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Howard Anglin: The Alberta Sovereignty Act is nothing but a sideshow scam

Commentary

The Alberta Sovereignty Act is a scam. It’s baloney, bunk, balderdash, and bunkum. Hooey, hogwash, and hokum. Flim-flam, tommyrot, poppycock, and fiddle. It’s the political equivalent of a sideshow tent painted with lurid images of wonders never before beheld by human eyes. And, like any successful carnival curio, it depends on the willingness of the marks to believe the unbelievable. 

In the sideshow, dim-lighting and deft patter create the atmosphere, but it’s the patrons’ desire to be deceived that lets them see a mermaid rather than a mangy monkey-torso artfully attached to half a dried fish. The same is true for the Alberta Sovereignty Act—a political and legal hoax that has become the signature policy of the frontrunner to be the next premier of Alberta.

For those who don’t follow Alberta politics, the Alberta Sovereignty Act is the centrepiece of a broader Free Alberta strategyThe Free Alberta Strategy https://www.freealbertastrategy.com/the_strategy that has two stated goals: “Establishing complete Provincial Legislative Sovereignty within Canada” and “Ending Equalization and Net Federal Transfers out of Alberta.” Notably—and this is the strategy’s novelty—it doesn’t ask permission from Ottawa or any other province. It just asserts whatever powers are necessary to protect the province’s interests, whether they are constitutional or not.

The appeal to many Albertans is obvious. The Free Alberta strategy claims to be a solution to the hitherto insoluble problem of how Alberta can get everything it wants from Ottawa without actually separating from Canada. It appears to square the circle of independence without secession. Best of all, it lets Albertans claim what is rightfully theirs (or what they would like to be rightfully theirs) without having to go begging to Ottawa or to BC or Quebec or the Maritimes. 

At the heart of the strategy are two radical proposals.About the Free Alberta strategy https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/albertainstitute/pages/337/attachments/original/1637104983/Free_Alberta_Strategy_-_Web_Version.pdf?1637104983 The first is the Alberta Sovereignty Act, which would prohibit government employees from enforcing federal laws or court decisions that, in the opinion of the provincial legislature, exceed Ottawa’s constitutional jurisdiction or, more vaguely, “unfairly attack the interests of Alberta’s People.” The second is to effectively opt-out of the Canadian judicial system. Both ideas are, to use a technical term from constitutional law, nuttier than a squirrel turd.

The strategy’s authors know, of course, that this would be flagrantly unconstitutional—for them, that is its major selling point.The Alberta sovereignty act is unconstitutional on purpose https://nationalpost.com/opinion/barry-cooper-the-alberta-sovereignty-act-is-unconstitutional-on-purpose They believe that forcing a constitutional crisis is the only way to remedy the ongoing constitutional injustice that Alberta suffers under the current system. It is a deliberately brute assertion of political power intended to cut the constitutional Gordian knot. But even on these dubious political terms, the Alberta Sovereignty Act is a dead end. Unconstitutionality aside, the Act is unworkable. 

The provincial government can’t just tell public servants not to enforce the law or individuals that they won’t face any consequences for acting illegally. It can’t tell businesses and employees they don’t have to remit taxes that they legally owe. It is one thing for eccentric academics and aspiring politicians to fantasize about ad hoc independence, but the Alberta Sovereignty Act would put all the real legal risk—CRA fines, court orders, and legal penalties—on ordinary people and local businesses. It asks too much of individuals to shoulder the burden of this constitutional frolic.

The Act would be an economic disaster. What business would trust a government that doesn’t recognize constitutionally-appointed judges and is committed to making up the law as it goes along? There is a reason rogue states aren’t exactly magnets for foreign investment. Companies would relocate their headquarters out of Alberta faster than they moved from Montreal to Toronto in the 1970s when Quebec separatism was ascendent. The Act’s answer to this anticipated chaos is to create a new Alberta-based banking industry, but that would just leave all Albertans on the hook financially for the government’s risks.

Albertans have genuine economic grievances. They contribute billions of dollars more each year to the rest of Canada than they get back and, in return, the governments that benefit from their largesse conspire to shut down Alberta’s most valuable industry. And successive federal governments have used provincial transfer payments to curry favour with vote-rich provinces at Alberta’s expense. That’s frustrating, but it’s no excuse for making the situation worse. There is a perverse irony in a policy responding to economic frustration that, if implemented, would bring economic ruin. 

Until recently, the Free Alberta plan and the Alberta Sovereignty Act were just obscure thought experiments with a website. But now that Danielle Smith has endorsed it,Alberta UCP leadership candidate Danielle Smith promises immediate sovereignty act https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/alberta-ucp-leadership-candidate-danielle-smith-promises-immediate-sovereignty-act-1.5960598 we have to take this deeply unserious idea seriously. I like Smith. She is smart, curious, and refreshingly open-minded about politics and policy. What made her radio show (on which I was an occasional guest) so good was her willingness to listen to and debate almost anyone about almost anything. Sometimes this meant indulging cranks and kooks, but more often it resulted in stimulating conversations that challenged the narrow elite Canadian consensus. 

