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Opinion: Why the Alberta Sovereignty Act is Misguided

Polity

By Shridhar Patel

The Alberta Sovereignty Act is a sham. It is specifically designed to elicit strong emotions from Albertans who want to ‘stick it to Ottawa,’ but without regard for the consequences. They range from an increase in tensions with the federal government to a full-blown constitutional crisis. 

Ultimately, it is likely that advocacy for the Act, as well as the resulting political conflict it would create, is about scoring political points in the United Conservative Party leadership race by inflaming views that Alberta is getting a raw deal from Ottawa and needs a more combative Premier to improve its lot.

Western Alienation has been a recurring theme since the Pierre Trudeau years. But the worldwide transition to renewables from fossil fuels, as well as perceived (and actual) oil-and-gas policies from the current Justin Trudeau government, has heightened frustrations with Ottawa. 

According to recent polls, support for a sovereign Alberta is around 10-15%, but a majority of the provincial population is open to other initiatives to increase provincial independence from the central government.

While the federal government’s policies/regulations can be argued to be a legitimate source of grievance, there is no denying that the Trudeau-led federal government is a convenient scapegoat for a UCP party in disarray. 

An example of this was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic when Premier Kenney decided to hold a referendum on equalization at a time when the UCP party’s popularity was free-falling and hovering around 20-30%. The Premier knew that an Alberta referendum would have zero legal consequences on the equalization formula but campaigned for the issue anyways because he saw it as an easy way to boost his popularity. 

Similarly, even if politicians like Danielle Smith know that the Act is doomed to fail or will set up a largely unwinnable political fight in the next federal election, she’s banking that political support resulting from an endorsement of the proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act could win her the Premiership seat in October. 

In appealing to the emotional side of many Albertans, leaders who endorse legislation like the Alberta Sovereignty Act are playing a dangerous game. While their grievances against Ottawa get all the airtime, they’re not talking about the many ways Alberta benefits from the federal government. The Canada Health Transfer and federal funding for many infrastructure and energy projects, including the purchase and expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast, are dependent on the federal government. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta received the most revenue, per-capita, from Ottawa out of all the other provinces. 

Many pressing issues require collaboration between both the federal government and provincial government, like healthcare and the economy. An adversarial relationship will only hurt Albertans in the long run. The bottom line: While attacks on Ottawa can help a UCP candidate get into the Premier’s seat, they will make being an effective Premier more difficult, and Albertans will pay the price.

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