Alberta equalization referendum will have no bearing on Constitution, experts say

Legal and economic scholars say there's virtually no chance Alberta's planned referendum on equalization will result in changes to Canada's constitution.

If motion passes, Albertans will be asked whether they want equalization scrapped

Premier Jason Kenney and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu announced Monday that the Alberta government will move toward a provincial referendum on equalization. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Legal and economic experts say there's virtually no chance Alberta's planned referendum on equalization will result in changes to Canada's Constitution.

Instead, they say Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government is using equalization as a pinata for broader economic grievances with the federal government.

"It is about mobilizing an angry political base motivated by an idea that the government of Alberta thinks is in its interest, which is that Ottawa has been unfair to Albertans, and that there is somebody to blame for economic downturn, and there is someone to blame for the movement away from the carbon-based energy industry," said Eric Adams, a constitutional law expert and University of Alberta professor.

On Monday, Premier Jason Kenney said he will put a proposed referendum question on equalization before the Alberta legislature, while aiming to run the referendum in concert with October municipal elections.

If Kenney's motion gets the OK from a majority of MLAs, Albertans will be asked on Oct. 18: Should the section of the Constitution that commits the Government of Canada to the principle of making equalization payments be removed?

A referendum was a UCP election promise in 2019 and a recommendation of the Fair Deal Panel, which studied how Alberta could exert more independence.

"For millions of Albertans, equalization has become the most powerful symbol of the unfairness for Alberta's deal in confederation and for good reason," Kenney said during a news conference Monday. 

The result of the yes-or-no vote would have no immediate bearing on the program since scrapping equalization would require a constitutional amendment. 

Kenney said a "yes" vote from Albertans would prompt Alberta to petition the federal government to open up talks about a constitutional change. He said it would bring national attention to Alberta's plight.

Critics say Constitution shouldn't be used as a 'partisan plaything'

The federal transfer program, which is funded by federal taxes, the GST and import tariffs, sends unconditional payments to lower-income provinces to enable them to provide comparable public services across Canada. 

Kenney was a federal cabinet minister when Stephen Harper's Conservative government last adjusted the equalization formula. 

Alberta's chief electoral officer last year estimated planned referendums and senate elections would cost Elections Alberta about $1.4 million in 2021. The provincial government is also allocating $10 million in grants to municipalities to help run civic elections and referendums this fall.

University of Calgary professor and economist Trevor Tombe said Alberta does not receive equalization payments because — despite tough economic times — Alberta workers still earn the highest salaries in the country and pay more federal tax.

"We shouldn't be receiving equalization payments any more than Bill Gates should be receiving social assistance payments," Tombe said.

If the question proposed is approved by MLAs, Albertans will also be voting on whether they support the idea of equalization, not to amend the formula, Tombe said. That may not engender support from other provinces, he said.

Alberta would need federal government approval and seven of 10 provinces would have to agree to any constitutional amendments, law Prof. Adams said. Quebec, B.C. and Ontario also have veto power.

Adams is concerned the constitution is being trifled with as a "partisan plaything," and that politicians are intentionally misleading Albertans about the purpose of the referendum.

"We're at a party of one. And we can yell as loud as we want at the party, but the only people who are going to hear it is ourselves," he said.

Alberta has posed seven questions to voters since 1915 in the form of referendums or non-binding plebiscites. The most recent was held in August 1971 on daylight saving time.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

With files from Paige Parsons and Jordan Omstead