The Alberta Sovereignty Act comes straight out of the camp of the cranks and kooks. Promises of police forces that won’t enforce the law and a parallel court system that will apply a parallel constitution are just the latest in a long tradition of Prairie snake oil. You can file the Act alongside Social Credit’s “funny money” Prosperity Certificates

There is a hypnotic power to wishful thinking. We all want to be persuaded of the truth of what we want to see and hear, even when deep down we know it is too good to be true. That is why carnival barkers will always draw crowds to pay to be amazed by what, in the clear light of day, would be transparent fakery. And it is why politicians have to be careful to keep their rhetoric in line with reality. 

Because, in a sideshow, the deception leaves its victims a little poorer but harmlessly entertained; but in politics, scams like the Alberta Sovereignty Act have real-life consequences. If Smith or any other leader is foolish enough to follow this fraudulent scheme, real jobs will be lost and real people will suffer. It will be the Alberta Suicide Act.

Steve Lafleur: There is no obvious scapegoat for Canada’s air travel woes

Commentary

There’s no sugarcoating it: air travel is terrible right now. It’s expensive, grueling, and uncertain. I’ve been lucky so far in my travels. The last time I landed at Pearson the flight attendant announced that we were going to be held on the plane for at least a half-hour, though mercifully she announced minutes later that we were free to go. In that moment, I was furious. I had to pay a premium for a flight that wound up being delayed at LaGuardia, so I was already frustrated. But I also know it could have been worse. 

My partner sat in a security line at Pearson for two hours a few weeks ago. My parents had to sit on the tarmac for 45 minutes not long ago. I get it. It sucks. This is why, for the most part, I’m opting out of air travel this summer. Instead, I’m spending time driving to places like Detroit and Buffalo. I’ll leave London and Paris for the rest of you.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not sure there’s really anyone to blame. Pausing and unpausing an economy is not something we’ve ever done before. If you put the economy in an induced coma, there’s going to be some grogginess. Even though airlines across the world were kept afloat by governments, you don’t just dust off a 737 and go. There was—and is—a tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounding global air travel. While we can argue that mistakes were made, I think we’re being too quick to rush to judgement. It’s possible that we made some unforced errors in Canada, though I’m skeptical that we’ve completely dropped the ball. After all, the rest of the world is facing many of the same challenges we are. 

Air travel is a particularly difficult industry to ramp up. It’s a heavily regulated industry, and for good reason. There’s been some debate lately about whether pilots in the United States require too much training in order to fly. Is 1500 hours the right number? 750? I can’t tell you what the right answer is. But even since before COVID, some have complained that the 1500-hour rule was causing a pilot shortage. It’s also incredibly complex. There are a lot of logistics involved in flying 200-ton tubes around the world at 800 kilometers an hour. It takes a lot of skilled workers on the ground and some very patient people in the cabin and cockpit to make things work. 

It also takes time to train and recruit flight attendants and ground crew. And there can be frictions. My partner and I travelled to Newfoundland last year, knowing it would be a place that almost certainly wasn’t going to shut down. I watched as one of the recently hired flight attendants fumbled with the intercom for several minutes before giving up and just starting the in-flight service unannounced. Upon arrival at the terminal, I watched as the ground crew struggled to work the bridge, to the amusement of the flight attendants. The flight attendants, in turn, had a bit of trouble opening the door. In short, there were a lot of tiny little frictions that added a few minutes here and a few minutes there. 

Worse still, the industry isn’t going back to a normal environment—at least not yet. We’re still dealing with COVID, and plenty of passengers have been cranky about it. So a lot of people who enjoyed—or tolerated—the job before COVID have simply decided that they were born for better things than being yelled at by people who are mad about COVID restrictions. 

The reopening of global air travel has been plagued with uncertainty. Last year we all hoped that COVID would be behind us. Instead, we got the Delta wave. Then for Christmas, we got Omicron. It wasn’t that long ago we were back to shutting down restaurants and sitting at home. No one had a clear idea of what this year would look like even a few months ago. So airlines around the world were caught flat-footed by the strong travel demand. As were airports and governments. Decisions made months ago are coming back to haunt us. But given that outcomes seemed to range from another lost travel season to everyone booking as much travel as they could afford, it’s no surprise that governments and industry missed the mark. This stuff is hard. When governments make mistakes they take heat. When businesses make mistakes they lose money. So it’s not surprising there was some excessive prudence. 

The highly globalized nature of the airline industry makes it even more challenging. Problems in one country or one airport can cascade around the world. A thunderstorm in New York can mean missed connections at Heathrow or Pearson. Similarly, strikes in Europe can cause delays and cancellations across the board. Sometimes annoying things happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Unless we want to wall off the country and spend all of our vacations in Banff and Whistler, there will always be factors beyond our control.

