Conservatives in western Canada pass law rejecting federal sovereignty
By Ian Austen
In the heavily conservative western prairie province of Alberta, Canada, many residents, especially those on the far right, chafed at the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Liberal federal government in Ottawa, the country’s capital.
The widespread resentment helped fuel the enormous truck blockade this year that disrupted trade with the United States and paralyzed Ottawa for a month.
Now, oil-rich Alberta has ratcheted up the long-running schism between western and eastern Canada by approving a bill allowing the province to ignore any federal laws and regulations it opposes, a move some critics described as an unconstitutional threat to the basic fabric of the country’s government.
The leader of Alberta’s provincial government, Danielle Smith, justified her support for the bill by saying, “It’s not like Ottawa is a national government,” a conclusion that is widely disputed by constitutional experts. Smith, who is the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party and the premier of the province, added: “The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions.”
The new law is the latest development reflecting an informal, far-right effort in western Canadian provinces, mainly Alberta, to secede from Canada, underscoring just how difficult it can be for Ottawa to govern the regionally divided country.
Though Smith is not a member of any group participating in the secessionist movement, sometimes called Wexit, she has long espoused its driving view that the federal government is taking advantage of Alberta.
Holding views considered extreme even among Canadian conservatives, Smith has opposed all pandemic measures, including vaccines and masks. Her government has suggested that Alberta’s law could be used to reject federal authority and laws in several areas, including public health, the environment and firearms.
Critics, however, say that the law is a constitutional overreach by the province that is unlikely to survive a court challenge. They also say the legislation will create uncertainty that may cause investors to shy away from Alberta and could jeopardize Indigenous peoples’ rights and treaty obligations.
The law reflects the province’s deep-seated grievances toward the federal government.
Many Albertans have long argued that Ottawa has exploited the wealth generated by the province’s lucrative energy industry for the benefit of other provinces while dismissing pressing needs in Alberta, including increased funds for health care. The overwhelming majority of Alberta’s energy is exported, and the province is the largest source of imported oil for the United States.
They view Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ambitious program to move away from fossil fuels to combat climate change as a threat to their vital industry and his progressive government as out of touch with Albertans on many issues, particularly gun control.
In introducing the proposed law, Smith said, “I hope that we’ve sent a message to Ottawa that we will vigorously defend our constitutional areas of jurisdiction, and they should just butt out.”
But political scientists and analysts said the law is less about constitutional jurisdiction than it is about attracting the secessionist and anti-vaccination movements by tapping into a strain of anger and disenchantment toward the federal government and toward Trudeau in particular.
“This is coming from a deep-seated anger at the federal government and Justin Trudeau,” said Duane Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “She clearly wants to fight with Trudeau.”
Trudeau, for his part, does not seem interested in taking the bait. While the federal government has the power to override the law or to take it directly to Canada’s Supreme Court for a constitutional review, there is no sign that he plans to pursue either move.
After the law was adopted, he told reporters that he was “not interested in fighting with the Alberta government.”
Many legal experts say the law is unconstitutional because it claims the authority to nullify bills passed by federal lawmakers.
While provinces historically have a little room in Canada’s system in how they enforce and follow federal legislation, “Alberta now takes two large steps forward to say that the existence of flexible federalism is a grounds for the province to refuse, in a direct and frontal way, the applications of federal laws,” said Eric Adams, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Jason Kenney, Smith’s predecessor as premier and a Conservative who resigned from his seat in Alberta’s Legislature shortly after the proposed law was introduced, issued a statement when he stepped down that was widely interpreted as critical of Smith.
“Our democratic life is veering away from ordinary prudential debate towards a polarization that undermines our bedrock institutions and principles,” Kenney said.
Critics of the law have included business and energy groups that are usually allies of conservative politicians but that contend that selectively disregarding federal rules could drive away investment and cost the province jobs.
“This could cause us problems within Canada and with other provinces, as well as with Ottawa,” Deborah Yedlin, CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, told Global News, a broadcaster.
Rachel Notley, leader of the provincial branch of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, called on Smith to seek an immediate court review.
“I believe this act will fail in the courts, but, for the sake of Alberta workers, we should get that rolling as quickly as possible to limit the chaos and the uncertainty this act creates,” Notley, a former premier, told reporters.
The Alberta government has long claimed that the landlocked province’s oil industry has been held back by federal environmental rules that have frustrated attempts to build new pipelines or increase capacity of existing pipelines to the United States and ports.
The new law has also provoked anger among Indigenous groups in Alberta who say that it will undermine their rights under treaties they signed with Britain before Canada’s formation and that are now administered by the federal government.
The law “is just another unlawful attempt to continue the province’s deliberate abuse and exploitation of our peoples, lands, territories and resources,” Grand Chief Arthur Noskey of the Treaty 8 First Nations said in a statement.
The Onion Lake Cree Nation, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, filed a lawsuit this month in Alberta’s superior court asking it to strike down the law because, the community said, it violates or endangers a variety of treaty rights.
Smith’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.
Smith has maintained that the law will withstand any court challenge and has equated the legislation with efforts by Indigenous communities to regain sovereignty for their territories.
“Ottawa, I think, unfortunately treats First Nations with disrespect, and they also treat provinces with disrespect,” she told the legislature after the law passed.
Among residents of Alberta, the law appears to be more popular in rural areas and suburbs than in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary, which account for over 51% of Alberta’s 4.5 million population.
During a radio interview Smith suggested that the province should have used the law to reverse a federal ban on single-use plastics that it is now challenging in court.
“How many people love the fact they are now having to use paper straws?” Smith said. “When you’re trying to give a kid a root beer float, you have to plan to give them four paper straws because they get so destroyed.”