A screenshot of Albert Premier Jason Kenney in a government of Alberta ad.
Albert Premier Jason Kenney in a government of Alberta ad. Credit: Government of Alberta

As much as one hates to agree with Jason Kenney, the man’s not wrong to call Danielle Smith’s “Sovereignty Act” proposal in her frontrunning campaign to lead the United Conservative Party (UCP) “just nuts.”

Responding to reporters’ questions Wednesday during a news conference to announce a lame vanity advertising effort to woo young professionals from Toronto and Vancouver to Alberta, Kenney excoriated Smith’s proposal as “a de facto plan for separatism.” 

“This would be a disaster for Alberta,” he stated. “It would massively drive away investment, it would cause people to leave the province, businesses not to come here …”

“Instead of being able to attract people we’d start to hemorrhage people,” said the premier, who announced his plan to quit in May after receiving only 51.4 per cent in a leadership review vote.

If Alberta adopted a policy of ignoring the courts and the rule of law to assert its sovereignty, he asked, “why wouldn’t other provinces?” 

“If the principle of the so-called Sovereignty Act were to be accepted by other Canadian provinces,” he warned, pausing for emphasis, “farewell pipelines!” He mocked the notion held by some of Ms. Smith’s supporters that in such circumstances the United Nations could make British Columbia permit a pipeline it didn’t want on its territory. 

During a broadcast Saturday of his personal on-air Corus Radio program, the soon-to-be-ex-premier told a listener that Alberta “would become a laughing stock” if the Legislature passed the Sovereignty Act as proposed by former right-wing radio host Smith.

Lieutenant-Governor Salma Lakhani would almost certainly refuse to sign it, Mr. Kenney predicted. And “if a lieutenant-governor were, in the unthinkable circumstance, to grant it Royal Assent, it would immediately be struck down by the courts.”

That’s happened before in Alberta – the last time the province had a radio preacher for a premier, as a matter of fact.

When premier William Aberhart’s Social Credit government passed laws in 1937 that brazenly invaded federal jurisdiction, Lieutenant-Governor John C. Bowen exercised his vice-regal prerogative and refused to allow the legislation. 

Aberhart had more democratic legitimacy when he was overwhelmingly elected in 1935 than any new UCP premier will have in 2022. He got the job in a general election, not as a result of a party vote to replace an unpopular premier as is Ms. Smith’s potential path to power.

Be that as it may, it’s still pretty bold for a guy like Kenney to say this, seeing as he held a divisive and constitutionally meaningless referendum on Canada’s equalization program during a low-turnout municipal election to please the same portion of the UCP’s increasingly extremist base that now supports Smith. 

When Kenney made his remarks Saturday, tout le monde political Alberta hopped down the rabbit hole of whether or not a premier about to be put out to pasture should be criticizing the proposals of candidates to replace him, something he promised not to do.

The debate split predictably between Smith’s supporters and those who would prefer to see a more conventional politician with a better chance of defeating the NDP in the next election at the helm. Kenney responded yesterday by claiming he was only assailing the proposal, not the person who made it.

For her part, Smith argued that, never mind its blatantly unconstitutional premise, no one should judge the constitutionality of her proposal until they’ve actually seen the legislation.

This all meant there wasn’t much discussion of the fact Ms. Smith has also promised to ignore anything the courts have to say on the matter, and just what else might happen if Alberta gets stuck with an unelected Q-adjacent radical as premier. 

Also on Saturday, Kenney’s former Principal Secretary, Howard Anglin, ventured into the same territory, deconstructing Smith’s proposal in more colourful language.

Calling Smith’s Sovereignty Act idea “a scam,” Anglin suggested anyone who believes it would work is acting like a circus sideshow visitor who looked at “a mangy monkey-torso artfully attached to half a dried fish” and saw a mermaid. 

Ensuring everyone understood what he had in mind, Anglin called Smith’s big idea “baloney, bunk, balderdash, and bunkum. Hooey, hogwash, and hokum. Flim-flam, tommyrot, poppycock, and fiddle.” 

Like Kenney, Anglin argued that having a premier peddling constitutional snake oil like the Alberta Sovereignty Act isn’t going to benefit the province’s economy.

“In politics, scams like the Alberta Sovereignty Act have real-life consequences. If Smith or any other leader is foolish enough to follow this fraudulent scheme, real jobs will be lost and real people will suffer. It will be the Alberta Suicide Act,” he said.

Meanwhile, though, Smith has momentum. MLAs previously committed to other candidates to replace Kenney or just biding their time to see who would emerge as the likely winner are starting to move to her camp. 

It seems likely this will have the biggest impact on the campaign of former finance minister Travis Toews, the accountant, rancher and neophyte politician from Beaverlodge who at the start of the race had the apparent imprimatur of Kenney and the UCP establishment. 

Back then, Toews looked steady, if a little dull. Now, apparently, UCP members just find him dull. His campaign feels a bit like a ship taking on water while still tied up at the dock. 

A week ago, Nate Glubish, minister of Service Alberta, became the second UCP MLA to drop his endorsement of Toews and defect to Smith. 

The first was Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn, best known for being temporarily kicked out of the UCP Caucus after his mid-pandemic Mexican winter holiday in 2021.

Other UCP Caucus members now openly supporting Ms. Smith include Labour and Immigration Minister Kaycee Madu, former agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen (who left cabinet after allegations of drinking and tolerance of sexual harassment in his office last fall), Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie, Lethbridge-East MLA Nathan Neudorf, and Calgary-Falconridge MLA Devinder Toor. 

Meanwhile, early this month Airdrie MLA Angela Pitt quit her role as former transportation minister Rajan Sawhney’s campaign chair, according to one theory because she risked losing her nomination to Smith supporters in her riding angry about Sawhney’s sharp criticism of the Sovereignty Act idea. One of the scheme’s authors is former Wildrose Party Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson, now Smith’s campaign manager. 

Facing the challenge of coming up with a Plan B quickly if they hope to stave off a disaster of the Danielle Smith variety, Kenney must be kicking himself for not sticking to his vow before his leadership review that 51 per cent would be good enough for him to remain as premier.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...