Journalists have had a field day mocking Alberta premier Danielle Smith’s farcical statement “It’s not like Ottawa is a national government. The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions.”[i] However ridiculous this claim may be, it really is no laughing matter. Such a blatant misunderstanding of the federal system is both shocking and potentially dangerous.
If the premier actually believes what she said, her ignorance surely surpasses that of any other Canadian political leader in a very long time. (Even Bill Vander Zalm and Don Getty would not have made such a mistake.) If, instead, she knows full well that her comments are misleading and wishful thinking, then we must conclude they are part of a conscious strategy to stir up even more resentment of “Ottawa” among her base, by provoking the federal government into some sort of direct conflict. The latter explanation seems more likely. With a provincial election looming large in May, Smith is undoubtedly feeling the pressure from her NDP opponent, Rachel Notley, whose party the polls continue to show is running neck and neck with Smith’s UCP.
True, Smith’s comments are only the most recent efforts of a succession of western, and especially Alberta, politicians to essentially fight provincial elections against the federal government instead of their actual opponents. But in the past this behaviour pattern was largely seen as performative. Even Premier Peter Lougheed’s opposition to the National Energy Program – the most deep-seated and lengthy Alberta-federal dispute of note in the post-war era — was tempered by a willingness to negotiate, which led to the signing of the 1981 federal-provincial pricing and revenue-sharing agreement.
However this western defensive strategy of using provincial platforms to oppose federal plans took a back seat to a more proactive approach in the decades that followed. This included the creation of a new, western-based “national” political party (Reform/Alliance) and strident calls for reform of virtually all of the major national political institutions – the Senate, the electoral system and the judicial appointments process – in order to heighten the west’s representation (and therefore influence) at the national level. The Reform Party’s official mantra – “the West Wants In” – said it all. In a political version of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, Reform leader Preston Manning’s plan was to influence federal government policy from within, by electing a western-based party to office in Ottawa.
The way forward for this plan became clear with the collapse of the venerable Progressive Conservative Party in 1993 following Brian Mulroney’s destructive efforts at constitutional reform. But Reform was never able to break out of its western base to achieve its objective. After three failed attempts (1997, 2000 and 2003) it became clear that only a merger with the remnants of the old Progressive Conservatives could provide an opportunity to achieve this goal. Former Manning lieutenant and reform MP Stephen Harper was the man to do just that. In a so-called “merger” that resulted in the tail wagging the dog, Harper sealed the deal with PC leader Peter MacKay and became the first leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada. As Harper said at the time, “One party is going to win out..and Reform is not going to lose that contest in the long term.” [ii]
It did not take long for that prediction to become reality. The platform of the new Conservative Party clearly reflected a western agenda. But it also was much more right-of-centre than the old Progressive Conservatives, causing many of the latter, including former prime minister Joe Clark, to disown the new venture, thereby creating a schism that has yet to be bridged between the so-called Red Tories and the new western-based social conservative neoliberals.
Nevertheless the gamble eventually paid off. By 2006, due partly to ordinary voters’ attachment to the Conservative brand despite its new appearance, and even more due to the incompetence of a succession of Liberal leaders after the departure of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Harper was able to turn the disgruntled westerners’ political plan into reality. For nine years his Conservative government implemented a series of policy initiatives that could only be described as the ideal western agenda. After two minority governments (2006 and 2008) Harper finally delivered a majority for the party in 2011 and his government, secure in power, moved on a range of fronts with lightning speed. Representing the energy industry base in Alberta and Saskatchewan, he quickly withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Accord and introduced a raft of measures to repeal the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and seriously weaken the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Species at Risk and Fisheries Acts, the National Energy Board Act and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission Act. Having already appointed a petrochemical engineer to the presidency of the National Research Council, he then moved to add private sector oil and gas experts to the National Energy Board. A number of tax incentives were also introduced for the mining, energy and forestry industries.
Unable to effect the changes Preston Manning originally called for to the Senate, electoral system or judicial appointments because they would have required constitutional amendments, Harper did the next best thing. He appointed 59 Conservative Senators to the upper chamber, giving them the majority in that legislature, and some 439 judges to various federal courts across the country. Similarly unable to alter the electoral system, he tinkered with the Elections Act on several fronts, at one point being accused by experts of “trying to tilt the playing field in one direction…theirs.” [iii]
However significant these and other changes made by the Harper government, on issues such as gun control, immigration and the criminal justice system, may have been, they all had one thing in common. They were based on legislation, not constitutional amendments. As such, they could be overturned or revoked by any successive federal government. And this, of course, is precisely what happened. Despite his claim in the warm glow of his 2011 election victory that “ the Liberal era has truly ended. As with disco-balls and bell bottoms, Canadians have moved on..We are moving Canada in a Conservative direction,” Steven Harper’s hold on power lasted only four more years.
