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Former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith is among the eight people who have confirmed they are seeking to become the next leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Danielle Smith, the former leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Party running to take the helm of the United Conservative Party, has a plan to get her province’s landlocked energy resources to market: icebreakers.

Ms. Smith is among the eight people who have confirmed they are seeking to replace Jason Kenney as the UCP’s leader. She is staking ground on the party’s right flank, pitching policies that are unapologetically unconstitutional in an effort to attract those disillusioned with the federal government. She says she believes Alberta should forgo Ottawa and negotiate its own “economic corridors” to places such as Churchill, Man., where the province’s energy could then access foreign markets with the help of icebreakers.

Mr. Kenney’s tenure as UCP Leader and Premier has been combative. He rallied conservatives by challenging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in court and speeches. He agitated for equalization reform and floated ideas ranging from a provincial police force to a homegrown pension plan. Now, as the race to replace him takes shape, leadership candidates are being measured against his approach, which positioned Alberta at war with the federal government, neighbouring provinces and much of the public service.

Alberta sovereignty – or autonomy – has emerged as an early focus in the leadership campaign, owing in large part to Ms. Smith’s policy pronouncements. Both she and Brian Jean, another perceived front-runner, have taken up this fight, albeit to a lesser degree. Some of their opponents, while keen to defend Alberta, say Ms. Smith’s most aggressive proposals could cause chaos and destabilize the economy.

“Danielle Smith has really put sovereignty and autonomy at the forefront of the agenda of this leadership race,” said Jamie Mozeson, the vice-president of Western Canada for public affairs firm Jenni Byrne + Associates and a former chief of staff in the UCP government. “Danielle has really set the tone.”

Ms. Smith’s early promises demonstrate she intends to not just continue with Mr. Kenney’s combative approach, but amp it up. Should she become premier, Ms. Smith said she would build “economic corridors” with First Nations and stuff them with infrastructure such as rail lines, transmission lines, water lines, pipelines and broadband internet. The link between Fort McMurray and Churchill, she said, is the most advanced, and could give Alberta’s energy access to shipping lanes out of Hudson Bay.

“Let’s get a couple of LNG icebreakers and start moving,” Ms. Smith said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “These are the kinds of things that we need to do. We don’t need Ottawa’s permission to start assembling land and start assembling corridors.”

Alberta, she said, needs to act as a “senior partner in Confederation” and assert itself as the centre of the economy in Western Canada. She believes Alberta should push, bend and break jurisdictional boundaries in order to forge its own future, rather than wait for the federal government to take action on the province’s behalf.

“We just need the political will to start doing it and develop those partnerships. We’re far too passive. And if Ottawa is going to act, we’ve given them 100 years,” Ms. Smith said. “It is time for us to act. It is time for us to make sure we’re developing our economy and diversifying and partnering with First Nations in a way that makes sense for us.”

Ms. Smith, who led a mass floor-crossing to the governing Progressive Conservative party in 2014, is betting her political future on an Alberta sovereignty act. She pledged to introduce the legislation on the first day of her premiership.

The act is borrowed from a document titled the Free Alberta Strategy, released last year, which outlines a series of proposals to give Alberta greater autonomy short of separation. The sovereignty act, according to the document, would give the provincial legislature the “authority to refuse enforcement” of any federal law or court ruling that it “deemed to be a federal intrusion into an area of provincial jurisdiction, or unfairly prejudicial to the interests of Albertans.”

Barry Cooper, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary who was one of the strategy’s authors, said the proposed law is confrontational by design. “It is also unquestionably unconstitutional,” he said in an interview.

Prof. Cooper views the Alberta sovereignty act as the first step toward independence; Ms. Smith said she hasn’t given up on Canada, but believes a “constitutional reckoning” is on the horizon.

The sovereignty act’s complementary proposals in the Free Alberta Strategy include establishing a provincial police force; expanding the number of provincially regulated financial institutions; ending equalization payments; swapping the Canada Pension Plan and federal employment insurance for provincial variations; and ensuring the provincial government makes judicial appointments for positions in Alberta, including the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Court of Appeal. Under the strategy, Alberta would “establish international trade and market access relationships independent of the federal government.”

While Ms. Smith has adopted the most antagonistic approach to dealing with Ottawa, Mr. Jean shares many of her objectives. Mr. Jean, who led the Wildrose Party when it merged with the PCs to form the UCP in 2017, wants to reopen constitutional negotiations, with an eye on increasing Alberta’s autonomy in Canada. He, too, promises to “do something” about equalization.

Mr. Jean, however, does not think Ms. Smith’s embrace of an Alberta sovereignty act is the right path.

“If we don’t like laws, we change them – not ignore them,” he said in an interview when explaining the difference between himself and Ms. Smith. “If we don’t like judicial appointments and who appoints judges, then we negotiate to change that – not appoint illegal judges.”

He added: “I’m here to work within the system, to change the system for Alberta.”

Seven of the eight UCP leadership candidates on Thursday debated an Alberta sovereignty act and the broader Free Alberta Strategy. The panel was hosted by the strategy’s co-author Rob Anderson, who is one of Ms. Smith’s fellow floor-crossers.

It marked the first time the leadership hopefuls faced each other to debate policy and most of the field, including those who served in Mr. Kenney’s cabinet, distanced themselves from Ms. Smith’s endorsement of the act.

Travis Toews and Rebecca Schulz both said a sovereignty act would create “chaos.” Ms. Schulz, the former minister for children’s services, said Alberta should instead team up with likeminded provinces to push for “fairness in federation.” Mr. Toews, the former finance minister, added that Alberta needs to assert its autonomy, but without undermining the province’s economic gains with uncertainty.

Rajan Sawhney, who left her post as minister of transportation to join the race, called it “virtue signalling” and a “distraction.” Leela Aheer, the minister of culture, multiculturalism and the status of women before she was kicked out of cabinet after criticizing Mr. Kenney, said Albertans are “tired of fighting” and want a collaborative government that will not “pick a fight about absolutely everything every single second of the day.”

Todd Loewen, who sits as an Independent MLA after the UCP caucus voted to remove him owing to a clash with Mr. Kenney, called a sovereignty act “a great place to start” but said Alberta can take immediate action, such as adopting its own pension plan, without launching a bigger fight.

Mr. Kenney secured support from 51.4 per cent of UCP members who voted in his leadership review, but said he would resign when the party selects a new leader. UCP is set to declare a new leader Oct. 6.

Bill Rock, the mayor of Amisk, a village with 204 people, is also running for UCP leader but was not among the seven participants in the Free Alberta Strategy debate. Michelle Rempel Garner, a long-time Alberta MP for the Conservative Party of Canada, considered running but on Thursday announced she would stay on the sidelines.

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