On Tuesday, the first day of the fall sitting at the Alberta legislature, the United Conservative government introduced its proposed Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act.
The province says that if passed, the act could be used “to stand up to federal government overreach and interference in areas of provincial jurisdiction, including… private property, natural resources, agriculture, firearms, regulation of the economy and delivery of health, education and other social programs.”
Opposition NDP MLAs voted against first reading of Bill 1 and released a statement saying the legislation would create “investment uncertainty, jeopardize federal funding agreements and risk Alberta’s economic future.”
“I hope we never have to use this bill,” Premier Danielle Smith told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
“We need the power to reset the relationship with Ottawa,” she added, saying: “I believe it’s already working.
“It begins the conversation with Ottawa so that they do not continue to pass aggressive policy targeted specifically at our industry and specifically at our development of our natural resources.
“That is not the way the country is supposed to work. And so we’re helping to educate them and the rest of the country about that.”
The proposed act gives cabinet authority to “direct provincial entities to not enforce specific federal laws or policies with provincial resources.” Anyone subject to the act must comply with it, but the act does not outline enforcement measures.
It defines provincial entities as:
- a provincial public agency
- a provincial Crown-controlled organization
- an entity that carries out a power, duty or function under a provincial enactment
- an entity that receives a grant or other public funds from the provincial government that is contingent on the provision of a public service
- a regional health authority
- a public post-secondary institution
- a school board as defined
- a municipality
- a municipal or regional police service
The act lays out the legislative framework through which Alberta can “formally defend its provincial jurisdiction, while fully respecting Indigenous and treaty rights, Canada’s Constitution and the courts,” the province’s news release said.
It also stresses that the bill cannot infringe on First Nations rights, a concern Alberta treaty chiefs have raised.
In response to the tabling of the bill, Treaty 6 and Treaty 8 chiefs released statements reiterating their opposition to it. Treaty 6 chiefs said the act “could conceivably apply to any federal law or requirement, whether in respect to public health, the environment, or treaties — international agreements that take legal precedence over provincial and federal law.
“The lack of prior consultation with Indigenous peoples about this proposed act indicates that reconciliation is not a priority for this premier or this government.”
The process starts with a member of executive council (premier or any minister) introducing a motion in the legislative assembly for a proposed use of the act. The motion would identify a federal action, policy or law “as being, in the opinion of the legislative assembly, unconstitutional, contrary to the Charter or otherwise harmful to Albertans, along with the nature of that harm.”
The act does not define what “harmful” means. It also does not explain how something could be determined to be “unconstitutional” in the absence of a court ruling.
The motion would also propose measures or actions for cabinet to consider in response.
Then, the legislative assembly would debate the resolution. If the majority of MLAs vote in favour of the motion, it would pass. If the resolution passes, cabinet has the power to carry out the measures in the resolution, including:
- directing a minister to exercise power vested in that minister by legislation or regulation
- giving specific directives to provincial entities
- temporarily amending enactments in accordance with the resolution
- any other action cabinet is legally able to take
The act would give cabinet the power to change legislation by order in council. That means, laws could be changed or amended without legislative debate.
Under the act, that power would last for a maximum of four years after the resolution is passed.
Justice Minister Tyler Shandro was asked specifically about this power at a news conference later Tuesday.
A reporter explained his interpretation of the bill as: “once the motion is debated in legislature and the majority of MLAs vote on it, and then it goes to cabinet and there are directives within that motion, then the cabinet ministers have the ability to unilaterally, if they so choose, change legislation.”
Shandro replied: “That is correct.”
In a news release Wednesday, the UCP government added: “cabinet is only authorized to amend existing legislation as specifically outlined in a resolution brought under the act. The resolution, including any amendments to legislation, must first be introduced, debated, voted on and passed by the legislative assembly.”
The ministry of justice also added: “It is important to note that the resolution will specify the recommended actions. It is the recommendations and the content of the resolution as passed that will determine the extent to which cabinet will be able to exercise its authorities under Section 4 to amend legislation or pass other orders in council. While Section 4 provides the necessary authority for cabinet to amend legislation once a resolution is passed, that authority can only be exercised if the scope of the recommendations of the resolution makes such actions necessary or advisable.”