With the election of the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau in 2015, the story had come full circle. Canada was once again in the grip of central Canadians and it did not take long for most of the west’s legislative and regulatory agenda to be repealed or overturned. Meanwhile their own chosen vehicle, the new Conservative Party, quickly suffered three electoral defeats in a row and is now on its third new leader in five years. Worse still from the point of view of western conservative elites, the federal government was now in the hands of another Trudeau.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, former Harper cabinet minister Jason Kenney saw little future in federal politics. Instead he scurried back to Alberta to lead the fledgling United Conservative Party to victory, becoming premier shortly before the arrival of the global pandemic. There he promptly revived the strategy of provincial attacks on federal policies. In short order he launched a court challenge of the federal Carbon Pricing Plan and a provincial referendum on the federal equalization program, as well as a bizarre inquiry into the alleged role of foreign financial contributions to environmental groups opposing the province’s oil and gas sector, all of which were widely mocked and ultimately failed.
In the end Kenney was hoist on his own petard. Having moved the province even further to the right in an effort to placate and co-opt the fringe far-right Wildrose movement, headed originally by Smith herself, Kenney only ended up encouraging them. With the advent of the pandemic even he was obliged (albeit reluctantly) to impose some health and safety-related measures, such as mask wearing and requirements for individuals to be vaccinated, and he suffered the consequences. The diehard quasi-libertarian far right rebelled, both outside and inside his own party and caucus, and cost him the premiership.
Which brings us to the clearly delusional new premier of Alberta. Danielle Smith’s bizarrely-named “Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act” is little short of a “full frontal attack on the rule of law” according to none other than Jason Kenney, who resigned his seat in the legislature the day it was tabled. The bill may or may not allow the cabinet to arbitrarily negate statutes without consulting the legislature, since there have been multiple conflicting explanations of this section of the act by Smith and her ministers. (Most entertaining in a perverse sort of way was the conundrum facing Tyler Shandro, Smith’s former UCP leadership opponent and current justice minister, as he twisted himself in knots to support a bill which he had described as “outrageous nonsense” only months earlier.) There is no doubt, however, that it is intended to allow the government of Alberta to decide (on what basis is unclear, since referral to the courts will be prohibited) that a federal law is “harmful” to the province, and therefore need not be obeyed. What is more, the bill envisages that the provincial government will tell/order municipal governments, school boards, police forces and corporations to ignore such “harmful” federal laws. Areas in which Smith thinks this could be applicable include federal carbon pricing, environmental protection, fertilizer and firearms legislation, not to mention single-use plastics.
And so, in addition to being unconstitutional and illegal, many of Smith’s proposed measures, if not all, are an attack on federalism itself. And it is worth noting that premier Scott Moe, her less well-known sidekick in Saskatchewan, (population 1 million or one third that of Toronto) has actually upped the ante by introducing an equally farcical “Saskatchewan First Act.” According to Moe, the bill is intended to “ensure” that Saskatchewan is treated as a “nation within a nation” in the same way as Quebec.
This leads logically to two questions: Why has Danielle Smith been so successful in keeping the support of her base despite this extraordinary performance, and what would her possible victory in the upcoming provincial election mean for the federation?
There are at least three key factors driving this renewed support for vigorous opposition to the federal government in western Canada, into which Smith has successfully tapped. The first and most obvious is the perceived threat to the oil and natural gas-based economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the two provinces which now represent the face of western alienation as British Columbia and Manitoba turn their attention elsewhere. Put another way, “the west” at this point should be more narrowly seen as synonymous with the two energy-producing prairie provinces.[iv]
In one sense this scenario has been in place since the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1949, and was the cause of Alberta’s fierce opposition in 1980 to the National Energy Program. However the stakes are now much higher. Where before it was a question of appropriate distribution of revenue from the energy cash cow, now it is a question of the revenue disappearing. With the current Liberal federal government intent on implementing sustainable development and climate change reduction and mitigation policies, the threat to those two provinces – in the minds of resident right-wing conservatives — is potentially catastrophic. (Similarly, the federal government’s crime prevention policies, highlighted by stronger gun control measures, will inevitably be opposed by the predominantly rural regions of western Canada and, yet again, come to be seen as responding to the concerns of urban central Canadians. In a similar vein the Liberal government’s emphasis on national reconciliation policies with respect to indigenous Canadians disproportionately affects western Canada, where the preponderance of these communities is located.)
