“…the folks who literally spent seven days telling us that what was written in their bill was not written in their bill [will] determine what is…unconstitutional on the part of the federal government…” Rachel Notley, Hansard, Dec 7, p 235
What happened over the last 7 days in Alberta politics simply takes your breath away.
It started with Danielle Smith and her caucus demonstrating an astonishing lack of understanding of the sweeping powers granted by Bill 1, the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, and ended with the Free Alberta Strategy folks taking credit for both the Act and Smith’s entire agenda.
If that doesn’t give you nightmares, nothing will.
Let’s start with the debate.
When the UCP government finally realized that Bill 1 granted cabinet far greater powers than Smith said it did, they amended it. After that everything went downhill.
As Rachel Notley pointed out, the rest of the Bill still contains unconstitutional elements, lacks clarity as to the government’s power to direct those with whom it had a fiscal relationship (including some in the private sector) to disobey federal law, and demonstrates utter disregard of reconciliation and treaty rights as the government failed to consult with the treaty chiefs prior to passing the legislation.
As a result of this gross incompetence, the Bill will damage Alberta’s reputation as a good place to invest, and, more importantly, has diverted the government from addressing the worst flu, COVID, RSV epidemic to hit our children in decades. Smith is unprepared to recommend children get the flu vaccine but she’s all over the radio waves saying the Sovereignty Act would have stopped the federal government’s ban of plastic straws. (Aside: The ban goes into effect in Dec 2022, but businesses have until Dec 2023 to get rid of their plastic straw stock. If Smith feels strongly about this issue—pity the children who need 4 paper straws to suck up a root beer float—she should deploy the Act.)
Smith et al responded to the Opposition’s criticism with the usual word salad: carbon tax, coal phase-out, emissions cap, Northern Gateway, Energy East, Bill C 49 (tanker ban), Bill C 69 (no more pipelines), 2035 emissions targets, etc. These are talking points from Smith’s leadership campaign. They don’t address the flaws in Bill 1 nor explain how Bill 1 will remedy the horrors Bill 1 is supposed to remedy.
Then it got really interesting
It was past midnight when NDP MLA Shannon Phillips reminded the Assembly that Bill 1 was “essentially indistinguishable” from what was contained in the Free Alberta Strategy (FAS) document. And that one of the architects of the FAS document, Barry Cooper said Bill 1 was intended to be unconstitutional and to give the Legislature the powers of the courts to determine whether a federal statute is unconstitutional.
Earlier Phillips said the attack on the judiciary was an attack on civil society. By attacking the rule of law, our collective knowledge, liberal democratic institutions, and ultimately trust, Bill 1 wasn’t setting up a war with Ottawa. It was setting up a war with ourselves.
This is dramatic language, but read the FAS document, you’ll see Phillips is correct.
During the course of the debate Smith made a number of questionable (that’s being charitable) statements.
She said, “The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act has nothing to do with leaving the country.”
Barry Cooper, together with Rob Anderson, Smith’s top advisor, and Derek From drafted the FAS document. Cooper made it crystal clear that if Ottawa fails to yield to Alberta’s demands, the province will separate from the country. As Cooper put it: “I want the Constitution to be changed, or we’ll have another referendum.” He was referring to the Quebec independence referendums, folks.
Smith could have disavowed Cooper’s comments. She didn’t. Remember that in May 2023.
Who drafted this mess?
Smith said, “It was our Justice minister who wrote this legislation—it wasn’t some outside party.”
In the most recent Free Alberta Strategy Bulletin dated Dec 9, 2022, the Free Alberta Strategy team said they wrote the Alberta Sovereignty Act last year. They boasted “It’s not often you get to take on the federal government, change the law, and set a bold new course for an entire province—all in one year!”
As far as the FAS folks are concerned, they’re running the show.
The debate got weirder as the night dragged on. Smith declared “It’s not like Ottawa is a national government.”
Political scientist Duane Brat says, “Yes it is. You might not like it, but a government made up of elected representatives from across Canada is a national government.”
Smith said, “The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions. They [the federal government] are one of those signatories to the Constitution and the rest of us, as signatories to the Constitution, have a right to exercise our sovereign powers in our own areas of jurisdiction.”
Bratt replied, “No. Wrong again. Smith is confusing Canada with the EU. Canada has shared sovereignty between two orders of government.”
The Alberta government is being led by a premier who has no idea how provincial or federal governments work. She’s supported by spineless ministers who swore they did not support Bill 1, then folded like a cheap tent when Smith made them cabinet ministers.
The UCP thought it was electing a leader. Instead it got a puppet beholden to the whims of a fringe group who’s prepared to separate from Canada if it doesn’t get its way.
Remember that in May 2023.