Smith wants Alberta’s sovereignty

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If Danielle Smith doesn’t like a federal law, she and her cabinet will simply toss it out. Sovereignty in a united Canada—sounds just like the separatists. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 5, 2022.

OTTAWA—Alberta Premier Danielle Smith wants sovereignty in a united Canada.

She claims it has nothing to do with a desire to separate, but the first bill she tabled as premier says otherwise. 

The crux of the bill is to give her cabinet the right to refuse to proceed with any federal legislation or action that it perceives as detrimental to Alberta. 

Notwithstanding her promises while running for the United Conservative Party leadership, she makes it very plain that her cabinet decisions take precedence over the Canadian Constitution.

Observers have underscored problems with the legislation, but they have more to do with internal Alberta politics than anything coming from Ottawa.

The decision to give cabinet the right to overturn all laws could actually cause problems for democracy in Alberta.

The move certainly seems to diminish the power of the legislature’s involvement in the approval, rejection, or amendment of any legislation.

In a majority government, the cabinet recommendation is usually carried by the legislature. But that is not a given. 

Minority governments are unlikely in Alberta, given the dominance of only two political parties. But the decision to simply override parliamentary opinion by way of a cabinet fiat is definitely a political mistake. 

At this point, the premier has to be a lot more concerned about her standing amongst Alberta voters than her popularity, or lack thereof, in the rest of the country.

She has to face the voters in less than six months, and even her immediate predecessor has made it very clear that he disagrees with her sovereignty pitch. 

In resigning on the same day that Smith tabled the sovereignty bill, outgoing premier Jason Kenney took an indirect hit at Smith’s first piece of legislation by way of his retirement statement: “I am concerned that our democratic life is veering away from ordinary prudential debate towards a polarization that undermines our bedrock institutions and principles.”

There has never been any love lost between Kenney and Smith, but this oblique reference underscores the divide that still exists inside the UCP.

While its name is “United,” in reality the party is badly split. That division is natural during a leadership period, but Smith doesn’t have much time to heal the deep wounds that can occur during internal party races. 

Some are already characterizing Smith’s legacy as that of the shortest-serving premier.  

The sovereignty legislation did little to reach out to those inside the party who share Kenney’s perspective.

As for Smith’s attempt to clarify that sovereignty and separation are not the same thing, she needs to take a deeper dive into Quebec’s peregrination.

While the rest of Canada considered them separatists, successive leaders of the Parti Québécois claimed the movement was about sovereignty, not separation. 

Sovereignty is a positive moniker. Separation represents division. But in the end, all Quebec sovereigntists want to leave Canada to start their own country. 

Smith claims otherwise, but that is about the only affirmation of Canadian unity that she is likely to make. 

Her main reason for running the province seems to be a plan to run down the country.

Smith probably thinks that an anti-Eastern sentiment will encourage a majority of Albertans to vote for her. 

But chances are their interest in personal prosperity outstrips that of her continuous assertions of public enmity. 

She will be running against Ottawa, while Alberta New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley will be running against the Alberta Tory record. 

The blame game actually works in two directions, and at this point in time, Notley appears to have the edge. 

By introducing her sovereignty bill as the first piece of legislation, Smith is signifying that fighting the federal government will be her top priority.

Notley says she wants to work with the feds on common issues of economic importance. 

That message of co-operation may resonate with Albertans who are looking for solutions, not brickbats.

At the end of the day, Smith’s sovereignty move does not look much different from the Parti Québécois’ offering during the last referendum.

They told Quebecers they would keep the dollar, the military, the trade agreements and all the benefits of belonging to Canada, while setting up their own sovereign country.

Smith is seeking a similar sort of autonomy.

All the reasons to endorse Canada remain intact, including access to currency, international treaty status, and military protection while none of the responsibilities will matter.

If Smith doesn’t like a federal law, she and her cabinet will simply toss it out.

Sovereignty in a united Canada—sounds just like the separatists. 

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.