A second factor to be reckoned with is the growing dominance of right-wing populism on the prairies. The influence of American political culture has long been particularly important in the two oil-producing provinces – facilitated by the presence of a substantial influx of American oil industry personnel from Texas and other southern states – but the prevalence of imported Trump-light views in the politics of the region has added a new and more extreme element to the populist mix. Recent public opinion polls have demonstrated a significant link between western elites, supporters of the Conservative Party and support for MAGA (Make America Great Again) politics.[v] It was therefore hardly surprising to see that opposition to federal and provincial COVID-19 health mandates was greatest in that region, or that the so-called Truckers’ Convoy to Ottawa originated there. This increased preference for populist politics has clearly influenced both the behaviour and agenda of provincial political parties.
A third factor affecting the strength of the western-center conflict has been the greatly diminished role of Quebec and separation on the national agenda. This in turn has been facilitated by the repeat election of a majority nationalist government in Quebec, accompanied by the continuing decline in popular support for separation. This decline has been so great that the provincial separatist party, the Parti Quebecois, has been virtually eliminated as a political force in the province, while the federal Bloc Quebecois’s continued presence, although diminished, has only been maintained by the decision of leader Yves-Francois Blanchet to eschew any discussion of separation and instead portray the Bloc as merely a type of interest group, representing the concerns of the province in the federal legislature. In the absence of a strong set of Quebec concerns occupying the federal government, western elites have been able to fill that gap and attract more attention for their agenda.
And while it is true that Smith has so far declined to invoke her legislative nuclear option, there is every reason to suppose that a drop in popular support in the run up to the provincial election could push her to do so. Although Prime Minister Trudeau has declined to engage in a debate with the premier or react to her legislation up to now, if her party were to be elected in May he would likely find himself forced to address the matter sooner rather than later, leading to a full-blown federal-provincial dispute.
As several analysts have concluded, Smith’s rural base is not sufficient to guarantee a victory, let alone a majority, in the coming election. Despite the skewed allocation of seats towards rural ridings, her party will still need to take several seats in Calgary in order to forge a win, Edmonton being the base of her opponents, the NDP. Smith herself is not popular outside her rural base, but the UCP remains the favoured option in some urban areas. The question for the party’s supporters will be whether to give her the reins of government despite her predilection for “spacewalks.” Unfortunately recent polls demonstrate this is not out of the question.[vi]
A Smith victory will without doubt mean greater resistance to any federal climate change measures, making Canada’s emission reduction targets difficult if not impossible to meet, and the country potentially an environmental pariah on the world stage. Domestically it will likely result in far greater federal-provincial tension as right-wing populist rhetoric dominates the discourse of the province, to say nothing of escalating disagreements with neighbouring British Columbia, where the provincial NDP government is a strong opponent of pipelines and supporter of indigenous reconciliation. Moreover both the Conservative government of Ontario and the conservative Legault government in Quebec are likely to make common cause with Alberta in opposition to several proposed federal measures related to health care and income support. Meanwhile any invocation of the Alberta Sovereignty Act is almost certain to result in lengthy court challenges. In short, national unity is going to be seriously challenged, and the challenge will not be coming from Quebec. Danielle Smith is nowhere near as intelligent or sincere as Rene Levesque, but she could become just as disruptive.
[i] See for example Trevor Harrison’s delightful article in the Calgary Herald at https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-we-have-all-been-living-a-lie-apparently-in-a-fictional-place-called-canada
[ii] As cited in Tom Flanagan. Winning Power. Montreal: MQUP, 2014.
[iv] See, for example, recent studies by Berdahl (2021) and Wesley,Berdahl and Samson (2022).
[v] Fournier,P. “Trumpism is Alive and Well on Canada’s Right” Macleans, 13 March 2022.
[vi] https://calgarysun.com/opinion/columnists/bell-will-danielle-smith-and-the-ucp-really-win-the-alb erta-election