Politicians clash over whether Sovereignty Act would give province unchecked powers

Premier Danielle Smith says the government's proposed Sovereignty Act would not give the provincial cabinet unchecked powers to rewrite laws, while critics say the premier's signature bill would do just that. 

Opposition wants government to withdraw the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says the Sovereignty Act wouldn't give Alberta's cabinet unchecked law-changing powers. A law professor says it's not that straightforward. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Premier Danielle Smith says the government's proposed Sovereignty Act would not give the provincial cabinet unchecked powers to rewrite laws, while critics say the premier's signature bill would do just that. 

"It gives unprecedented ability to a brand new premier to overwhelm and sidestep the legislative assembly of this province and it is an attack on the democratic rights of Albertans, and through that, an attack on the stability of our economy," NDP Leader Rachel Notley said on her way into the legislative chamber Wednesday.

In question period and in scrums, members of the Smith government denied the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act allows cabinet to change, add or suspend laws without the oversight of the legislature.

Smith said she looked forward to educating Notley, who is a lawyer, on the contents of the 12-page Bill 1.

"We know that Albertans want us to act on this," Smith said.

If passed, the bill would allow the legislature to pass a motion identifying an area where it believes the federal government has acted unconstitutionally or in a way that harms Alberta.

That motion would empower cabinet to amend laws or regulations to resist perceived federal incursions into provincial jurisdiction, and could require other provincially controlled public bodies to also disregard the offending federal law.

At a news conference Tuesday, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro acknowledged that once empowered by the act, cabinet's decision to change a law would not have to return to the legislature for a vote — the kind of power that is usually granted to governments temporarily during emergencies.

However, the province's justice ministry issued a clarification on Wednesday saying any proposed legal changes made by cabinet must first be included in a resolution approved by the legislature.

Eric Adams, a law professor at the University of Alberta, said it's not that simple. The bill wanders into uncharted territory in Canadian law, and could be open to interpretation by courts, he said.

Legislatures don't usually make laws by passing a motion, Adams said. A motion comes with a lesser degree of public scrutiny and debate than introducing, debating and voting on legislation, he said.

"The idea that the democratic legitimacy of whatever the cabinet does can be traced back to and authorized by a simple vote on a motion is fundamentally flawed reasoning," Adams said in an interview.

Notley said it's clear the bill isn't ready, and the government should withdraw it before it causes economic damage. She says even talk of the legislation during the nearly-five month UCP leadership campaign spooked investors.

Cabinet ministers change their tunes

Also defending the act Wednesday were three cabinet ministers who panned the idea during this summer's United Conservative Party leadership race.

In September, leadership candidate Travis Toews called it a "false bill of goods." Brian Jean said Smith was "deceiving UCP members about reality" by making unachievable promises with the act. Rajan Sawhney called it a "Pandora's box" and urged Smith to call a general election before introducing the bill.

All three are now cabinet ministers in Smith's government. They said on Wednesday the premier listened to feedback from caucus and cabinet, and made changes to the proposed legislation that quelled their concerns.

Jean, now minister of jobs, economy and northern development, said it's "not the case at all" the act would give cabinet unchecked law-making power.

"It says specifically that we're going to have more democracy in this place than anywhere else in Canada, because nothing can happen without us voting on it first, which is unlike what's been happening in the past," Jean told reporters.

The bill has raised questions — even by the Alberta government — about whether Canada's governor general could use the power of disallowance to forbid a provincial law that could enable Alberta to ignore federal laws the province says are harmful or unconstitutional.

In Ottawa Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he wasn't ruling any options out, but wasn't looking for a fight.

"We know that the exceptional powers that the premier is choosing to give the Alberta government in bypassing the Alberta legislature is causing a lot of eyebrows to raise in Alberta, and we're going to see how this plays out," Trudeau said.


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 Michelle Bellefontaine