Alberta Premier Danielle Smith discussing the Sovereignty Act in the legislature.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith in the legislature. Credit: Alberta Legislature

Danielle Smith’s obedient United Conservative Party (UCP) caucus rammed through the premier’s so-called Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act in the wee hours of last Thursday morning.

The government’s use of time limits on debate was no surprise. The Sovereignty Act – no matter what it ended up saying – is a key part of the Smith Government’s re-election strategy. 

Premier Smith will be anxious to start using it to pick fights with Ottawa and paint the NDP Opposition as anti-Alberta for voting against what is bound to be a long string of fatuous anti-Canadian Sovereignty Act resolutions proposed by UCP MLAs.

The government will hope the resulting brouhaha, in turn, diverts attention from its embarrassing failures, for example its mishandling of the ongoing crisis in health care, a file widely viewed by voters as an NDP strength.

The health care crisis, unfortunately for the UCP, is unlikely to be fixed by the health minister signing a contract with a sketchy Turkish company to manufacture emergency supplies of children’s painkiller.

Much was made in the morning-after spot-news coverage of Wednesday night’s debate about the fact Bill 1 as passed had been amended to delete Smith’s unconstitutional effort to allow her cabinet to bypass elected MLAs and change laws without a vote in the Legislature.

This was an improvement. But the fact remains the law is still virtually certain to be found unconstitutional as it allows the Alberta Legislature, now apparently dominated by recently converted Alberta separatists, to usurp the power of Canada’s courts to adjudicate jurisdictional disputes between the federal and provincial governments. 

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley immediately called on the government to refer the act to the Court of Appeal of Alberta. “The act still attempts to give Smith and her Cabinet the power to decide what the constitution says,” she said. “This function has always been reserved for the courts.”

Of course, as a lawyer, Notley is reasonably familiar with Canada’s constitution. 

By contrast, Smith’s remarks during debate Wednesday night included statements that suggested a shakier understanding of the constitution. 

“It’s not like Ottawa is a national government,” the premier said at one point during the debate. “The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions,” she went on, apparently confusing Canada with the European Union.

Regardless, there is no way the UCP wants to let the courts have a go at the act just now, when it still has a performative role to play in the next Alberta election and the federal Conservative campaign against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in Ottawa. 

Meanwhile in the national capital, Trudeau, whose father once earned a brown belt in Judo, used the Alberta Government’s success passing the legislation to deflect Smith’s desire to pick an immediate fight. 

“We are not going to get into arguing about something that obviously is the Alberta government trying to push back at the federal government,” Trudeau said. “We are going to continue to work as constructively as possible.”

There was the unspoken caveat, of course, that it is going to be almost impossible for Ottawa to work constructively with Alberta as long as Smith is premier. 

In the Legislature Wednesday night, Notley also observed that the UCP government failed to consult First Nation treaty chiefs before introducing the bill, arguing that will “absolutely torch the critically important nation-to-nation relationship that should exist between this premier and the leaders of the treaties.”

The UCP’s Indigenous relations minister, Rick Wilson, stepped outside the bounds of the traditional doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility to publicly criticize the actions of the government on this aspect of the passage of the act. 

“I’ve been on the phone, of course, with First Nations leaders across the province and a lot of the concerns are around just calling it the Sovereignty Act,” he told reporters. “There’s not a lot of clarification around what that means. Should we have done more consultation? Absolutely.”

Perhaps tellingly, none of the four members of Premier Smith’s cabinet who assailed the Sovereignty Act as a dangerous “fairy tale” when they were candidates in the UCP leadership race showed up in the House for the voting on Wednesday night and yesterday morning. 

There was no sign of Finance Minister Travis Toews, Municipal Affairs Minister Rebecca Schulz, Jobs and Northern Development Minister Brian Jean, or Trade Minister Rajan Sawhney, who once said Smith must “hold off on passing the Sovereignty Act until she gets a mandate from the people of Alberta in a general election.”

Likewise, Environment Minister Sonya Savage, another harsh critic of the Sovereignty Act back in the day was missing in action when she had the chance to vote against it. 

Portrait of Notley unveiled at Legislature 

There was no sign of Premier Smith at the unveiling of Notley’s official portrait in the Rotunda of the Legislature. The premier pleaded an important meeting and sent one of her deputy premiers, Nathan Neudorf, to represent the government at the gathering. 

I guess she didn’t want to be seen in the same place as Notley like a pair of prizefighters sizing each other up at a pre-match weigh-in!

READ MORE: Notley’s portrait unveiled in the Legislature – there are policy issues

Notwithstanding the fact most premiers make showing off their portrait their final act in provincial politics, Notley told the crowd of about 100 family, friends, supporters and media that “I remain very focused on my future” before the cover was whipped off the portrait. 

She suggested to laughter that her audience use the hashtag #RunningAgain on any social media posts about the event.

“So I guess what I’m saying,” the Opposition leader who was Alberta’s premier from 2015 to 2019 told Speaker Nathan Cooper, who acted as master of ceremonies, “I’d like to begin my 30-minute address laying out my case for a second portrait.” 

It was not a 30-minute address, of course, and Mr. Cooper obligingly chortled, “Order! Order!”

The canvas is the work of David Goatley, who also painted the late Jim Prentice’s official portrait.

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...