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Smith's Sovereignty Act An Authoritarian Attack
On Alberta's Suddenly Fragile Democracy
Danielle Smith is proposing a piece of legislation that would not only allow the Alberta government to unilaterally decide when it chooses to obey Canadian laws (which it can’t), and which would allow it to amend Alberta law without consent of the legislature. Those latter powers – the “Henry VIII Powers”, as they’re known, aren’t a made in Alberta creation, and in a very limited sense, are not insane.
The UK has used them quite a lot in recent years as they exited the EU, for a simple reason – there are a metric shitton of EU regulations that refer to some minute European agency or commission for something or other, and the law has been changed to refer to the British equivalent. Forcing a Parliamentary vote every single time you needed to replace “EU” with “British” (or, more likely, “His Majesty’s Government” or whatever) would be an insane waste of time.
I start with this all because I do want to be slightly fair to Danielle Smith – these powers are not a completely unprecedented idea, nor are they always the worst thing in the world.
But even with that said, Danielle Smith is proposing a dangerous, horrible, and anti-democratic piece of legislation that will make Alberta less democratic, less safe, and substantially poorer.
Congrats, Alberta – now you’re my generation’s Quebec.
I am a living testament to the damage that the Constitutional wars in Quebec did – born to two Quebecers, my parents left the province in the late 80s because it was increasingly difficult to stay there as an Anglo. The province both had lived in their whole lives was suddenly not home anymore, because there was no future for them. What they lost was two smart, educated, young people, who ended up decamping to Ontario because Quebec wasn’t home anymore.
The Constitutional wars cost Quebec measurably – from 1981 to 2006, economic growth in Quebec was 0.7% a year slower than the rest of the country, despite the numerous advantages a province with a truly global city like Montreal has. The way the brain drain hit Quebec has lasting damages – an increasingly small working population to pay the bills of a rapidly aging one, in large part because people like my parents spent their working years paying Ontario taxes and funding Ontario services.
The UCP can kill the thing, but the problem is, I don’t even care if they do. A government proposing to give itself the powers to indefinitely change the law without the legislature is a government that is undeserving of power at any time, and one that needs to be dragged out of office immediately. This is not about the politics of the government – every few months I end up in this argument about Venezuela with a family member who doesn’t understand why I am passionately anti-Maduro despite being left wing. The idea that a government can be defeated on the floor of the legislature – whether it ever happens or not – is too crucial to allow it to be put at risk.
The bill is obvious political suicide, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but it’s just a truly heinous act that should be opposed by everyone for the same reason. If you can’t see how this isn’t a problem, try imagining a theoretical left wing Ontario government doing the same thing to, I don’t know, enforce a ban on persons from Alberta living in Ontario or BC doing it to stop all oil and gas that goes from Alberta through any part of BC. If you’d scream bloody murder then, you should be screaming it now.
This is an authoritarian step from someone who claims to value freedom, an attack on democracy from someone who claims their fight against vaccine mandates is a protection of liberty from the state, and an evasion of democracy so extreme as to make it hard to argue this isn’t borderline dictatorial.
If you want the politics of it, I’m pretty sure Danielle Smith is an NDP sleeper agent at this point, because this is going to hurt a party already flagging in the polls. The likeliest outcome of this is that Smith is going to see how much of the outrage lasts through this week and into next, and then will likely climb down to some “we will only use the powers to clarify existing legislation” level, ala the UK’s use of it. But nobody will trust her when she says that, and every day she comes out and defends this is a day when everyone looks at Alberta and decides that Winnipeg seems like a great place to set up a business.
Between this anti-democratic bullshit and Smith personally calling businesses that require vaccines at this point, Smith is so wrapped up in this world of right wing media and anti-elite grievance that she is completely unaware of the fact that the majority of Albertans fundamentally like the rest of Canada? They might not always love the Prime Minister or the policies enacted, but there is a fundamental kinship from coast to coast to coast.
Smith, more than any other Alberta Premier before her, is governing by and for the people who consider themselves Albertans before Canadians. To the extent that Smith-ism is a workable ideology, she plainly sees Canada with an indifference unmatched in her province’s history. Unlike her predecessors, Smith views the rest of the country with a fundamental shrug, happy to have them when they’re writing the check and otherwise viewing them as a nuisance. She views Canada much the same way a college student living away from home might view his parents – grateful when the direct deposit hits to pay their bills, but deeply annoyed when they make him call them and talk to them about their life.
Smith’s voter base is people for whom Alberta is the most important signal post of their identity, but we know that’s a minority of the province. We know from polls that support for the Sovereignty Act before this was underwater and generally in the 30s, we know from Quebec that support for independence and generally pulling further from Ottawa is lowest in the cities, and we know that the reason Quebec independence died as an issue is that every generation views collectivism more favourably than the last and that when the separatists tried to restoke the fire at various time young people said fuck no.
The idea that this is going to play well for Smith in Calgary is for the birds, and this is the kind of thing that’s unspinnable. The professional class of that city, the people who have consistently elected the PCs and now the UCP, are not going to tolerate this. These are, by in large, the voters who got vaccinated, who stayed home when told to, who did the right thing, and who gave a fuck about the good of everyone before their own selfish interests when they were asked to. They’re the kinds of people who make a lot of money and would like to keep a lot of it, but also do not like radical or crazy governments. After what we saw earlier this month in the US, the crazy penalty is real. And Danielle Smith’s government is insane.
I’m not saying she’s gonna lose, because I know better than to write off a government in a place where the voters are naturally partisan for them, but this is beyond just day to day nonsense. This is an attack on democracy, and it is one that just kickstarted a constitutional crisis. From now till the election, Alberta will be in a substantially heightened state of chaos, all because one woman thinks she should be above the law.
She has started a constitutional fire that will take months if not years to put out, and said fuck the consequences in the process. She is governing for those whose patriotism runs out at the provincial border, and she is risking people’s lives and livelihoods on what is at best a stunt and at worst an attempt to end-run democracy.
Lord may it bite her in the ass.