A lot of people were blaming vaccine mandates and random COVID testing for travel delays at the start of the summer. The mandate for domestic travel and random testing is gone, but the delays are still here. Others have blamed the government for continuing to use the ArriveCan app to log travelers. While I don’t have a firm opinion on whether there is a case for using the app now, I’m skeptical that it is a major source of delays.The federal government has claimed that ArriveCan actually saves passengers time going through customs.

Anecdotally, I can’t even remember showing the app upon my last return to Canada by air. An American friend who recently visited also can’t recall using the app. I’m sure that some people who are less technologically savvy might have problems, but it hasn’t been pervasive enough for me to notice.

I’m not here to apologize for all of the decisions that have been made along the way. I would love to be able to comfortably travel across the continent right now (or, heaven forbid, take that European trip we were supposed to take in 2020). But I think we need to appreciate that this was never going to be easy. It’s understandable that people are looking for someone to blame. But I’m just not sure who that is.

Insofar as there is a uniquely Canadian problem on top of the global airline challenges, it’s an issue with our major airports—Pearson most notably, but also Montreal. A recent report ranked Pearson the second-worst airport on earth for on-time departures, followed by Montreal at sixth.Canadian airlines, airports top global list of delays over the weekend https://www.ctvnews.ca/business/canadian-airlines-airports-top-global-list-of-delays-over-the-weekend-1.5973319 As a medium-sized country with only a few major metropolitans, it’s easy to forget that national problems can have hyper-local causes. Pearson and Montreal accounted for nearly 40 percent of Canadian passenger traffic in 2020.Air passenger traffic at Canadian airports, annual https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=2310025301 Throw in Vancouver and the three largest airports account for over 55 percent of passengers. Problems in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver cascade throughout the country. A flight crew stuck in Toronto means no flight to Calgary. It’s no surprise to me that the airline whose major hubs are Pearson, Montreal, and Vancouver had the worst on-time performance in the world. 

When you cut through the noise about COVID policy and grievances with specific airlines, there’s an obvious problem: insufficient staff. This isn’t really a controversial point. The Minister of Transportation has acknowledged the staffing challenges at Pearson. Circling back to my point about staffing, it takes time to hire and train people. And those decisions had to be made months ago when it wasn’t clear how many people would be comfortable crammed into a plane with a hundred and seventy-three other peoples’ germs. 

There’s also another problem: the red-hot labour market. Unemployment rates in North America are extremely low right now and finding people to work is hard. And if you have a lot of choices, having to drive out to Pearson to do airport screening for twenty-four bucks an hour might not be your top choice. This may well be an area where the Federal government and airport authorities dropped the ball.To be fair, some have claimed that it isn’t just that not enough people were hired but that many of those hired either didn’t pass their training or left for other jobs. See here, for instance. There is surely a dollar amount that would have brought more applications in the door. The consequences of over-hiring would have been trivial compared to under-hiring. Besides, if we were losing another travel season to COVID, we’d have much bigger things to worry about than the federal government overspending on airports.

While governments, airlines, and airport authorities could have made different choices that might have had better results, it’s important to recognize that there’s another party involved in travel: customers. We are all dying to travel, and those of us who can are doing so all at once. The world changed in March of 2020. So people’s habits rapidly changed. Travel was out, and home improvements were in. Unsurprisingly, that meant the cost of durable goods shot up and there were widespread shortages. Markets are good at accommodating changing consumer demand. But not right away. So we all bid up the price of lumber for home renos and spent months waiting for new home appliances. That isn’t much different from what’s happening right now but in reverse. People are prioritizing travel over household goods. This is understandable—they’re probably sick of sitting at home.

The world has been an unpredictable place since March of 2020. No one could have imagined that we’d lock people at home and put the economy into an induced coma. Within a few months, it seemed like normal travel patterns would never come back. Airport authorities, airlines, governments, us—none of us could have predicted such a rapid snapback in travel demand with any accuracy. The uncertainties weren’t just epidemiological. They were also psychological. Would people be permanently scarred, forever disgusted by the idea of rubbing elbows with strangers for three hours? Or would we rapidly develop miraculous vaccines that would allow an enthusiastic public to get back to normal life and then some? 

In hindsight, we have answers to these questions. Most of us got vaccinated and want to get back to something like normal. After two years of pestilence and restrictions, it’s no surprise that people are looking for some human connection or some adventure. And right now, people are willing to put up with almost anything for those experiences. It’s not Air Canada’s fault if someone is willing to pay over $800 to fly economy to Los Angeles from Toronto any more than it’s Choice Hotels’ fault that people are willing to pay three hundred Canadian Dollars for a night at a Comfort Inn in Detroit some weekends. That’s just supply and demand at work.

So for now, we have delays, cancellations, and high prices. Hopefully, people will get the travel bug out of their systems soon and we will return to something like normal, with air travel a mundane affair once again. Until then, I’ll be (mostly) opting out. If anyone needs me, I’ll be driving through Upstate New York.