Sovereignty is back on the political landscape, in Alberta

, , Comments Off on Sovereignty is back on the political landscape, in Alberta

With sovereignty looming as a potential Alberta issue, it is time for the federal government to engage in Canadian nation building.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 25, 2022.

OTTAWA—Sovereignty is back on the political landscape. But this time, the s-word is not coming from Quebec, but Alberta.

The race to replace Jason Kenney is on.

And former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith is making the sovereignty issue a centrepiece of her campaign.

The gist of her proposal is a plan for the Alberta legislature to systematically refuse to uphold or enforce any federal law or policy that runs counter to Alberta’s interests.

Multiple legal experts have jumped in to claim the law would plunge the province into a legal quagmire and create an uncertain political climate which would be bad for business.

Smith doesn’t mind. The proponents of the original bill, the Alberta Sovereignty Act, appear to want legal chaos. Called the Free Alberta Strategy, the group’s leader Rob Anderson predicts the adoption of such a law will trigger a constitutional crisis.

He also thinks that something good will come out of the crisis that sovereignty legislation will provoke.

He hasn’t explained the positives in any detail, but Smith dismissed the claims of chaos, saying she is a person who believes in asking for “forgiveness rather than permission.”

Chaos is just what Anderson and his supporters want.

And votes are what Smith is looking for. She must believe that appealing to Tory extremists will differentiate her from other candidates in the running.

According to a Léger poll published last week, Smith is running a few points behind Brian Jean, former Wildrose Party leader who was behind the ousting of Kenney. The third most popular candidate is Kenney’s finance minister, Travis Toews, who is seen as the choice of the party establishment. That could be more of a curse than a blessing. The Léger poll focused on which candidate was most popular with the general public, but the leadership candidates are more focused on party members’ support.

Using her first day as an official candidate to endorse the sovereignty legislation, Smith is carving out a position that she hopes will separate her from the rest of the pack.

Opponent Jean stepped in quickly to douse the sovereignty fire, reiterating his support for the “rule of law” without which “you head toward tyranny.”

Smith obviously believes the controversy is worth the criticism.

Meanwhile, federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre has made hay by focusing on controversial issues like firing the Bank of Canada governor and replacing currency with bitcoin as the Canadian money of choice.

Most economists scoff at the Poilievre plan, but it won’t be the economists who could put him in office.

Instead, he is reaching out to the anti-government members of his party who are crowding the right wing.

And that is the same cohort that Smith is going for. She shares Wildrose’s right-wing credentials with Jean.

But she needs a platform that will clearly differentiate the two.

And it seems like she has found it.

As long as the Liberals are in power in Ottawa, there will be plenty of reasons why the United Conservative Party will want to turn its back on the federation.

Managing the challenge of climate change and fossil fuel extraction is tricky, and even after the federal government purchased a pipeline, the oilpatch was not satisfied.

But when a Conservative government comes to power in Ottawa, the Alberta sovereigntists may find themselves in the same political dilemma.

Sometimes national decisions must be made in the nation’s best interest.

No politician in their right mind would want to turn their back on any province, but on a global issue like climate change, domestic oil production is obviously affected.

The seeds of separation were sown in Alberta many years ago, but no one really expected the mainstream Conservative party to embrace them.

However, there is a good chance that Smith’s strategy will work and she will succeed in differentiating her candidacy from Jean and Toews.

If she does, the fragility of the federation will be centre stage once again.

Perhaps future federal governments should focus on the things that bring us together.

Just recently the premiers all demanded more cash for health care while at the same time the majority of health ministries don’t even share data points on common issues like maternal mortality and cancer.

Provincial management of our long-term care facilities has been disastrous. Making common cause in that area is something that most Canadians, not politicians, would support.

With sovereignty looming as a potential Alberta issue, it is time for the federal government to engage in Canadian nation building.

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