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Alberta premier weighing changes to ‘tidy’ up sovereignty bill amid concerns

Click to play video: 'Alberta premier considers amending sovereignty act'
Alberta premier considers amending sovereignty act
WATCH ABOVE: Alberta premier considers amending sovereignty act – Dec 4, 2022

Danielle Smith says she’s prepared to “tidy” up her first-ever bill as Alberta’s new premier, after the proposed legislation has been met with widespread criticism from Opposition MLAs and constitutional experts.

The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, if passed into law, would give Smith’s cabinet sweeping powers to not only decide what federal laws, programs, policies and initiatives infringe on Alberta’s jurisdiction, but also to order institutions in the province not to enforce them, and let the cabinet amend legislation passed in the legislature.

“People have raised some concerns,” Smith said in an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, aired Sunday.

“We’re taking a look at that. If we need to tidy a few things up, then we’ll do that.”

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In the case that Smith’s cabinet determines that the federal government has stepped on Alberta’s jurisdiction, the bill would grant her cabinet wide-ranging powers — ones usually reserved for public emergencies — to address the concern.

Those powers include the ability to rewrite bills and direct provincial agencies, municipalities, school boards, health regions or municipal police forces to not enforce federal laws.

Before cabinet can deploy these extraordinary powers, the Alberta legislature would have to pass a special resolution spelling out the nature of the federal harm and the recommended remedies. This, Smith has said, would keep cabinet accountable.

Click to play video: 'Alberta to consider amendments to sovereignty act amid investment concerns'
Alberta to consider amendments to sovereignty act amid investment concerns

However, the bill does not stipulate cabinet must follow the specific direction of the legislature. Instead, it says cabinet “should consider” using the remedies spelled out in the resolution.

When it comes to the extraordinary measures, the bill says cabinet is free to carry out whatever it deems “necessary or advisable” to meet the threat.

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Smith signalled she will consider addressing this concern during her interview with Stephenson.

“It’s pretty understood that cabinet has the ability to do ministerial orders to make changes in regulations … to do directives, to make changes in policy,” she said.

“I think we just have to be very clear that any statutory change has to return to the legislature. That was always the intention. If that’s not clear, then I may have to just make some amendments to make sure that it’s underscored.”

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Martin Olszynski, an associate law professor at the University of Calgary, said Wednesday the most concerning part of the proposed bill is “that the premier would have us believe that to succeed in her fight with Ottawa, she needs to kneecap democratic accountability here in Alberta.”

Olszynski said the premier needs to properly explain to Albertans why giving cabinet and ministers this sort of power is justified.

“It seems to restrict the ways in which we might hold this government accountable, whether through the democratic process or through the courts,” he said.

“It’s not clear; no one has explained (it) to us. If this (is) as constitutional as the premier says it is and if it’s about fighting Ottawa, why does she need to shield her actions from the normal scrutiny that they should be subjected to by our courts and by our legislators?”

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When pressed on expert concerns about the constitutionality of the proposed legislation, Smith told Stephenson she “can point to several who say it absolutely is constitutional.”

Click to play video: 'Feds ‘not looking for a fight’ over Alberta’s sovereignty act'
Feds ‘not looking for a fight’ over Alberta’s sovereignty act

Her hope with this legislation, Smith explained, is to put the onus of the federal government to prove the constitutionality of its policies in court.

Smith said the bill, if enshrined into law, could be used to push back on environmental policies the federal government has already been pushing for, such as a price on carbon — a policy the Supreme Court of Canada ruled was constitutional last year — and newer regulations on fertilizers.

“We’ve been acting like a subordinate level of government to Ottawa. Just because Ottawa introduces something doesn’t mean they have a right to do that,” Smith said.

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Alberta has “tried to be a constructive partner,” she added, “and it hasn’t worked.”

“So we’ve got to try something different, and that’s what the sovereignty act is all about,” Smith said.

“If Ottawa wants to have a constructive relationship with our province — and I want to have a constructive relationship with Ottawa — they have to stay in their own lane and they have to allow us the jurisdiction that we are entitled to, to make sure that we can make our own decisions.”

— with files from Global News’ Emily Mertz, The Canadian Press

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