Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

On day one, Danielle Smith’s Alberta Sovereignty Act gets Ottawa’s attention

News

At A Glance

  • The bill would allow the cabinet to direct Alberta institutions—including police forces, universities, and hospitals—to ignore federal laws, including the Criminal Code of Canada
  • “We’re not going to take anything off the table, but I’m also not looking for a fight,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said the bill is “causing a lot of eyebrows to raise.”
  • “An overall constitutional challenge to the act appears almost inevitable,” wrote Eric M. Adams, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law.

The Alberta Sovereignty Act has only made it through first reading in the legislature, but already has generated a swift tidal wave of commentary, even from its intended target in the national capital.

The bill was introduced in the legislature late on Tuesday, wordily titled The Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, and surprised some observers with its scope.

The bill would allow the cabinet to direct Alberta institutions—including police forces, universities, and hospitals—to ignore federal laws, including the Criminal Code of Canada. The legislature would activate the sovereignty act’s provisions by passing a motion declaring that an existing or anticipated federal law is unconstitutional or harmful to Albertans. What constitutes “harm” is left undefined.

Most controversially, the act also features a “Henry VIII clause,” which seems to give cabinet the power to unilaterally amend provincial laws. That provision sparked criticism from the prime minister on Wednesday.

“We know that the exceptional powers that the premier is choosing to give the Alberta government in bypassing the Alberta legislature is causing a lot of eyebrows to raise in Alberta and we’re going to see how this plays out,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday. “We’re not going to take anything off the table, but I’m also not looking for a fight.”

On Wednesday, the province pushed back on that interpretation, which had also attracted criticism from constitutional experts, saying that the bill doesn’t “permit cabinet to unilaterally amend legislation without those amendments being first authorized by the legislative assembly.”

Any changes made by cabinet must be specifically outlined in a resolution that has been approved by the legislature, the government said, in a press release.

“The rationale for this process is simply to allow the legislative assembly a tool to act swiftly and efficiently in protecting Albertans from federal initiatives that violate the constitutional or Charter rights of Albertans or which otherwise harm the interests of Albertans,” reads the release.

Karamveer Lalh, a Hub contributor and lawyer with an Edmonton area law firm, said the bill is “hardly radical.”

“I’m not clear as to how this bill, as I understand it, particularly allows Alberta to be more ‘sovereign.’ Instead, it just allows the Alberta government to declare to the federal government that they are stepping on their proverbial toes: the Alberta Government still expressly states that they would respect any court ruling,” said Lalh.

At a Tuesday press conference, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said the bill was intended to “reset the relationship” with Ottawa and argued that it was already working.

“I think that we’ve got their attention,” said Smith. “I hope we never have to use this bill. I hope that we’ve sent a message to Ottawa that we will vigorously defend our constitutional areas of jurisdiction and they should just butt out.”

In the meantime, Smith will have to endure criticism from inside and outside the province, even from people and institutions the United Conservative Party usually counts as allies.

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce said it was concerned that that bill will “impede new investment in the province, reduce business certainty and stability, and create challenges for businesses to attract and retain talent.”

In a piece written for The Hub while the leadership race was ongoing and before the details of Bill 1 were known, Howard Anglin wrote that the idea was apolitical and legal hoax.” Anglin, who once served as the top adviser to Jason Kenney, Smith’s predecessor as premier, also warned that the bill would shake investor confidence.

“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,” wrote Anglin. “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.”

Opposition leader Rachel Notley also teed off on the bill, zeroing in on the clause that allowed cabinet to unilaterally amend legislation.

“While pretending to be a politician concerned about the ‘grassroots’ Danielle Smith’s so-called Sovereignty Act includes a ‘Henry VIII clause’ so named after a corrupt king who tried to usurp the power of his parliament,” said Notley. “In short, this Act will allow her to rewrite legislation without ever bringing it before the legislature or the public.”

It was broadly agreed among constitutional scholars on Wednesday that Alberta would soon find itself in court defending the entirety of the sovereignty act.

“An overall constitutional challenge to the act appears almost inevitable,” wrote Eric M. Adams, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law.

Speaking after the bill was tabled, Smith seemed to welcome the fight.

“It begins the conversation with Ottawa so that they do not continue to pass aggressive policy targeted specifically at our industry and specifically at our development of our natural resources,” said Smith. “That is not the way the country is supposed to work. And so we’re helping to educate them and the rest of the country about that.”

