Danielle Smith’s Alberta sovereignty act eats at our democracy

Nobel Peace Prize-winning laureate Maria Ressa made the rounds of popular US talk shows this week. The Filipino-American journalist, who helped expose ex-Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarianism and murderous anti-drug campaign, is a ferocious critic of Facebook for its role spreading anger and lies, and for radicalizing and dividing societies.

“If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, we cannot solve any problems. We have no democracy,” she told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show this week. In her 2021 Nobel acceptance speech, Ressa also spoke of how “truth and ethical honor” can cut through hate, lies and divisiveness.

We have a truth, honor, and fact deficit in our politics. This past week offered another example with the introduction of the “Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act.”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s new bill gives the province’s legislature the job of the courts, to determine not only whether Ottawa has trampled on provincial jurisdiction but whether a federal policy “causes or is anticipated to cause harm to Albertans.” If the legislature agrees, it passes a resolution giving Smith’s cabinet the ability to respond to the intrusion. Cabinet can make or change laws to respond to the “harm” without going back to the legislature for approval. It can demand provincial entities, such as school boards, health authorities, and municipal and provincial police, ignore federal laws — essentially creating a zone in the country where provincial laws stop federal laws from being enforced. These measures could last up to four years, before going back to the legislature for review.

Response was swift. Emmett Macfarlane, an associate political science professor at University of Waterloo, called it, “The most unconstitutional bill in Canada’s modern history.” Lisa Young, a University of Calgary professor, tweeted about lighting her hair on fire, after it was realized the bill was worse than expected. Over at the Hub, however, Geoffrey Sigalet, a UBC Okanagan political scientist, and lawyer Jesse Hartery argued the bill should be constitutional as the province has no obligation to enforce federal laws.

Clearly, the bill, if it becomes law, will be constitutionally challenged.

Early focused criticism on Smith’s unexpected power grab. Pressed by reporters about it Tuesday, she denied that was the case. Her deputy, Kaycee Madu, said on Wednesday the government was open to amendments to “clarify” the confusion. But in the legislature Thursday, Smith accused her opponents of “fear-mongering and fabrication” for suggesting the bill gives cabinet the unilateral power to change laws behind closed doors. Even though this is what bureaucrats drafting the legislation explained.

Truth and facts appear to be missing from the prime minister’s vocabulary. Perhaps the powers were unintended, but surely the public deserves a better explanation than to obfuscate and deny?

And on the substance, where is the outrage from the United Conservative Party’s former leadership contestants?

Back in September, Smith’s proposed sovereignty act was so alarming that Rajan Sawhney, Travis Toews, and Brian Jean joined together to denounce it as a dangerous fairy tale.

“It’ll create (a) constitutional and economic crisis that’ll hurt Alberta,” Sawhney said. (Words echoed by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce this week.)

“The act is a false bill of goods,” said Toews.

“Danielle is deceiving UCP members about reality,” said Jean, who deemed it a vote “tricking” effort.

This message was part of their pitch as they asked UCP members for their vote and donations.

But if you thought these three would now raise the alarm that Smith is trying to trick not just UCP members but all Alberta voters, you’d be disappointed.

The bill erodes the rule of law and appears to be as unconstitutional as Smith’s previous suggestion (nevermind its new antidemocratic measure), but Sawhney, now the minister of trade, immigration, and multiculturalism, and Toews, now the finance minister, and Jean, now minister of jobs, economy and northern development, no longer have concerns. Or perhaps their concerns are not worth losing their cabinet seats over.

Where is the ethical honor Ressa mentions that underpins trust in our democracy?

Truth, honor and facts are not partisan. Just as Conservatives in Ottawa rightly raised alarm in the early days of the pandemic — when the Liberal government tried to give itself carte blanche to tax and spend without Parliament’s approval for nearly two years — Conservatives should be calling Smith out for dangerous and destructive measures.

Our political system is increasingly challenged by elected officials who aren’t truthful, challenge facts, erode trust and put their personal ambitions ahead of the public good.

The “Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act” is an obvious trap for Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The bill is so egregional she is daring Trudeau to disallow it or pronounce against it in a way that allows her to campaign against Ottawa in the lead-up to this spring’s provincial election.

The bill may make many Albertans feel good, but its challenge to the rule of law and constitutional norms is a problem with which the rest of the federation will be left.

Althia Raj is an Ottawa-based national politics columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @althiaraj

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