Don Braid: Alberta Sovereignty Act so tough Ottawa might consider disallowing it

There it is in writing, finally, the promised bill that lifted Danielle Smith to the premier’s office, the one that empowers Alberta to defy federal laws.
This is the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. It makes the Saskatchewan First Act, the prairie comparable, look tame and tepid.

The bill was contentious before it even hit the legislature floor. The NDP demanded a vote on allowing it to be introduced, the first such move anyone could remember following a throne speech.

The UCP majority carried that vote, with support from all the leadership candidates who opposed the Sovereignty Act during the party campaign.

The bill will give the UCP government authority to defy not only federal laws deemed unconstitutional, but to refuse to enforce any laws, policies or actions that are considered harmful to the province.

The distinction is crucial.

It’s one thing to challenge, say, Bill C-69 on grounds that Ottawa is overstepping its constitutional limits.

But it’s another matter entirely to claim the power to defy anything Ottawa does, or even plans, that is deemed harmful.

This takes the legislation squarely into the realm of election politics.

It’s all about the UCP vs. the Trudeau Liberals. The bill creates choice opportunities to ramp up hostilities before the provincial election set for next May 29.

But there’s an elephant in the room, and Smith surely knows it.

The UCP makes no claim to formally nullify federal laws; only to ignore, disobey or refuse to enforce them.

No province can declare invalid the laws of another jurisdiction, especially Ottawa.

But Ottawa has the power to “disallow” provincial laws, and could conceivably invoke it to declare the Sovereignty Act null and void.

The UCP lawmakers are well aware of this prospect. They warn that disallowance could bring a genuine constitutional crisis. They do not, of course, acknowledge that Alberta may be igniting that crisis right now.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith as the Fourth Session of the 30th Legislature opened on November 29, 2022.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith as the Fourth Session of the 30th Legislature opened on November 29, 2022. Photo by the Alberta Government

Ottawa has not disallowed recent Quebec language laws, despite calls to do so. It would take some brass to now disallow an Alberta law.

Nobody would be happier about the uproar, one suspects, than our election-bound premier.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the option — and political dreams of his own. (Imagine a “Canada Sovereignty” campaign?)

Smith insists that the bill is in no way unconstitutional or intended to damage national unity. In the throne speech, the government said: “Ottawa is not our ruler. Ottawa is our partner.”

The premier feels she already has Ottawa’s attention and “I hope we never have to use this bill.” She doesn’t think the feds would disallow it but “we’ll see how they respond to this.”

Another remarkable feature of the bill is that Smith’s cabinet will be able to unilaterally change laws (not just regulations) to fit whatever move is being planned.

The big question for many Albertans will be, is Smith going to tell me I have to disobey a law?

The Sovereignty Act states specifically that no individual or private company can be compelled to defy a federal law or plan. The government says only “provincial entities” are obliged to comply.

But the net is cast very wide. Provincial entities include:

  • Provincial public agencies;
  • Provincial Crown-controlled organizations;
  • Entities that carry out a provincial power, duty or function;
  • Entities that receive public funds contingent on providing a public service;
  • A regional health authority;
  • A public post-secondary school;
  • A school board;
  • A municipality;
  • A municipal or regional police service.

The reach extends down to the smallest NGO that might receive a grant to help opioid victims; it reaches upward to the health system, every town and city, and the police. The duty to comply with the Sovereignty Act could also extend to the RCMP under provincial contract.

Saskatchewan’s parallel bill does little more than firmly restate the province’s areas of exclusive jurisdiction, and establish a tribunal to assess the economic effect of federal moves.

This panel can assess “the steps that may be taken to minimize the economic impact of the federal initiative in Saskatchewan.”

The Alberta bill goes much, much further. With a motion from the legislature, the government can order a huge range of organizations (all staffed by private individuals) to defy federal law.

The initial points of combat are already mapped out. Alberta will almost certainly refuse to obey the federal cuts in fertilizer use. The province will likely act against further “arbitrary” emissions cuts. The confiscation of firearms is an obvious flashpoint.

The UCP is also working up resistance to federal “control” of how grant money is spent on health care, social programs and education.

Resolutions to trigger the Sovereignty Act in specific areas will hit the legislature in spring. That’s when the real action starts — just in time for the election.

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