Politics

Trudeau says he's 'not looking for a fight' over Alberta Sovereignty Act

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’s “not looking for a fight” after the Alberta government tabled controversial legislation Premier Danielle Smith said would tell Ottawa to “butt out” of the province's jurisdiction.

Alberta premier claims act will 'reset the relationship' with Ottawa

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he's "not looking for a fight" after the Alberta government tabled controversial legislation Premier Danielle Smith said would tell Ottawa to "butt out" of the province's jurisdiction.

The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act — tabled Tuesday in the Alberta legislature — was a centrepiece of Smith's campaign for the leadership of the governing United Conservative Party this fall.

The bill describes how the Alberta government plans to refuse to enforce federal legislation, policies or programs it decides are "harmful" to Alberta's interests or infringe on the division of powers in the Constitution.

It also would grant Smith's cabinet new powers to bypass the legislative assembly and unilaterally amend provincial laws.

WATCH | Trudeau says he's 'not looking for a fight':

Trudeau says he's 'not looking for a fight' with Alberta over Sovereignty Act

2 months ago
Duration 1:22
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to follow developments on contentious bill but says his government will focus on 'delivering for Albertans.'

"I think we've got their attention," Smith said of the federal government during a press conference Tuesday.

"I hope that we've sent a message to Ottawa that we will vigorously defend our areas of jurisdiction and they should just butt out."

When asked how the federal government might respond to the proposed law, Trudeau said he will take a wait-and-see approach.

"We're going to see how this plays out," Trudeau told reporters on Wednesday. "I'm not going to take anything off the table, but I'm also not looking for a fight."

WATCH | Intergovernmental affairs minister on Alberta's Sovereignty Act

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc on Alberta's Sovereignty Act

2 months ago
Duration 10:11
"Deciding to enforce the criminal code of Canada is not an optional thing," said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. "Some of this is political posturing perhaps."

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc brushed off the argument that the bill challenges federal jurisdiction, saying the proposed legislation hasn't passed into law yet and could be changed as it's debated in the Alberta legislature.

"I'm not sure if somebody has a news conference, that constitutes a constitutional challenge," LeBlanc said in reference to Smith.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather was less reserved — he called the legislation "a bit of an overreach."

"I believe that Canada is more than the sum of its parts," he said. "I believe very strongly, as a Canadian, that everyone should play in their lane — and playing in their lane means legislatures don't determine whether something is constitutional from a different level of government."

Alberta Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said the act highlights the frustration Albertans feel with the federal government.

"The prime minister needs to address the steps he's taken that caused this kind of tension and frustration," he said. "We could do more at the federal level to promote national unity."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh addressed the Sovereignty Act during question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Singh suggested that Alberta could use the act to undermine the Canada Health Act and privatize some health services in the province.

"What is the prime minister doing to stop Danielle Smith from destroying health care in Alberta?" Singh asked.

In response, Trudeau said that while he understands some are concerned about the act, he wants to work constructively with Albertans on health care, economic and environmental issues.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith looks on as Justice Minister Tyler Shandro explains her long-awaiting Sovereignty Act, which would greatly expand provincial powers. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The federal government technically has the power to veto a provincial law under the Constitution.

But Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley — who is opposed to the Sovereignty Act —  told CBC's Power & Politics that such a move would simply create more controversy.

"That would be a horrifyingly embarrassing and controversial and conflict-ridden position for everyone to be put in," Notley told host David Cochrane.

Notley said she hopes members of Smith's own party will encourage the premier to reconsider the act.

WATCH | Alberta NDP leader says Sovereignty Act is an 'anti-democratic power grab'

Premier's 'sovereignty' act an anti-democratic power grab, Alberta NDP leader

2 months ago
Duration 8:29
"Even if there wasn't this anti-democratic power grab, this Act renders a whole bunch of laws in question and you don't attract investment when that's what you're doing," Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley says of Premier Danielle Smith's new 'sovereignty' act.

Former Alberta deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk said Smith is likely hoping for some kind of reaction from Ottawa in an effort to bolster her political base.

"She wants to show her support, her base, that Ottawa is somehow oppressing Alberta," Lukaszuk told CBC News Network host Hannah Thibedeau.

"The sooner this bill gets opposition from Ottawa, the happier Danielle Smith will be."

Lukaszuk said the federal government should instead allow the courts to decide whether the bill is constitutional.

WATCH | Former Alberta politician weighs in on Sovereignty Act

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith tables legislation granting her government new powers

2 months ago
Duration 5:55
CBC News Network's Hannah Thibedeau speak with former Alberta Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk.

Past challenges to federal laws

Prior to Smith taking over the premiership from Jason Kenney, the Alberta government challenged a number of federal laws in court — most notably the legislation enabling the federal carbon tax.

In March of 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the tax in a 6-3 decision against a legal challenge by Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Smith said in October that she would re-challenge the law.

Alberta also has challenged a federal environmental assessment law which allows federal regulators to consider the effects of major construction projects — like pipelines — on a range of environmental and social issues, including climate change.

The Alberta Court of Appeal struck down the impact assessment law — previously known as Bill C-69 — in May, but the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.

On Tuesday, Smith said her new proposed act would "reset the relationship with Ottawa."

"We tried different things in the past and it hasn't worked," she said, adding that she hopes she never has to use the act.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Major

CBC Journalist

Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email darren.major@cbc.ca or by tweeting him @DMajJourno.

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