Canada, playing catch-up, enters its own ‘decisive decade’ with China

News

At a Glance

  • Canadian allies in the region have been generally pleased with Canada’s plan and some international experts have lauded the new tone.
  • The plan promises $2.3 billion over five years in an attempt to build relationships in the region by expanding trade and boosting Canada’s military capacity.
  • “The strategy has come too late and Canada is playing catch up to its closest democratic allies,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong.

The new Indo-Pacific strategy unveiled by the Liberal government on Sunday, featuring harsher language and blunt criticisms of China, could mark a new era for Canada’s presence in the region after years of being “basically irrelevant,” experts say.

“Especially on the China front, people are impressed that Canada went as far as it went on this,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, the director of the Indo-Pacific program and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

“Going into this, I think that we’ve been really slow, not just on China, but more broadly, in the region. We haven’t been serious and it’s left us to be seen as basically irrelevant to a lot of these countries in the region,” said Miller.

Miller cautioned that a strategy is only as good as the implementation of it, and said he’ll be watching carefully for how the government rolls it out. But in early conversations with Canadian allies in the region, Miller said people have been generally pleased with Canada’s plan and some international experts have lauded the new tone in the strategy, which dubbed China a “disruptive” force.

“Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy represents an important step forward. It begins to bring Ottawa’s policies into line with the increasingly evident reality that China is an exceptionally powerful, ambitious, and aggressive state that needs to be dealt with as it is, not as we might wish it to be. This means dispensing with the optimistic policies of the past,” said Elbridge Colby, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, in an interview with The Hub on Monday.

“Canada’s shift is therefore important. But it is unlikely to be the end of the story as we enter what the Biden Administration itself calls ‘a decisive decade’ with China,” said Colby.

The strategy promises $2.3 billion over five years in an attempt to build relationships in the region by expanding trade and boosting Canada’s military capacity. The plan follows an increasingly hard-line on China from U.S. President Joe Biden, who has overseen several diplomatic skirmishes with China since taking office. Last month, Biden announced a sweeping expansion of its export controls on semiconductor chips to China, an escalation in a long-simmering competition between the two countries.

In August, U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the most senior U.S. politician to visit Taiwan in 25 years and declared that the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan, sparking a furious response from China.

Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a long bilateral meeting at last month’s G20 summit in an attempt to clear the air, but some experts think the two countries are inevitably diverging, with allies following.

“Every country in the world is increasingly being forced to choose sides. And it’s a sad reality of the world that we live in today,” Isaac Stone Fish, a scholar and former Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, in an interview earlier this year with The Hub.

“Canada gains little from acting as a wedge issue between the United States and China or figuring out where it can work with China that the United States can’t,” he said.

The government’s Indo-Pacific plan has been years in the making, even while Beijing detained two Canadian citizens in China, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, sparking a nearly three-year diplomatic crisis.

“The strategy has come too late and Canada is playing catch up to its closest democratic allies,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong, who is the party’s foreign affairs critic.

“This was an announcement of a strategy and what will be critical for the government is implementing the strategy. This is a government that has not been good at implementation. They’ve been great at announcements but weak on implementation, and there’s a whole range of files where you can point to this,” said Chong.

The plan also includes funding for items like business grants and visa processing, a sign that Canada is interested in building allies around China in the region.

“I think Canada clearly understands that we alone are too small to have any impact. So there is greater coordination with allies, firstly in the Indo-Pacific region, and the United States is a Pacific country just as we are,” said Janice Stein, from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

The document should be read as a serious effort to engage with the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, rather than just a China strategy, said Stein.

“These partners make it clear repeatedly in the statements that they make, that they don’t want to be forced to choose between the United States and China, but they too have security concerns,” said Stein.

“They have concerns about the way China is behaving in their neighbourhood. So the more governments can do two things at the same time, the broader support that will be and that’s what the strategy really expresses,” said Stein.

David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China, wrote on Twitter that Canadians shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that China has been accused of forming an “interference network” during the 2019 election.

“They do want us to believe that our focus should be out there in the Indo-Pacific, rather than back here in Canada. They’ve no plan to combat increasingly sophisticated Chinese interference. Just the desire to get it out of the headlines,” wrote Mulroney.

Mulroney said that without a concrete plan to look into this kind of interference in our democratic institutions, the plan can’t be taken seriously.

“In a few weeks, if not days, Canada’s Indo-Pacific ‘strategy,’ a grab-bag of expenditures looking for a purpose, will be forgotten. No big deal. But we can’t afford to forget an interference campaign so blatant the PRC no longer even tries to hide it,” he wrote.

With files from Geoff Russ