Alberta NDP says premier's rejection of federal authority lays separation groundwork
Alberta’s NDP Opposition leader says Premier Danielle Smith's comments rejecting the legitimacy of the federal government betray her unspoken plan to lay the groundwork for eventual separation.
Rachel Notley cited Smith’s comments to the house just before members passed her sovereignty bill earlier Thursday, in which Smith rejected the federal government’s overarching authority.
“It's not like Ottawa is a national government,'' Smith told the house at 12:30 a.m. Thursday.
"The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions. They 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.”
Notley, speaking to reporters, said, “At 12:30 last night when she thought nobody was listening, the veil was lifted and Danielle Smith’s interest in genuinely pursuing initial steps toward separation were revealed.
“(They) demonstrate that her view is actually that which is aligned with these fringe separatist wannabes like folks who drafted the Free Alberta Strategy.
“Those comments are utterly chaos-inducing.”
Free Alberta Strategy was a 2021 policy paper drafted in part by Smith’s current top adviser Rob Anderson.
The authors of the paper argue that federal laws, policies and overreach are mortally wounding Alberta's development.
They urge a two-track strategy to assert greater autonomy for Alberta within Confederation, while simultaneously laying the policy and administrative groundwork to transition Alberta to separation and sovereignty should negotiations fail.
The strategy was the genesis for Smith’s controversial sovereignty bill that stipulates the Alberta legislature, rather than the courts, can pass judgment on what is constitutional when it comes to provincial jurisdiction.
The bill also grants cabinet the power to direct municipalities, city police forces, health regions and schools to resist implementing federal laws.
During question period, Smith rejected accusations the bill is a separatist Trojan Horse, noting its intent is contained in the title.
“The name of the bill is Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act,” said Smith.
“The (act) has nothing to do with leaving the country. It has everything to do with resetting the relationship (with the federal government).”
Political scientist Jared Wesley said it appears constitutional chaos and baiting the federal government are the actual aims.
“When you start to deny the legitimacy of the federal government, that is part of the worrying trend that ties all of this to the convoy movement and the separatists,” said Wesley, with the University of Alberta.
“Albertans need to know those comments are inappropriate and misleading at best and sparking a national unity crisis at worst. Sooner or later, someone’s going to believe her.”
Wesley added that there is a sentiment among a small group of people in Alberta, including the premier, who "are just tired of losing and don’t want to play the game anymore," he said.
“The sad thing is that that game is democracy and the rule book is the Constitution, and they’re just ignoring all of it now."
Political scientist Duane Bratt said Smith was not describing Canadian federalism.
“She is confusing the European Union with Canada,” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary. “Canada is not made up of sovereign provinces. We share sovereignty between orders of government.”
Political scientist Lori William, also with Mount Royal University, said the comment “betrays a profound lack of understanding of Canada, of federalism, of what powers belong to the federal and provincial governments.”
During question period, Smith waved away Opposition demands that she refer the bill to Alberta’s Court of Appeal to determine if it is onside with the Constitution.
Smith told the house that Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, a lawyer, wrote the bill and that the government received independent advice from constitutional lawyers to ensure it was not offside.
“The constitutionality of this bill is not in question,” Smith said.
The bill was introduced by Smith a week ago as centrepiece legislation to pursue a more confrontational approach with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government on a range of issues deemed to be overreach in provincial areas of responsibility.
It was a short, brutish ride for the bill.
Smith’s government, due to a public outcry, had to bring in an amendment just days after introducing the bill to reverse a provision that gave it ongoing emergency-type powers to unilaterally rewrite laws while bypassing the legislature.
Alberta’s First Nations chiefs have condemned the bill as trampling their treaty rights and Smith’s Indigenous relations minister has said more consultation should have been done.
Smith told the house she met with Indigenous leaders just hours earlier to discuss concerns and shared goals. She rejected the assertion the bill doesn’t respect treaty rights.
“There is no impact on treaty and First Nations’ rights. That’s the truth,” she said.
Law professor Martin Olszynski said the bill remains problematic because it must be clear the courts have the final say on interpreting the Constitution in order to stabilize the checks and balances of a democratic system.
He said Smith’s bill threatens that, perhaps putting judges in the awkward position of having to decide whether they are the ones to make those decisions.
“Can that judge exercise their judicial function without being affected by that very politicized context?” said Olszynski, with the University of Calgary.
“It essentially politicizes the judicial process.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2022.
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