If adopted, the Sovereignty Act will forever change how Alberta functions inside or outside of Canada.
There has been a lot of press coverage of the Sovereignty Act over the past few months. It was a major plank in Danielle Smith’s campaign to become leader of the UCP.
As we all know, Danielle won with just over 60,000 votes, in a province with more than four million citizens. With that as a mandate, she took over as premier, and has embarked on a program that will fundamentally alter the relationship of Alberta with the rest of Canada.
The premier had repeatedly asked that the Sovereignty Act not be judged until it had been tabled in the legislature. That happened last week, and there were some surprises in the package the government submitted.
Taking the premier at her word, I read the act carefully, and was surprised. I am not a lawyer, but I cannot help but think most members of the cabinet must have skipped the high school classes on how our democracy works.
The first and most important point is that you rarely get everything you want. You have to be gracious when you win, and accept it when there are outcomes you are unhappy with.
Canada and its laws are not a smorgasbord. You do not get to pick and choose the laws that you like, and ignore the ones you do not like.
If you believe a law, any law, is wrong, there are ways to express your views. The most serious is to take the law to court, and to abide by the ruling.
If we adopt a pick-and-choose approach, things start to fall apart. If the provincial government can ignore certain laws, why couldn’t a city do the same thing to provincial laws? Indeed, why would a private citizen be required to follow a law that disadvantaged them?
The situation gets even more complex when you note that Bill 1 would allow the provincial government to rule against things that have not even happened. The language in the bill allows government to act against any perceived intention by the federal government to do something.
A basic aspect of our laws is that we cannot be convicted for simply thinking about doing something illegal. Even talking about doing something is not usually a crime. In Bill 1, that assumption of innocence seems to have been forgotten.
Our system also requires that the legislature have an opportunity to debate changes to laws. Bill 1, as written, will allow cabinet to make laws and proclaim them, without any debate in the legislature. Those laws are in force for up to two years, and can then be renewed without legislature debate for a further two years.
There are news reports that the bill will now be amended to remove the lawmaking portions. This raises the question of why the bill was introduced with that language in it. Do the politicians not read their own legislation? Or was it a power grab that they hoped no one would notice?
Neither option is reassuring. In one reading, they are just incompetent. In the other, they are dictators-in-waiting.
So, we have a bill that will allow a small number of legislators to try and cancel a national law. It further allows cabinet to direct a large number of other bodies, including your local hospital, police force and the whole educational system, to also ignore federal law.
There appears to be no consideration of the degree to which at least some of those bodies must interact with the federal government, and that interaction requires the bodies to follow federal rules.
I find it disturbing that there does not appear to have been consideration of what the federal response to Bill 1 might be. There seems to be an assumption that the federal response will be either a legal challenge or nothing. However, that may be incorrect, as there are many actions that Ottawa could take that would have dramatic impacts on Alberta.
The premier has been loud in her demands that the Canadian government stay out of areas of provincial jurisdiction. Exactly what that might mean has not been spelled out, but there are some obvious areas where dramatic change might happen.
Health care is a provincial responsibility under our Constitution. Despite that, there are multiple shared-cost programs, where the provinces receive federal dollars to help deliver programs. If Ottawa stopped their cost-share, Alberta would lose several billion from the health budget.
The UCP government has vigorously promoted a provincial police force. They admit that would cost tens of millions of dollars more than the current arrangement. They also note that it would take several years to set up a completely new force. But, the current contract allows either party to cancel on two years’ notice. If Ottawa simply exercised that option, Alberta might have a very hard time replacing the RCMP by 2025.
Many students receive scholarships and similar support from federal bodies, especially at the university level. The universities and such also receive large sums from the federal government. If Ottawa decided that since education is a provincial responsibility they would stop their financial contributions, many students and institutions would be in serious trouble.
There will also be economic impacts. No large company is likely to start or expand operations where two levels of government are in a fierce battle. If there is an alternative place to invest, they will likely avoid Alberta until things are sorted out.
In short, this bill, if adopted, will forever change how Alberta functions inside or outside of Canada. If Ms. Smith really wants to make such sweeping changes, she should at least wait until after we have an election.
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