Alberta sovereignty act: Trudeau says nothing off table

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that while he’s “not looking for a fight” with Alberta, the federal government is not taking anything off the table when it comes to how it may respond to Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s new ‘sovereignty act.’


“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,” Trudeau told reporters on his way into a Liberal caucus meeting on Wednesday.


“We’re going to see how this plays out. I’m not going to take anything off the table, but I’m also not looking for a fight. We want to continue to be there to deliver for Albertans,” Trudeau said.


On Tuesday, Smith introduced the ‘Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act‘ in the legislature, proposing to give her cabinet new powers to rewrite provincial laws without passing legislation to do so, while trying to reassure Albertans that it has nothing to do with leaving the country.


“A long and painful history of mistreatment and constitutional overreach from Ottawa has for decades caused tremendous frustration for Albertans,” Smith told reporters. “In response, we’re finally telling the federal government: ‘No more.’ It’s time to stand up for Alberta.”


The provincial bill still has a ways to go before it could become law, but should it come to pass, the act would allow any cabinet minister, including the premier, to identify federal initiatives and legislation that are deemed unconstitutional or “harmful to Albertans” and introduce a motion in the legislature to invoke it. 


While the Alberta government has indicated some degree of confidence that its legislation would survive a court challenge, the provincial government has vowed to continue to respect court rulings, something that was not clear when Smith initially proposed a ‘sovereignty act.’


“Obviously, we’re going to look at this very, very closely and think about the implications,” Trudeau said. “But we’re already seeing a number of Albertans expressing real concern… These are things that obviously are going to play out over the coming weeks and months.”


Introducing this legislation early in her tenure was a key commitment in Smith’s leadership bid to replace former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, who resigned his seat in the legislature on Tuesday after expressing strong concerns that the proposal was a “full-frontal attack on the rule of law,” that could lead to the province becoming a “banana republic.” 


A Wednesday statement from the Alberta government sought to downplay “the extent to which the act will authorize cabinet to amend legislation,” by trying to point to how any future amendments to existing legislation would only be possible after debate and a vote. However, that process is less comprehensive than the process for moving through legislation.


“The rationale for this process is simply to allow the legislative assembly a tool to act swiftly and efficiently in protecting Albertans from federal initiatives that violate the constitutional or charter rights of Albertans or which otherwise harm the interests of Albertans,” said Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney, press secretary to the Alberta Minister of Justice, in a statement.


Asked about Alberta’s efforts to clarify, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notely said that Smith and her government are “either being incredibly incompetent, or intentionally misleading.”


“The very feature of them conducting themselves that way adds yet more uncertainty to the most undemocratic bill we have seen in Alberta’s history, on top of a bill that just even in principle is going to significantly jeopardize our economic growth, and our economic stability,” Notley said in an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play. “So we’re very concerned about this bill. And the more people see about see of it, the more worried they are.”


Ahead of the legislation being tabled, federal Liberal cabinet ministers— including Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc— largely seemed to be keeping their powder dry. LeBlanc told reporters on Tuesday that while some of what was said about the bill during the provincial leadership race indicated the act would lean into federal jurisdiction, he was waiting to see what the legislation actually contained.


Now that he’s had a closer look, speaking with reporters following a Wednesday morning Liberal caucus meeting, LeBlanc said “a great number of what-ifs” remains, as the bill moves through the provincial legislature where it’s already facing opposition.


“Before people start talking about challenging laws, I’m not even sure it’s constitutional to challenge a law that hasn’t been passed. So, I think the whole thing may be hypothetical. In fact I don’t think… I went to that course in law school,’ LeBlanc said. “We’re not rushing around as I said yesterday, looking to pull fire alarms or create squabbles. We’re looking to work collaboratively… The Alberta government is entitled to present whatever legislation it wants before the legislature of Alberta. I assume that it will be debated, and ultimately voted upon. And our government will decide at that point if it’s something that we want to take up.”


Similarly, Quebec Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said while he’s waiting to see how Alberta uses these new powers, he thinks there is a role for the federal government “to make sure that the Constitution of Canada is upheld.”


“That’s why I’ve taken such a strong stand against Bill 21 and Bill 96 in my home province, and I would take the same stand against the Alberta ‘sovereignty act.’ I don’t think that this is appropriate for our province to determine whether or not a federal law exceeds constitutionality,” Housefather said.


Asked by reporters on Parliament Hill for his thoughts on the act, Saskatchewan Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said on his way into a Conservative caucus meeting on Wednesday that he hadn’t had a chance yet to read it.


“I’ll just say that I know there’s a great deal of frustration in Alberta about decisions of the Trudeau government. I think there’s a lot of frustration in other provinces as well about those decisions,” he said,


Asked whether he thought the Alberta United Conservative Party’s bill would be something the federal Conservatives would be taking a position on, Genuis said that while there may be some discussion and debate at the federal level about proposed provincial legislation, it’s on Trudeau to “address the steps that he’s taken that caused this kind of tension and frustration.”


“I think we could do more at the federal level to promote national unity, to promote understanding and respect between different regions,” he said.


In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play, pollster Nik Nanos said that while it is no surprise that picking on the federal government makes for “very good provincial politics,” what he’s watching for is whether there will be other provinces that follow suit.


“I think if this spreads beyond one province to another province, then we’ve got a whole world of pain on the federal-provincial relationship front. And I think for Canadians that are just worried about putting food on the table and paying the bills, the last thing they want is a constitutional crisis.” 


With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Sean Amato, CTV News Calgary’s Jordan Kanygin, and The Canadian Press 

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