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The Alberta Sovereignty Act, Explained

Controversial proposed law could change Confederation as we know it

On October 11, Danielle Smith was sworn in as the 19th premier of Alberta after becoming the new leader of the ruling United Conservative Party (UCP). As former leader of the Wildrose Party, Smith led the Official Opposition from 2012–14. The Wildrose Party later merged with the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta to form the UCP. Premier Smith was a member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from 2012–15 but does not currently have a seat.

Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney triggered the UCP leadership race when he announced his resignation in May 2022. The new UCP leader was selected using instant run-off voting. Smith won a majority of votes (53.77 percent) in the sixth and final ballot count, defeating Travis Toews (46.23 percent), the former Minister of Finance of Alberta. Approximately 85,000 ballots were cast by eligible UCP members.

One of the most controversial issues in the leadership race was Smith’s proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act (ASA). The ASA would “assert Alberta’s Constitutional Rights within Canada to the furthest extent possible by effectively governing itself as a Nation within a Nation” and would allow the Alberta government to avoid enforcing federal laws or policies it deems unconstitutional. However, Premier Smith noted the ASA would still respect Supreme Court decisions. The ASA may only be used if authorized by a free vote of all Alberta MLAs. It is intended to impose the rule of law on “a lawless Ottawa” by reaffirming the separation of powers. To date, Premier Smith has only released an overview of the legislation and intends to draft the ASA together with her cabinet and caucus. 

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Supporters claim that the ASA is an entirely constitutional way to assert the jurisdiction granted to Alberta by the Constitution Act, 1982. Others criticize the proposal as wholly unconstitutional and that to allow a provincial legislature to unilaterally decide whether a federal law is constitutional or not disregards the role of the courts in challenging a law’s constitutionality. Some supporters concede that the ASA may be unconstitutional but see it as a powerful message to the federal government that could strengthen Alberta’s interests or lead to positive constitutional change

Others see it as a step towards Alberta separatism. The ASA appears to have its roots in the Free Alberta Strategy, a series of initiatives to make Alberta a sovereign jurisdiction. The Alberta separatism movement, sometimes known as “Wexit,” has experienced a resurgence in recent years.

While separatism remains a fringe concept, Albertan discontent with Ottawa is not. A number of federal policies are commonly perceived as harming Alberta’s energy industry, a key part of Alberta’s economy, without due consideration for how Albertans would be affected. Protecting the energy industry from federal overreach is consistently a major issue in Alberta politics. For example, in 2019, Kenney launched the Canadian Energy Centre, commonly known as the “energy war room,” to promote the industry’s interests and respond to misinformation about oil and gas. There are also perceptions of federal overreach into areas like policing and pension management.

One major grievance is the equalization payment system, through which the federal government makes payments to provinces to address interprovincial fiscal disparities. Alberta has not received a payment since 1965, even through recessions. In a 2021 provincial referendum, 61.7 percent of voters favoured removing equalization payments from the Canadian constitution. Though insufficient to change the constitution, these results gave “a powerful mandate to secure changes to equalization and other federal transfers.

Despite these sentiments, other politicians have generally been critical of the ASA. Four other UCP leadership candidates held a joint press conference to express their opposition. Kenney called the proposal “catastrophically stupid” and said that it would scare away investors, create “political chaos,” “shred the rule of law,” and “do devastating damage to jobs, the economy and the prospect of pipelines.” Lieutenant Governor Salma Lakhani said her office would independently evaluate the law’s constitutionality before giving royal assent, raising concerns about the Lieutenant Governor taking on a political role. 

What’s next?

On November 8, Premier Smith will be running for MLA in the conservative-leaning riding of Brooks-Medicine Hat. The riding’s former MLA, Michaela Frey, resigned on October 7, 2022. 

There is uncertainty whether there is enough party unity to pass the ASA. To do so, Premier Smith may have to compromise on language and details.

Notably, only a small minority of Albertans voted in the UCP leadership election and a “large portion” of UCP members live in rural Alberta. More than 80 percent of Albertans live in urban areas, raising concerns about whether the party’s actions will be representative of Albertans’ interests. In the next general election, Premier Smith’s main opponent will be former premier and current Opposition leader Rachel Notley of the New Democratic Party. The next provincial election is scheduled for May 29, 2023.

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