Good morning. Wendy Cox here today.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has introduced the legislation she built her successful campaign for United Conservative Party leader around and as The Globe’s Kelly Cryderman writes today, she did not pivot.
The Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act was introduced in the legislature Tuesday and goes further than expected, despite the bill’s official title, which Ms. Smith said was intended to indicate that the bill is aimed at a new, respectful relationship with Ottawa.
Ms. Smith’s government maintains Bill 1 is intended to protect Albertans from federal legislation it believes is unconstitutional or from policies it deems harmful. The act does not define what constitutes harm. A motion would be tabled in the legislature identifying the federal policy in question and if it passes, cabinet would be given new powers to alter laws. Those changes would be done through an order-in-council, meaning they would not be put through the standard rigour of first, second and third reading and the accompanying debates in the legislature.
Cabinet can then direct provincial entities ranging from municipalities to Crown corporations to police forces. It’s unclear what would happen if those entities refused to follow the province’s direction. The powers conferred by the proposed law are akin to those available in emergency situations, though the cabinet-ordered changes can be in place for only up to four years.
Ms. Smith has put her cabinet ministers to work, telling them to comb federal legislation for instances of policies they believe interfere with Alberta’s constitutional jurisdiction or infringe on Albertans’ Charter rights. While she ordered ministers to prepare special resolutions under the proposed sovereignty act for debate in the spring, she also claimed she did not want to trigger the legislation.
“I hope we never have to use this bill. I hope that we sent a message to Ottawa that we will vigorously defend our constitutional areas of jurisdiction and they should just butt out,” Ms. Smith said.
Later in the day, Ms. Smith’s predecessor, Jason Kenney, quit his seat in the legislature. He had been harshly critical of Ms. Smith’s proposal for the act, saying in September it was a “full-frontal attack on the rule of law” and also a “cockamamie idea that was first floated by a far-right special interest group.” He said it would quash any hope of building new pipelines to tidewater, because if Alberta could pass a legislation insisting it can ignore certain federal laws, British Columbia could do likewise to trump energy projects within its borders.
“You can’t be a conservative if you don’t believe in the rule of law,” he said then. But his resignation Tuesday took effect immediately, meaning he will not fulfill his earlier pledge to vote against it.
Alberta’s New Democratic Party MLAs all voted against the first reading of the sovereignty act. Sarah Hoffman, the NDP Deputy House Leader, said the powers this act would give Ms. Smith and her cabinet are “dictatorial, unconstitutional and undemocratic.” She called UCP members who were critical of the sovereignty act prior to Ms. Smith ascending to power “spineless” for walking back their opposition.
The legislation introduced Tuesday leaves many questions unanswered, Cryderman writes. What the legislature might reject from Ottawa is unclear: Originally, Ms. Smith focused on limiting federal overreach and stopping laws or policies that violate the jurisdictional rights of Alberta. In a backgrounder released in September, she said “several federal laws and policies, though harmful to Alberta, are not necessarily in areas of policy over which our province has constitutional sovereignty.”
But now, the bill will include action MLAs deem harmful to the province, even if that action is clearly within federal jurisdiction: “As a topical example, improper or abusive use of the federal Emergencies Act against the rights of Albertans could be dealt with by way of resolution under the act if needed,” the government said.
The bill will have the effect of forcing Ottawa to respond in the courts to Alberta’s actions, rather than requiring Alberta to take the federal government to court, a years-long process. Ultimately, Ms. Smith concedes, the question of jurisdiction will be settled in the courts.
Globe columnist Andrew Coyne wrote in August the introduction of the act could prompt an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
“The notion that a provincial government could simply ignore whatever federal laws it does not like, or assume whatever federal powers it desired, unilaterally, is admittedly not without precedent. The same fantasy formed the basis of two generations of sovereigntist dogma in Quebec.
“But at least Quebec’s separatists declined to attempt their coup d’état without first seeking a mandate from the people in a referendum.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.