New Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she will abide by decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada in rulings involving her proposed sovereignty act – a contrast to her pledge during the United Conservative Party leadership campaign that the legislation would give the province the power to disregard federal laws and legal decisions.
Ms. Smith was sworn in as Alberta’s 19th Premier Tuesday morning and subsequently held a wide-ranging news conference in which she tried to clarify the mechanics of her signature campaign promise. She also said people who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are the “most discriminated” group of her lifetime and said she would not take advice from the current chief medical officer of health.
The Premier’s concession that provinces cannot ignore the Supreme Court risks upsetting some of her most strident supporters, who rallied behind her as she promised to turn up the heat on Ottawa. When she explained her proposed sovereignty act in September, she said that even if a court ruled against her government in a matter related to the act, one option would be to “carry forward” in spite of such a ruling.
Ms. Smith won the leadership of the UCP on Thursday after running a campaign fuelled by COVID-19 anger and disdain for Ottawa. Five of her six competitors campaigned against her sovereignty act, arguing it was constitutionally unworkable and would scare away investment.
“The Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter,” the Premier told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “When the Supreme Court makes a decision, we have to abide by that.”
While Ms. Smith said she would respect Supreme Court decisions that go against Alberta, she said she will also look for ways to relitigate cases or modify legislation in order to achieve the desired outcome. For example, she wants her province to launch a fresh legal challenge of the federal carbon tax based on “new information,” such as the war in Ukraine that drove up the price of energy around the globe.
The Premier, who does not currently hold a seat in the legislature, has formally called a Nov. 8 by-election for Brooks-Medicine Hat, where a former UCP MLA stepped down on Friday so she could run. MLAs could return to the legislature by Nov. 29, she said. During the leadership campaign, she said the sovereignty act would be her first bill as premier.
Ms. Smith also promised to amend Alberta’s Human Rights Act to protect those who opt not to get vaccinated from discrimination. Asked why she would protect vaccination status in the same way as gender, race or sexuality, she said the unvaccinated experienced an “extreme level of discrimination” during the pandemic. She pointed out that some were fired from their jobs or could not watch their children play hockey.
“They’ve been the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” Ms. Smith said. “I don’t take away any of the discrimination that I’ve seen in those other groups that you mention, but this has been an extraordinary time.”
She added: “We are not going to create a segregated society on the basis of a medical choice.”
Ms. Smith also said she wants a “new governance structure” in place for the health care system within 90 days and that she will not listen to Alberta’s current Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, who advised the cabinet of former premier Jason Kenney during the pandemic.
“I will get new advice on public health,” Ms. Smith said. During the campaign, she had said she would not renew Dr. Hinshaw’s contract.
The Premier intends to announce a new cabinet Oct. 21. She said she reached out to Mr. Kenney, the UCP’s inaugural leader who is still an MLA, but that he has not responded to her invitation for a meeting.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe outlined his own plan on Tuesday to assert provincial control over areas of federal jurisdiction. In a report titled Drawing the Line, the province pointed to nine climate-change policies, such as the fertilizer emissions target and carbon tax on fuel, as areas of concern. It claims those “destructive” policies will cost Saskatchewan $111-billion by 2035.
The province outlined several steps to proclaim Saskatchewan’s authority over Ottawa, including a proposed bill to clarify its constitutional rights and attempts to have greater control over immigration and legal actions to gain power over electricity, fertilizer, and oil and gas production.
Mr. Moe said federal interference in provincial matters, namely natural resources, has been made worse in recent years, and that it is now time to defend and assert Saskatchewan’s economic autonomy.
”It isn’t about Saskatchewan picking fights with the federal government,” he said during a chamber of commerce event. “It’s really about defending Saskatchewan’s opportunities, defending our jobs and pioneering a way for us to be able to, ultimately, have more jobs in our community and have more of an opportunity for that next generation.”
Mr. Moe said the province will respect the Constitution, but it is “time to reaffirm what is and isn’t in the Constitution from our perspective.”
Mr. Moe said there is an opportunity for Saskatchewan and Alberta to collaborate, but that some battles are better fought by the latter, such as Ottawa’s environmental-assessment law.
Alberta’s top court concluded in May that the Impact Assessment Act, formerly known as Bill C-69, is unconstitutional as it undermines Canada’s division of powers. The federal government indicated, at the time, it would appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. If it does reach the court, the Saskatchewan Premier said his province would intervene.
”We firmly believe that good fences do make good neighbours – there is no reason at all that other provinces won’t also be looking at, ‘can we reaffirm our provincial constitutional authority as well to ensure that we also are not missing out on opportunities that might lie before us,’ ” Mr. Moe said.