Alberta government to study independent police force in response to Fair Deal Panel report

The Alberta government will conduct detailed technical studies into the merits of creating a provincial police force and a provincial pension plan, the premier says.

Province urged to push for strict application of representation by population in Parliament

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney held a news conference Wednesday to release the 68-page report from the Fair Deal Panel. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government will conduct detailed technical studies into the merits of creating a provincial police force and a provincial pension plan, the premier says.

Premier Jason Kenney made the announcement in response to recommendations from a panel asked to study how Alberta can better assert itself within Confederation.

The Fair Deal Panel's report, released Wednesday, said the government should hold a referendum asking Albertans if they want to withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and recommended creating a provincial police force to replace the RCMP.

At a news conference in Edmonton, Kenney said both are complex changes that need more study. If analysis shows the benefits would outweigh the costs, Albertans could vote on withdrawing from the federal pension plan in 2021, he said.

The Fair Deal Panel said it heard that the federal equalization formula is a widespread irritant to Albertans, who want the provincial government to press harder for reform.

"Albertans are proud to contribute to their fellow Canadians when times are good here, but bad elsewhere," Kenney said. "What Albertans cannot and will not accept is governments across the country benefiting from our wealth and resources while seeking to block and impair our development of that wealth and those resources."

Asked to study how Alberta can seize more control over its fortunes and to hear from Albertans in sessions across the province, the panel released a 68-page report with 25 recommendations.

On Wednesday, the government also released its response to the report, which said it accepts or has already taken action on the bulk of the recommendations. Some need more study, and a handful conflict with campaign promises, the document said.

Though some of the recommendations would require constitutional amendments, Kenney said Canada wouldn't need to engage in a "Charlottetown-style mega deal" to advance Alberta's interests.

The government's response also said it would fight to opt out of a national pharmacare program proposed by the federal government.

Preston Manning listens as people make statements to Alberta's Fair Deal panel during a town hall in Edmonton in December. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

As members of the Wexit movement push for Alberta's separation from Canada, the panel of MLAs and prominent Albertans concluded that such threats are unlikely to further Alberta's interests.

"The panel understands their anger and frustration and sympathizes with their harsh personal experiences," the nine members wrote. "But we do not believe the threat of secession is a constructive negotiating strategy."

Panel members warned that the federal government's failure to acknowledge western alienation would further fuel that push for separation.

Members also recommended the Alberta government seize more control over immigration, press for more federal civil service jobs based in the province and insist on the "strictest possible application" of representation by population in Parliament.

However, the panel stopped short of recommending a provincial tax collection agency, saying the Alberta government should support Quebec's bid to collect federal and provincial taxes and watch their experience closely.

Repeat of history

For Ken Boessenkool, one of the six authors of the infamous 2001 "Firewall Letter," the panel's recommendations look familiar.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Calgary public affairs consultant and former campaign adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper penned similar suggestions to then-premier Ralph Klein. They were good ideas then, and remain valid now, he said.

"I believe that there are very few things Ottawa does that the provinces can't do better," he said in a Wednesday interview.

Though he has long advocated for an Alberta police force and pension plan, he said the proposed referendum on equalization in Alberta is "silly." Albertans elected government to make these judgment calls, and can boot them out of office if they disagree with their decisions, he said.

Though public opinion polling found just 35-per-cent support for a provincial police force, panel chair Oryssia Lennie said Wednesday rural Albertans served by the RCMP have expressed dissatisfaction. The report noted that residents feel ill-served by the force's bureaucracy, and lamented that officers are often transferred once they become familiar with small communities, which gives criminals an upper hand.

The report also notes the federal government pays $112 million annually for policing in Alberta — a cost the provincial and municipal governments would likely have to absorb to run a provincial force.

The report also noted that in 2017, Albertans paid about 17 per cent of Canada Pension Plan contributions, but retirees only claimed 11 per cent of money paid out. The authors said Alberta could save $3 billion annually by withdrawing from the plan. However, if a 2021 referendum leaned in favour of withdrawal, Alberta would have to give three years notice to withdraw, leaving 2024 as the soonest possible date.

Report a 'distraction,' critics say

Opposition leader Rachel Notley called the report "irrelevant" on Wednesday, saying the recommendations tell government what it already knows or what it is powerless to change.

"This premier is getting these people all worked up and trying to get them angry about something that there is no answer for, in order to distract them from the things that you do have control over, which is job creation, and supporting our education and our heath care and standing behind Albertans when they need their government to be there for them," she said.

Since the pandemic and global oil price crash, Albertans aren't as angry at Ottawa as they were last fall, she said.

Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said she worries some sections of the report could mislead Albertans. One province can't unilaterally change the Constitution with a referendum, but the recommendations imply it can, she said.

She also pointed to Quebec's past referenda failing to produce federal policies that satisfied that province.

Thomas is concerned by recommendations that are at odds with public opinion polling. Replicated polling results show Albertans are not interested in running their own pension plan or police force, she said.

The report serves to further polarize Albertans against the federal Liberal government — something Kenney actively campaigned against during the 2019 federal election, she said.

"This is an us-versus-them dynamic," she said. "If you are with us, you will give us what we want. If you are against us, that means that we have to actively, aggressively campaign against you." 

Panel came in wake of federal election

Kenney appointed the panel in November 2019, just weeks after Canadians re-elected a Liberal federal government.

Describing Justin Trudeau's government as a "danger" to the federation, Kenney asked the panel to holding public hearings across the province and study what tools Alberta could use to better assert itself.

The premier asked panel members to consider proposals such as an independent provincial police force, appointing a provincial chief firearms officer, creating an Alberta pension plan and other ideas.

Calgarians attended one of the provincial government's Fair Deal panel public meetings on Dec. 10. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The government began pursuing some steps toward more independence before the panel's report was released, announcing its intent to appoint a chief firearms officer and introducing legislation to create a provincial parole board

The panel concluded there are steps Alberta can take unilaterally to bolster its independence, and other moves will require collaboration with other governments.

Some of the panel's other recommendations to the Alberta government include:

  • Press "strenuously" for the federal government to remove a cap on the fiscal stabilization program, which aids provinces that have experienced a sudden economic downturn.

  • Make good on a pledge to hold a referendum on equalization in Alberta. Ask whether Albertans support an amendment of the federal Constitution.

  • Work with other provinces and the federal government to reduce trade barriers.

  • Push to abolish or change the residency requirement for federal court appointments.

  • Work with other provinces to "democratize" the senate appointment process. Changes to the senate would require a Constitutional amendment.

  • Negotiate a federal-provincial agreement that would prevent the federal government from spending, taxing, legislating or making treaties in areas of joint jurisdiction without Alberta's consent.

  • Develop a comprehensive plan to withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and create an Alberta Pension Plan. Allow Albertans to vote on which plan they would prefer.

  • Replace the RCMP with a provincial police force.

  • Opt out of any federal cost-sharing programs.

  • Offer more democratic tools, such as referenda, to give Albertans more say.

Panel member UCP MLA Drew Barnes also issued a statement Wednesday saying he would like to see the province go further than the report's recommendations. The government should give Albertans a vote on independence from Canada, should other tactics be rejected, he said.

-- With files from Raffy Boudjikanian