Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has spent the week defending the constitutionality of her sovereignty act from the Official Opposition and outsiders. This part was predictable.
Her United Conservative Party will be fighting for every vote with Rachel Notley’s NDP until the election in May. And in the rest of Canada, many commentators simply think the whole idea is batty, and don’t give a fig about the origin story that Alberta is deeply frustrated by a host of federal measures – including energy and climate policies that will hit its main industry hard this decade.
But less expected is the unvarnished, in-house criticism of the Premier’s flagship legislation.
Some Alberta business leaders have panned it, and the mayor of Calgary expressed deep concern upon learning that the city could be a legally obliged pawn in the fight with Ottawa. Under the bill, provincial entities such as municipalities, universities, police and health authorities could be compelled to act if the legislature deems federal legislation unconstitutional or harmful to Alberta. What that means in real-world terms is anyone’s guess.
“It’s incredibly unnerving,” Mayor Jyoti Gondek said this week.
Bill 1 has also been messy in another way that no one saw coming. Ms. Smith’s government has been knocked back on its heels this week trying to explain to Albertans why there’s a baffling poison pill contained in the text: giving cabinet extraordinary powers to amend or repeal bills in service of the cause.
Yes, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro and Deputy Premier Kaycee Madu suggested they are open to amending the law for clarification on this front and that the legislature still reigns supreme. But why include it in the bill in the first place?
“If the government wants particular laws amended within the Alberta statute book as a result of a particular dispute with the federal government, why not introduce those amendments … into the legislature for regular legislative scrutiny and debate?” Eric Adams, law professor at the University of Alberta, said in an e-mail.
There’s also the spectacle of former leadership rivals and cabinet heavyweights who denounced the sovereignty act just three months ago, yet who have apparently since been pacified by the actual text.
Instead of just the sovereignty act, it’s now officially titled the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. That might appear to be only a cosmetic change, but the expansion – along with the language of the act speaking of an Alberta “within” Canada – has seemingly helped to quell fears in the UCP this is a separatist act. The concern that the act would go against the rule of law has been addressed by the text explicitly stating that it doesn’t allow Alberta to defy Canada’s constitution.
MLA Brian Jean, previously one of the fiercest critics of the act, said he’s been actively involved in preparing this legislation: “This bill is constitutional, and fully addresses the concerns I raised in the past.”
Likewise, MLA Sonya Savage, who once made a thinly veiled reference to Ms. Smith’s act being a “crazy” idea,” is also now on board.
“There’s no doubt I had grave concerns about the sovereignty act as originally proposed,” said Ms. Savage, now the Environment Minister, in the legislature this week. “But as it’s drafted now and as it’s gone through a caucus process, it’s addressed many of those concerns.”
But “many” doesn’t equal all. What I heard most prominently during the original criticism of the act is that its very focus on “sovereignty” could scare away international investment. That concern still exists, according to Deborah Yedlin of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. She said her members are still worried about how it will impact their push to attract capital and talent.
“This adds an element of uncertainty that people are not comfortable with,” Ms. Yedlin said.
So why do many UCP MLA still support the sovereignty act? Part of it is politics. There’s a lot of pressure to project unity – and back the team and the leader six months before a hotly contested election. But some of it has to be because they share the view the federal Liberals are overreaching when it comes to oil and gas industry-special emissions caps, dictating the use of health care dollars, or in its proposed new firearms law.
There is also evergreen anger that Quebec easily partakes in the copious amounts of money made from Canada’s oil exports, yet stands firmly against pipelines. And in this aim some are okay with, in the words of Ms. Smith, trying “something new,” even a bill with a tear-it-down vibe.
Nuts and bolts of the legislation aside, the problem still comes down to Ms. Smith’s original framing of the sovereignty act and the menagerie of mixed messaging that followed.
Is it a dire “last chance” at changing the province’s relationship with the federal government – as Ms. Smith asserted during the UCP leadership campaign – or is it really something that could make the country stronger, by asserting provincial rights? Is it a mainly symbolic measure that could change Ottawa’s course by simply existing, or is it going to be used in a number of practical applications next spring?
Months ago, Ms. Smith said criticism of her act was premature, and we should all wait for the legislation. But even now, with the sovereignty act in hand, we still don’t have all the answers.