’s competing factions, especially those on the right who were upset with his COVID containment precautions and what they viewed as a soft approach to dealing with Ottawa. Mr. Kenney was among the sovereignty act’s loudest critics, arguing that it runs counter to the rule of law.

Alberta’s legislature reconvenes Feb. 28 and the spring session will wrap on or before March 30, giving Ms. Smith’s government little time to trigger the sovereignty act prior to the provincial election.

The act can be used to pre-empt a federal proposal that has not yet been enacted, but Ms. Smith earlier this month indicated she would not take such aggressive action, even as she fears Ottawa will unilaterally impose restrictions on fertilizer emissions and phase out fossil fuels. These are two ideas that she says could damage Alberta’s traditional farming and energy sectors without massive technological advancements.

Ottawa is pushing for a “just transition” toward a net-zero carbon economy, a plan the federal government says will include retraining in order to minimize the pain in the labour market. Ms. Smith and many of her fellow conservatives believe it will kill Alberta’s oil and gas industry and bring incredible economic pain to Alberta.

Ms. Smith said recently that she would wait to see what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has planned before taking action. She also said there are federal ministers the province can work with collaboratively toward common goals. “I’m just going to keep on working in that vein until we see what kind of legislation comes forward,” she said.

Rebecca Polak, a spokeswoman for Ms. Smith, said Ottawa is already showing signs of deferring to the provinces because of the sovereignty act. She also noted that passing the act “fulfills an important campaign commitment” for the Premier. Should the federal government introduce legislation or policy that promotes phasing out Alberta’s oil and gas industry, she said the province will consider “all tools” in order to stand up for its citizens, including the sovereignty act.

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