A push to free Alberta from Ottawa’s tightening grip has erupted into one of the top issues in the race to replace Jason Kenney.
Danielle Smith, one of seven candidates campaigning to lead the UCP, seized on Alberta’s growing feeling of Western Alienation by proposing to implement the Alberta Sovereignty Act on her first day of office.
If passed, the Act would “grant the Alberta Legislature the authority to refuse any enforcement of any specific Act of Parliament or federal court ruling that the Legislative Assembly believes to be a federal intrusion into an area of provincial jurisdiction, or unfairly prejudicial to the interests of Alberta.” In summary, the Legislative Assembly would simply redirect the enforcement bodies or provincial agencies responsible for implementing the federal act or ruling, and they would refuse to enforce it.
Brian Jean, another leading candidate, has chosen Autonomy for Albertans as his campaign slogan. Jean wants to open constitutional negotiations with Ottawa to fix equalization, political representation, and fair trade. But Jean, a lawyer, has criticized Smith’s proposal to ignore federal laws: “I think if we don’t like a law, we change it. Danielle Smith says we should ignore it. I don’t think that’s mature. That’s not good advice from a politician. It’s not realistic… It’s an encouragement to break the rule of law, which leads to anarchy.”
Travis Toews also supports additional autonomy for Alberta but has warned that Smith’s plan would cause investment to flee and create chaos in the process. Jason Kenney, the outgoing premier, went even further. He slammed the Act as “nuts.”
In response to criticism, Danielle Smith wrote an editorial justifying the merits of the Alberta Sovereignty Act and arguing for a position akin to Quebec’s “nation within a nation” status. Brian Jean and Travis Toews published their responses to Smith’s editorial.
The general theme of Western Alienation has intensified in response to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s intrusion in areas of provincial jurisdiction, particularly in the field of climate change policies that hurt the oil-and-gas industry and agriculture.
Recognizing that Alberta needs a better deal in Confederation, Premier Kenney appointed the Fair Deal Panel in 2019 to examine changes that Alberta could make to increase its autonomy. The Panel made 25 recommendations, with notable steps being the establishment of a provincial police force, the creation of an Albertan pension plan, and repealing the federal carbon tax.
One of the leaders of the Alberta sovereignty movement is a group that developed the Free Alberta Strategy. The manifesto advocates a series of reforms and policies that would “make Alberta a sovereign jurisdiction within Canada.” The writers of the Free Alberta Strategy claim that the implementation of the Alberta Sovereignty Act would not require “Ottawa’s permission.”
Quebec in the 1990s came the closest to separating from Canada as it held two referenda on independence, which failed narrowly.
The Supreme Court of Canada provided a guide on what secession by a province could entail, in a case called the Reference Re Secession of Quebec. Under this judgement, the court determined that unilateral secession was not legal under the Canadian constitution. If, however, a referendum was held and decided on independence, then the federal government would have to engage in negotiations. Therefore, the current text of the Alberta Sovereignty Act would be seen as “ultra vires,” or outside of the provincial jurisdiction/spheres of power, and therefore unconstitutional, until Alberta holds such a referendum.
While talks of secession have been a staple of Albertan culture, polls suggest support for a sovereign Alberta is consistent at around 10-20%, with a substantially greater percentage of Albertans who would like to see other tools/policies to deal with Ottawa. For example, most Albertans support equalization reform. Nearly 62% of Albertans voted in a 2021 referendum to remove the equalization section from the Constitution.
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