The NDP said the act would “grant cabinet new powers to unilaterally bypass the democratic will of the legislature when making laws,” calling it “alarming.”
“Danielle Smith was elected by one per cent of the Alberta voters and now she wants to give herself dictatorial powers,” said Alberta NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman. “Danielle Smith and the UCP are focused on creating more chaos, costs and conflict with her sovereignty act.”
The province said the act would not compel any private citizen or business to violate federal law.
The United Conservative government also stressed the act does not “involve anything related to separation from Canada.”
Smith has already asked ministers to prepare resolutions for the spring legislative session that would “push back on several federal laws and policies,” including Bill C-69, fertilizer cuts and emissions reductions, firearms rules, and the delivery of health care, education and other social programs “with strings-attached funding.”
“Albertans are proud Canadians and we love our nation dearly,” Smith said in a news release. “The Canadian Constitution is clear that the federal and provincial governments are equals, each with our own areas of exclusive jurisdiction.
“The Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act will be used as a constitutional shield to protect Albertans from federal overreach that is costing Alberta’s economy billions of dollars each year in lost investment and is costing Alberta families untold jobs and opportunities.”
Another goal of the act is to “shift the burden to the federal government to legally challenge Alberta’s refusal to enforce unconstitutional or harmful federal laws or policies instead of Alberta having to initiate legal challenges and waiting years for a decision,” the province said.
The bill would come into force upon royal assent — after it passes third reading and is signed by the Lieutenant Governor — which could happen during this legislative session.
The sovereignty act was the cornerstone of Smith’s successful campaign to win the leadership of the United Conservative Party last month to take over from Jason Kenney as premier.
The bill has been criticized by Kenney and even some of Smith’s leadership rivals — four of whom now sit in her cabinet — as a recipe for legal uncertainty, investment flight and the first step toward separation.
The bill was tabled after Lt.-Gov. Salma Lakhani read aloud in the chamber the speech from the throne, launching a new legislative session.
In the speech outlining government plans and priorities, Lakhani said the four-week fall sitting would focus on helping Albertans with inflation, health care and battling the federal government.
“Ottawa is not our ruler. Ottawa is our partner and it needs to begin acting like it,” Lakhani told the assembled legislature members and dignitaries.
Earlier Tuesday, Smith was sworn in as the new member for Brooks-Medicine Hat after winning a byelection for the seat earlier this month.
It was her first time back on the floor of the legislature chamber since the spring of 2015.
At that time, Smith was with the Progressive Conservatives, having led a mass floor-crossing of her Wildrose Party months earlier. She failed to win a nomination for the PCs in 2015 and returned to journalism as a radio talk-show host for six years.
Kenney — who was a backbench UCP legislature member since stepping down as leader — announced his immediate resignation as MLA for Calgary-Lougheed Tuesday afternoon. He was not in the chamber for the throne speech or the introduction of the bill.
Edmonton Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault said earlier Tuesday he wanted to read the act, which had not yet been tabled, but that he’s deeply concerned with what he called “Alberta’s attack on Canadian unity.”
“Any act that’s going to say: ‘We’re going to cherry pick which federal laws apply in Alberta’ is some sort of opt-out clause that doesn’t exist in our federation.
“I grew up in the Lougheed era when I saw Premier Lougheed take swipes at the federal government over legitimate grievances that the province had. And the prime minister of the day worked it out with the premier of the day but inside the context of strong federation and a stronger Canada.
“My appeal to the premier and to her ministers is: let’s work together,” Boissonnault said.
Ontario Liberal MP Mark Holland said earlier Tuesday that the relationships between the federal government and the provinces are critically important.
“We’re facing the most challenging time in human history probably since World War II. I think whether or not you’re looking at your provincial government, your federal government or your municipal government, I think there’s an expectation that we’re going to work together, that we’re going to find common ground, and we’re not going to play games that divide us.
“I know our government … is focused on having a constructive relationship with Alberta,” he said, before reading the act in full.
“At this point in time, we need to dial back our partisan interests or how we might exploit divisions between us. Instead, this is a time when it’s demanding us to come forward with solutions as productively as possible.”
— With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press