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St. Albert mayor calls province's Bill 18 intrusive and 'political'

NDP MLA Marie Renaud says bill is about "squabbling with Ottawa" and will harm the province's economy
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St. Albert received nearly $2.2 million from the federal government in 2022, according to the city.

Although that money is secure, some portion of future funding could be on the chopping block should the province pass Bill 18.

The new legislation, dubbed the Provincial Priorities Act, 2024, would mandate that municipalities, education boards, post-secondaries, public agencies, regional health authorities, Covenant Health and crown corporations get approval from the province before they receive any federal funding or rework an existing agreement with Ottawa.

Under the legislation, any funding not deemed fit by the province would be invalid, Premier Danielle Smith said at a press conference last week.

“Once again, it feels like I’ve got a provincial and federal government that are quarrelling, and they're putting municipalities in the middle,” said St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron.

In 2022, St. Albert received federal money for outdoor recreation spaces, accessible washrooms, energy-efficient building upgrades, festivals and railway crossing improvements as well as $624,600 for grants in place of taxes for two properties owned by Canada post.

It’s not clear which, if any, of these types of programs would be forbidden by the province under the new legislation.

Smith said that the province reviewed 14,000 federal-municipal agreements and found only 800 were of concern. She targeted funding for net-zero housing, net-zero electricity and drug harm reduction strategies as particularly problematic.

She also singled out Ottawa’s funding for electric buses, which she claimed don’t work in winter weather.

In 2016, St. Albert was one of the first municipalities in Canada to add long-range electric buses to its fleet. It received federal support.

“[The electric buses] work really well here in St. Albert,” Heron said. “They might not last as long as we originally thought, but I thought we were really proactive and thoughtful in trying to green the fleet … electric vehicles are not a questionable technology … this is a worldwide change.”

Heron called the legislation “an intrusion on the autonomy of local government,” and said potential rules around funding for electric buses are just one example of that interference.  

Smith argued that Bill 18 will help smaller municipalities get more money from Ottawa. Places such as Edmonton and Calgary have the resources to get better federal deals, she said, putting the cities at an unfair advantage.

“I agree that there are communities other than Edmonton and Calgary that need housing dollars,” Heron said, noting that St. Albert is currently applying for federal housing money.

“[Smith] talked a lot about working together, having three levels of government around the table,” she said. “How is this kind of legislation going to bring three levels of government together? It's not.”

The bill will not “increase funding for housing to a per capita level,” Heron said.

“It's just picking a fight when we need collaboration,” she said.

Heron was also concerned that the legislation would put an extra burden on municipalities. Soon, St. Albert will be vying for federal transit dollars, which she believes the province would be happy for the city to receive.

“Why make us take that extra step and get their approval?”

Smith said she did "not anticipate" the policy would add red tape. "It really is just an additional amount of disclosure," she said.

"The definition of red tape is ... the federal government, that doesn't have regular communication or a regular relationship with over 300 municipalities, suddenly having to develop one to make a simple deal," said Ric McIver, Minister of Municipal Affairs, who was also at the press conference.

"This will take, essentially, no time at all," McIver promised. 

Heron acknowledged that the federal government attaches strings to some funding but said municipalities should be empowered to make choices about what they want for their communities. The province also has an agenda when it picks projects to fund, she said.

“It's political,” she said. “I think that's the bottom line with this one.”

Bill 'not a good look for Alberta,' Renaud says

St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud called the bill “government interference.”

“This is about squabbling with Ottawa,” she said.

The bill would require any federal research grant money going to universities to get provincial approval.

Smith said that her government wants research to align with the province’s priorities.

Grants that flow from the federal government to Canadian universities are overseen by three independent research funding bodies that receive direction from subject matter experts, not from Ottawa.  

It is “another example of political meddling in research, where universities need to be protected institutions for free thought and exploration,” Renaud said.

“[Smith] is someone who promoted hydroxychloroquine during COVID and wants to involve herself in the decisions of universities. It's ridiculous,” Renaud said, referring to the time Smith suggested in a now-deleted social media post that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine could cure COVID-19.

The province should have consulted more closely with municipalities before introducing the legislation, Renaud said.

“I think they would have heard loud and clear from the stakeholders … that they’re trying to solve a problem that really isn't a problem,” she said.

The bill will jeopardize potential federal funding for an affordable housing project on 22 St. Thomas Street, Renaud said.  

She believes it will harm the province’s economy. “It’s just not a good look for Alberta,” she said.

“I would not be surprised if the goal here is to silence people, to have them get in line behind the UCP and do exactly what they're told -- and there are going to be consequences for people who don't,” she said.

At last week’s press conference, Smith framed the bill as about wrestling control of institutions under provincial jurisdiction back from Ottawa.

“We’re not going to allow the federal government to come in and work directly with the provincial entity that we give a regulated mandate to and circumvent the things we want to do,” she said. “We know the federal government, on certain issues, has a diametrically opposed view to what it is we want to do.”

She said that federal government’s funding priorities have an “ideological tinge” that the province’s priorities lack.

Albertans voted for her based on the promise that she would stop federal overreach into the province's affairs, she said. 

The Gazette reached out to Minister of Service Alberta and Morinville — St. Albert MLA Dale Nally for comment about Bill 18 but he was not available before press time.

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