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'It's bonkers': Edmonton MP reacts to Smith's plan to veto federal-municipal deals

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks to reporters on April 10, 2024. (CTV News Edmonton) Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks to reporters on April 10, 2024. (CTV News Edmonton)
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Proposed legislation that would allow the Alberta government to veto any future deal struck between municipalities and the federal government, including research grants to post-secondary institutions, is being criticized as political interference and red tape.

The bill would prevent Ottawa from funding federal ideological priorities that run counter to the province’s objectives, Premier Danielle Smith said Wednesday after it was introduced.

"They (the federal government) fund in a certain way based on a certain ideology and that's what we're going to be able to determine once that becomes a lot more transparent," Smith told reporters.

According to University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young, the comment raised the question whether the Alberta government would attempt to decide what research received funding.

She told CTV News Edmonton on Thursday that a fundamental principle of Canada's research adjudication system is that funding decisions are made by committees of experts in the topic.

"That protects academic freedom, it protects the integrity of the research that's done, it ensures it is science or the direction of the discipline that is shaping the decisions of what gets funded and what doesn't.

"So any mechanism that put political interference into this would be a huge blow to the entire research system in Canada," Young said.

"It would be devastating for these institutions in terms of being able to remain nationally and internationally recognized as research institutions. It would also likely lead to an exodus of the most talented researchers to other jurisdictions."

Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney defended the policy on Thursday, saying there is no desire to impede academic freedom.

"We do need to understand what these federal grants are and right now there is no grant that I know of, that I am aware of, that will be problematic, but we need to have that information at our disposal," Sawhney said.

The University of Alberta received more than $223 million in research funding from the federal government last year, it said in a statement to CTV News Edmonton. That funding accounts for more than one-third of the university's total annual research revenue.

"Beyond research funding, federal dollars provide job skills programming and workforce development, including through french language education at Campus St. Jean," spokesperson Michael Brown said.

"These projects and programs make a tangible difference in the lives of people in Alberta and beyond, from discovering life-saving medical treatments, to new technology that fuels the economy of tomorrow." 

When Smith was asked on Wednesday if the legislation could result in political interference, she replied, "I'd ask the federal government the same way. How are they politically interfering by using their federal spending power to fund certain research projects? That's what we're worried about, is that the federal government is doing that."

Canada's employment minister and Edmonton member of parliament, while speaking at a federal housing announcement in Alberta's capital city on Thursday, said he had grave concerns for Alberta's research community.

"What's she going to do with artificial intelligence funding? ... What's going to happen with agriculture science? What's going to happen when it comes to fighting climate change?" Randy Boissonnault asked.

He told reporters he advised Smith in the fall not to develop the legislation as he believes it will act only as bureaucratic red tape to slow the province down.

"Like, this is bonkers," he said.

"We can get through each and every one of the issues we have with the provincial government. There doesn't need to be a blanket law applied."

On Thursday, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi also said the bill would stifle economic growth.

"Municipalities, and organizations in our city, are getting caught in the middle of a fight between the province and the federal government. There are valid concerns about jurisdiction and fair allocation of funding, but there are better ways to achieve these goals that don't result in additional red tape," Sohi said in a statement.

Smith said her government was bringing in the legislation in response to recent unilateral federal housing grants to some Alberta cities and accused Ottawa of picking favourites.

Funding from the Housing Accelerator Fund goes to municipalities proposing innovative ways, such as zoning and planning changes, to get more affordable housing built. It is not tied to population and Alberta is getting close to its 12 per cent per capita share at around $450 million, the federal housing minister has confirmed.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski and The Canadian Press 

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