Edmonton

Proposed amendment to Alberta Sovereignty Act removes unilateral lawmaking power of cabinet

The Alberta government is amending the Sovereignty Act to take away cabinet’s unilateral powers to change legislation as proposed in the original version of the bill. 

Changes would also limit harms addressed by the act to federal initiatives deemed unconstitutional

A woman with brown hair in a black suit stands behind a microphone.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith during a news conference in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government is amending the Sovereignty Act to take away cabinet's unilateral powers to change legislation as proposed in the original version of the bill. 

Under amendments revealed Monday by the United Conservative Party caucus, cabinet would be compelled to send provincial laws back to the legislative assembly for all three stages of debate if it was decided a statute needed to be changed to fight a federal initiative.

The original version of the bill left that power entirely with cabinet. 

Monday's proposed changes to Bill 1 also narrow the definition of what federal law, policy or program the provinces deems as subject to a resolution. The measures must be unconstitutional, according to MLAs, interfere with provincial jurisdiction, or violate the charter rights of Albertans. 

The proposed amendments were discussed in a UCP caucus meeting Monday morning, according to Premier Danielle Smith.

"My caucus identified some issues that they wanted to address," Smith told the legislature. "They wanted to seek some clarity, and that's the kind of leader I am. I want to make sure that we get this bill right, and I'm grateful that my caucus is going to propose amendments to do that."

It isn't yet clear when the amendments will be introduced. The bill is scheduled for debate in second reading Monday evening but House business proceeds at the discretion of the government House leader Joseph Schow. 

The changes aim to calm the controversy that erupted six days ago when  Smith introduced the bill in the legislative assembly.

Constitutional experts, columnists, other politicians and members of the public have called the bill unconstitutional and alarmingly anti-democratic for vesting so much power in the executive branch of government. 

Smith proposed the legislation last summer while campaigning to succeed Jason Kenney as leader of the governing United Conservative Party.

Smith and Justice Minister Tyler Shandro were adamant last week that there was no problem with the bill. On Monday, Shandro deflected questions about what had changed. He only would say that caucus had raised concerns and that Albertans deserved more "clarity" on what the bill does. 

"I'm not going to characterize it as a mistake," he said. 

The purpose of the bill is to "push back" against federal legislation, policies and programs that are deemed unconstitutional or harmful to Alberta's interests. 

The alleged intrusion would be put into a resolution that would be debated in the legislative assembly. 

Once passed, the resolution would go to cabinet, which could take several actions. In its original wording, the bill gave cabinet the power to change provincial legislation. 

Other measures include giving cabinet the power to direct bodies that receive provincial funding — such as health authorities, post-secondary institutions, municipalities and municipal police forces — to ignore federal law. 

The NDP Opposition will not support any amendments to Bill 1.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the bill is beyond repair and needs to be dropped.

"The conversation going on now between the UCP caucus and the premier is a conversation that should have happened before it was introduced and the markets saw it and investors saw it and opinion leaders all across the country saw it," Notley said Monday.

"It is a mess. There are so many elements of it that create uncertainty. It needs to be withdrawn and they need to go right back to the drawing board."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.

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