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Smith tables controversial sovereignty act, which is 'likely' to survive in court

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Danielle Smith introduced the Sovereignty within a United Canada Act in the legislature Tuesday while trying to reassure Albertans that it has nothing to do with leaving the country.

Government documents say it's not certain the legislation will survive a court challenge but it's "likely" that it will.

"A long and painful history of mistreatment and constitutional overreach from Ottawa has for decades caused tremendous frustration for Albertans," Smith told reporters.

"In response, we're finally telling the federal government: 'No more.' It's time to stand up for Alberta."

Smith promised a "sovereignty act" during her run for United Conservative Party leader. She won that race on Oct. 6 with roughly 54 per cent of votes on the sixth ballot. She was sworn in as premier Oct. 11.

During a televised address last week, Smith revealed that the "within a United Canada" part had been added.

Meant to be a "constitutional shield to protect Albertans from federal overreach," the act is supposed to defend property rights, natural resources, agriculture, firearms, economic regulation, healthcare delivery, education and social programs, according to the government.

"It's intended to be fully democratic and transparent. Each proposed use of the act will require a special motion to be passed in the legislative assembly, which will be subject to open discussion, examination and review," Smith said.

The premier said the federal government can take Alberta to court if it doesn't like the UCP government's sovereignty positions, rather than the province having to initiate legal action. 

HOW WOULD IT WORK?

The details of the proposed bill, and thus the effect it could have on Alberta and Canada, have been speculated on for weeks. The province released a fact sheet Tuesday providing an initial outline on how it would work.

If passed, the act would allow any cabinet minister, including the premier, to identify federal initiatives and legislation that are deemed unconstitutional or "harmful to Albertans" and introduce a motion in the legislature to invoke it.

Those motions could also include suggestions for how to fight back against Ottawa's initiatives.

MLAs would then debate and vote on the resolution in the legislature. A majority approval would be needed and government MLAs, the premier says, would be free to vote according to their conscience.

If a motion passes, cabinet ministers would then be authorized to ignore or "push back" against federal policies and direct provincial entities like health authorities, school boards, municipalities or local police to not enforce them.

The government says Alberta will continue to respect court rulings, something that was not clear when Smith initially proposed a sovereignty act.

"Nothing in this bill involves separation, nor does it provide a means to accomplish such ends. Rather it is a way for this great province to hold the federal government accountable to the constitutional principles that serve as the very foundation of our country's governance," Smith said.

OPPOSITION TO THE ACT

Smith's sovereignty act idea was immediately controversial in Alberta, including within the government caucus.

Several government MLAs spoke out against the act during the UCP leadership race and former leader and premier Jason Kenney called it "cockamamie" and "the Alberta suicide act" during his final days in office.

Kenney and others were concerned that the act would scare off business and jobs by making Alberta an unstable market to invest in.

But Smith's government argues that won't happen and that federal "intrusion" in Alberta has caused "hundreds of billions of dollars to flee Alberta" over the past decade, however no accounting of that was provided.

Kenney resigned as MLA for Calgary-Lougheed on Tuesday.

The bill has also been called "dangerous and damaging" by Chiefs from Treaty 6, 7 and 8, who vowed to fight the act during a joint press conference on Nov.18.

“We take offence to Danielle Smith's forthcoming sovereignty act and outright reject it,” said Arthur Noskey, Grand Chief of Treaty 8, who added there had been no consultation with First Nations leaders.

Noskey renewed his objections in a Tuesday news release.

"The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is just another unlawful attempt to continue the province’s deliberate abuse and exploitation of our peoples, lands, territories, and resources," the Grand Chief stated.

Smith has since promised to meet with the Chiefs in person to assure them that the act will not impact their treaty rights.

The Opposition NDP voted against Smith's sovereignty bill, in part out of concern that the act would give cabinet "new powers to unilaterally bypass the democratic will of the legislature" by amending laws after an initial motion has passed. Smith denies this is what the legislation intends.

“Danielle Smith was elected by one per cent of the Alberta voters and now she wants to give herself dictatorial powers,” said deputy leader Sarah Hoffman.

“Danielle Smith and the UCP are focused on creating more chaos, costs and conflict with her sovereignty act.”

WHAT TRUDEAU, MINISTERS ARE SAYING ABOUT IT

Asked about the incoming act on his way into question period on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he's "just going to stay focused on the things that matter to Albertans."

"Whether it's affordability, whether it's creating jobs, whether it's working constructively to fight climate change and grow a better future. That's what Albertans are focused on. That's what I'm going to stay focused on," the prime minister said.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he'd wait until he'd read the legislation before commenting but that once it was tabled he'd "obviously look carefully," because some of what was floated around the bill during the leadership race "may or may not involve federal jurisdiction."

"We’re not running around looking for fire alarms and looking for squabbles and hassles. As I say, we have on a number of fronts a positive relationship with the government of Alberta. The Alberta Legislature has sovereign constitutional jurisdiction within their own division of powers, so if they propose to legislate things that are properly within the jurisdiction of the Alberta legislature, the people of Alberta and the members of that legislature are responsible for those decisions," LeBlanc said.

"We’ll do the same thing in the Parliament of Canada, but we’re not going to get distracted from working on positive things with all the provincial governments, and they can decide what legislation they want to table in their legislatures at whatever time they want."

Alberta-based Minister of Tourism and Associate Finance Minister Randy Boissonnault told reporters that while he too wants to read the bill for himself, he's "deeply concerned by what is the government of Alberta’s attack on Canadian unity."

Describing Alberta's move as trying to "cherry pick" which laws apply to them, Boissonnault said Albertans are "not talking to me about sovereignty."

"They were talking to me about jobs, about indexing the benefits that they get. They were talking about the prime minister’s good performance at the inquiries, and quite frankly, they were talking about him being on Drag Race Canada… So [the] sovereignty act is not on the minds of Albertans," he said.

With files from CTV News' Rachel Aiello and The Canadian Press

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