Backlash over the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act (Bill 1) has been strong since it was introduced with experts, Indigenous leaders, and the public voicing their concerns, but local conservative politicians say the bill is necessary.
On Dec. 8, the Sovereignty Act passed third reading in the Alberta legislature after amendments were made to clarify the act. The proposed bill is crafted to protect Alberta from federal laws and policies the provincial government deems harmful to Albertans and the economic prosperity of the province.
Morinville-St. Albert MLA, Dale Nally said the changes to the act will make it clear that cabinet cannot make changes to laws in secret, and that changes must be introduced and passed through the Alberta house first, in an email on Dec. 6. A previous version of the act gave Premier Danielle Smith and her cabinet the power to bypass the legislature and rewrite laws as they saw fit.
The proposed amendments also clarify that cabinet can only take action on issues that are related to federal initiatives.
Nally said the act “will be used to stand up to federal government overreach and interference in areas of provincial jurisdiction, including in the areas of private property, natural resources, agriculture, firearms, regulation of the economy, and delivery of health, education, and other social programs.”
The act has yet to receive royal assent from Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Salma Lakhani.
St. Albert MP and Shadow Minister for Democratic Reform Michael Cooper said the bill is a result of policies from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and “a government in Ottawa that has repeatedly violated Alberta provincial jurisdiction.”
“The fact that Alberta is moving ahead with Sovereignty Acts, Saskatchewan has moved ahead with the Saskatchewan First Act. I think that points to a broader problem,” he said.
When asked what he thinks about Indigenous leaders asking the Alberta Governor General to withhold royal assent of the bill, Cooper again blamed Trudeau.
“I know that Justin Trudeau’s policies have had a very negative impact on Indigenous communities in terms of his anti-energy policies. So there's a fierce debate around this particular bill.
“My focus is on Justin Trudeau. And, and my view of the Sovereignty Act is very simple. It is that we wouldn't be here in the first place, but for the anti-energy policies and the consistent overreach on the part of the federal government that have directly harmed Alberta and Saskatchewan and the people of Saskatchewan and Western Canada,” he replied.
On Dec. 2, St. Albert NDP MLA Marie Renaud called the bill an economic failure and referenced concerns the Calgary Chamber of Commerce made public about the act damaging to businesses on Nov. 30.
“It creates more chaos conflict and instability (it) will have the potential to drive investment away and damage job creation. And just at a time when we need to be focusing on the future and building and attracting investment.
Nally said the legislation is critical for addressing Alberta’s relationship with the federal government.
“This legislation is not about undermining our nation,” he said.
As reported by the Edmonton Journal on Dec. 12, Alberta Indigenous leaders have asked Lakhani to withhold royal assent on the act.
In a Nov. 18, press release Treaty 6, 7 and 8 Chiefs said they take offence and outright reject the Sovereignty Act.
“Smith’s proposed bill undermines the authority and duty of the Sovereign Nations that entered into Treaty. How can the province make a sovereign bill when our treaty rights were made before the creation of Alberta,” said Treaty 8 First Nations Grand Chief Arthur Noskey in the press statement.
Bill 1, the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, was introduced to the Alberta Legislature on Nov. 29 by Smith.
Henry the Eighth
After the act was introduced in the house, many had issues with a portion of the bill that “transferred immense power to the cabinet to rewrite other provincial laws, the so-called Henry the Eighth clause,” said Eric Adams, a law professor at the University of Alberta in an interview with the Gazette on Dec. 2.
Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University called Bill 1 a profound challenge to democracy in an interview with the Gazette after the act was introduced on Nov. 29.
Williams said the sovereignty act went much further than was promised.
“I think the taking of away the requirement to consult with the legislature to get legislative approval for changes in legislation, sort of centralizing power within cabinet. I think that's going to raise a lot of questions about her commitment to democracy and to listening to Albertans," said Williams during a Nov. 29 interview. Since the interview with Williams Smith has removed the power from cabinet.
“The fact that she's limited the possibility of actually challenging measures in court. That combination I think is going to raise serious questions about the powers that she's trying to take away and frankly, raise questions about whether it's the federal government that she is fighting against ordinary Albertans."
When asked on Dec. 2 if the bill is constitutionally sound as it was originally written, as the amendments had not yet been made to the bill, Adams said it's not easy to answer when a bill takes new steps into uncharted territory as this one does.
“There's no previous reference points in in the courts jurisprudence, which has upheld similar pieces of legislation because there are no similar pieces of legislation,” he said.
Adams said he wouldn’t label the bill as a threat to democracy, but he believes it is not a development that the legislature should be engaged in.
“There's just no reason to grant powers to the executive branch of that magnitude and perhaps, that has become clearer to the government in the past day or two,” he said.
Adams said the question of how destabilizing the legislation is to the rule of law, to the well-functioning judicial system, and to both levels of government will depend on how it is used and the surrounding rhetoric of the government at the time of use.
“I don't think it's terribly helpful to keep the public in an inflamed state of mind perspective that their rights are being threatened by the Parliament of Canada. If that's the view of the Alberta government, they should make those constitutional arguments in court and let a judge decide,” Adams said.
When asked how the bill could be improved, Adams said the removal of the power to draft legislation behind closed doors would be a positive amendment. Smith has since removed this power.
“But I think in other respects it's difficult to speculate on how the bill would be improved. Because the fundamental premise is that is that the Parliament of Canada is to be mistrusted and attacked and I parted company with the present government about whether or not that's a productive frame of reference in relation to governing a province in Canada,” he said.