Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s United Conservative leadership rivals are publicly supporting her controversial sovereignty act after issuing harsh critiques during the campaign period where they questioned its constitutionality and warned it could create economic chaos.
Most of those former candidates are now in Ms. Smith’s cabinet and are defending the law even as the government struggles to explain what it would actually do.
The proposed legislation, formally called the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act and tabled this week, says provincial cabinet would have the power to rewrite laws and direct provincial entities, like police, cities and regional health boards, to refuse to enforce federal legislation deemed unconstitutional or harmful to Alberta. The legislature would first need to pass a motion in the legislature identifying an offending federal law and recommending a response.
The bill was the centerpiece of Ms. Smith’s United Conservative Party leadership campaign. She won the leadership in early October and took over as Premier soon after.
Trudeau says he doesn’t want fight with Alberta on sovereignty act but will consider legislation’s implications
On Thursday, Ms. Smith’s Deputy Premier, Kaycee Madu, suggested the government might amend the act to require cabinet to table bills in the legislature if it wants to change laws. That would mark a significant reversal from the current text of the bill, which would give cabinet broad powers to change laws through orders in council without going through the normal legislative process.
Justice Minister Tyler Shandro later clarified to media that the “province is listening to feedback” but “no decisions have been made” about potential amendments. A day earlier, the government issued a news release that said any legislative amendments passed by cabinet would be limited to changes first proposed by the legislature, though the bill does not include such a requirement.
Legal experts, Indigenous groups and political opponents have condemned the act, arguing it would give unprecedented power to cabinet, go against the rule of law, and jeopardize Alberta’s economic future by causing instability.
Finance Minister Travis Toews was Ms. Smith’s main opponent in the UCP leadership race, during which he called the sovereignty act “economically naive” and “politically dangerous.”
In August, he penned an op-ed that detailed concerns about its potential effect on businesses, including the legal and financial ramifications they could face should they be directed to not follow federal law. In the op-ed, he focused some of his criticism on a document called the Free Alberta Strategy, which was published last year and proposed a sovereignty act similar to what was proposed this week, but went further and called for the province to ignore court rulings and take steps to bypass federal tax laws. One of its authors, Rob Anderson, was on Ms. Smith’s campaign team and now works in the Premier’s office.
Mr. Toews was reappointed Finance Minister after Ms. Smith took office. Mr. Toews said, in a statement on Thursday, that his original concerns were addressed during caucus and cabinet meetings and he now believes the bill is constitutional, follows the rules of law and does not create business uncertainty, though he did not explain what specific provisions in the bill allayed his concerns.
“We’ve done too much to attract investment and create jobs,” he said in Question Period on Thursday. “This bill will not unwind it.”
Brian Jean, Rajan Sawhney and Leela Aheer appeared alongside Mr. Toews at a news conference in September to denounce Ms. Smith’s sovereignty act proposal, which they described as an unconstitutional “fairy tale.”
Rebecca Schulz, another UCP leadership candidate, was also critical of the act but did not attend the September news conference. She took over the municipal affairs portfolio under Ms. Smith.
Ms. Schulz said, in a statement sent Thursday, that she always appreciated the intent of the act and now believes it is constitutional. “My other concerns were about the opposition politicizing this and making it about separation from Canada, which the changes to the title of the bill clearly address and articulate.”
Mr. Jean was appointed to Minister of Jobs, Economy and Northern Development and Ms. Sawhney was named Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism in Ms. Smith’s cabinet. Both ministers said during an unrelated news conference on Thursday that their concerns with the “original form” of the bill have been addressed.
Ms. Sawhney said she was “deeply concerned” about it being a blueprint for separatism, but the title itself addresses that worry. Discussions with legal experts assured her it is constitutional, she added. Mr. Jean said it will be beneficial to businesses.
Ms. Aheer was the only leadership challenger not to end up in Ms. Smith’s cabinet. During the leadership campaign, she described the act as the “equivalent of starting a bar brawl in the middle of Confederation.” She was not in the legislature on Tuesday for the first reading of the sovereignty act and therefore did not cast a vote on the act.
Ms. Aheer did not return multiple requests for comment.
Sonya Savage, who was energy minister during past premier Jason Kenney’s entire time in office, was shuffled to Environment Minister when Ms. Smith took power. She also denounced the act during the UCP leadership campaign, saying it would create “instability and chaos” for Alberta’s energy industry by “spooking” investors who want to invest in stable jurisdictions. Ms. Savage told the legislature this week that she believes the act “follows the rule of law.”