The Current

Change the Constitution or face Alberta independence referendum, says architect of Sovereignty Act

The Alberta Sovereignty Act passed in the early hours of Thursday morning, giving Premier Danielle Smith the authority to redress any federal policy, law or program that her cabinet deems harmful to Alberta.

The Alberta Sovereignty Act passed in the early hours of Thursday morning

The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act was a campaign cornerstone for Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who took control of the province in October after replacing Jason Kenney as leader of the United Conservative Party. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

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Canada's Constitution is not a legitimate document, and has not safeguarded Alberta's interests within federation, says one of the architects of that province's newly passed Sovereignty Act.

"I want the Constitution to be changed, or we'll have another referendum," said Barry Cooper, referring to independence referendums in Quebec in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and one of the authors of a policy paper called the Free Alberta Strategy, seen as the unofficial blueprint for the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, also known as the Sovereignty Act.

Speaking to Matt Galloway on The Current, Cooper said that Canada is a federation, but has never acted as such. 

"It's time to change it, to turn it into a federation," he said. 

"If Canada doesn't want to do that, then the only alternative we have — in order to defend our interests — is to make sure that Canada does negotiate. And that means the threat of leaving."

WATCH | Alberta passes Sovereignty Act, strips out sweeping powers for cabinet: 

Alberta passes Sovereignty Act, strips out sweeping powers for cabinet

2 months ago
Duration 3:54
The Alberta Legislature has passed Premier Danielle Smith's controversial Sovereignty Act, but not before first stripping out the provision that granted Smith's cabinet the power to bypass the legislature and rewrite laws.

The Sovereignty Act, Bill 1, gives Premier Danielle Smith and her cabinet the authority to redress any federal policy, law or program that her cabinet deems harmful to Alberta. It was a campaign cornerstone for Smith, who took control of the province in October after replacing Jason Kenney as leader of the United Conservative Party.

In its proposed form, the bill was criticized as unconstitutional and undemocratic, while the Calgary Chamber of Commerce has raised concerns that it could "impede new investment … and create challenges for businesses to attract and retain talent."

The act passed in the early hours of Thursday morning, after adjustments that stripped out cabinet powers to bypass the legislature and rewrite laws as it saw fit. 

"The legislation is basically a political announcement to the rest of Canada that we're not going to be taken advantage of anymore. And I think it's long overdue," said Cooper.

If that warning isn't heeded by the federal government, he said Albertans could face a question: "in or out?"

If Ottawa is not open to offering Alberta a better deal, Albertans may face the question of opting in or out, said Barry Cooper. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

By leaving the federation, he said the province could run its energy sector and build pipelines without interference, and Albertans would no longer be contributing to the general federal revenue that funds equalization payments to lower-revenue provinces.

Speaking in the provincial legislature during the bill's third reading, Smith said she wanted to reset Alberta's relationship with the federal government.

"It's not like Ottawa is a national government," said Smith.

"The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions. They are one of those signatories to the Constitution and the rest of us, as signatories to the Constitution, have a right to exercise our sovereign powers in our own areas of jurisdiction." 

1 in 3 Albertans think legislation necessary: poll

According to a poll released by Leger last week, 32 per cent of Albertans agree the Sovereignty Act is necessary to stand up to the federal government.

Cooper said it's up to Smith and her leadership team to gain more support for the idea, but added that "if Canada does not show some understanding, then their rejection of Alberta will be obvious and the numbers will change."

Asked whether he thought Albertans would vote for independence, he said "that would depend on how stupid the government of Canada is, in rejecting this rather moderate call [the Sovereignty Act] to change the terms by which Alberta has been exploited."

On Wednesday the Assembly of First Nations demanded the withdrawal of Bill 1, saying it infringes on treaty rights.

The proposal has also received sharp criticism from within the ranks of the United Conservative party itself. During Smith's leadership campaign, then-premier Jason Kenney called it "risky, dangerous [and] half-baked." The energy minister at the time, Sonya Savage, said it posed as much harm to Alberta's future as she believes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's policies have done to the province's past.

Cooper acknowledged that people have concerns, but said "everything that Ottawa has done to Alberta in the last generation has been damaging to the economy of the province."

WATCH | Trudeau 'not looking for a fight' with Alberta over Sovereignty Act: 

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.'
 

'Thoughtless legal collection of mumbo jumbo': Notley

Most Albertans are proud to be Canadian, and recognize the benefits of being part of the country, said Opposition and Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

"Sometimes we have to stand up and raise our voices to make sure that our role in [Canada] is well-established. But I think that overall, we've done a good job on that front," she told The Current.

"Barry Cooper and many people who support Danielle Smith speak for a very extreme fringe of the Alberta population," she said.

The Current sent several requests for an interview to Smith, but did not receive a response. A request to interview Tyler Shandro, Alberta's minister of justice who is responsible for the legislation, was declined.

Notley said there are wide-ranging issues with the legislation, and her party will scrap it if they win the next provincial election in May. 

"It is a thoughtless, thoughtless legal collection of mumbo jumbo," she said. 

"This act creates nothing but uncertainty — and through that: economic uncertainty — at a time when Albertans are desperately looking for economic recovery."

Opposition leader and Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley called the legislation 'a thoughtless, thoughtless legal collection of mumbo jumbo.' (The Canadian Press)

Notley said there is "absolutely an argument for giving Alberta greater control over its economic destiny," but "this bill is completely and entirely disconnected from that object."

While they may not "agree on all things," Notley said there are many people in Ottawa, and across Canada, who understand Alberta's important role and economic contributions. 

"I do believe that we can come together, recover our economy, stand up for Alberta — get a better deal for Alberta from Ottawa, for sure, but do it like grown ups," she said.

"Let's actually get to the point where we start doing the hard work to get to a stable, predictable solution. Rather than doing all this performative stuff and getting absolutely nowhere close."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story gave the impression that Alberta pays equalization payments to lower-income provinces. Those federal payments are funded from general revenue, raised from sources including income and corporate taxes, the GST, and tariffs on imports that all Canadians pay.
    Dec 09, 2022 10:11 AM ET

With files from CBC Edmonton. Audio produced by Idella Sturino and Paul MacInnis.

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