Scott Moe and Danielle Smith steer Prairie politics in dubious directions
Politics | Gregory Beatty
You’re late for climate action but you don’t give a hoot
Justin says “carbon tax!” You just wanna pollute
Conservative in Canada? It’s such a drag
That traitor Trudeau really needs to get gagged
You gotta fight,
for your right,
(with copious apologies to The Beastie Boys)
Alberta premier Danielle Smith and Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe are bleating furiously for more sovereignty for their respective provinces. Both have vowed legislation to limit the federal government’s power.
Are their ideas and motivations reasonable, or self-serving and unhinged?
Let’s take a look.
Moe’s is the more modest proposal. On Tuesday, Oct. 11 in the metropolitan hub of North Battleford, the premier primed supporters with a ‘white paper’ claiming federal climate and environmental policies would cost Saskatchewan $111 billion through 2035. Clean air standards, the carbon price and Bill C-69 (which establishes some federal oversight of large resource projects) were three policies supposedly costed.
The analysis was widely panned by economists across Canada [see sidebar] but Moe forged ahead, setting out his agenda in the Oct. 26 Throne Speech (guest-starring Sask. Party friend and convicted murderer Colin Thatcher). Plans include passing The Saskatchewan First Act, taking control of corporate taxes and immigration from Ottawa, creating the Saskatchewan Marshals to assist the RCMP in rural Saskatchewan and amending The Saskatchewan Act to emphasize provincial control of resources.
Smith’s plan — outlined during the UCP leadership race — is, um, bolder. She promised to pass a “Sovereignty” Act that would let Alberta ignore federal laws and court judgments it didn’t like. There’s also some gibberish about Alberta exerting sovereignty on other provinces to get its resources to international markets.
Since winning the leadership, Smith has walked back the “ignoring court judgments” bit. But there are still constitutional concerns, says University of Alberta legal scholar Eric Adams.
Alberta and Saskatchewan’s argument is based on s. 92 of the Canadian constitution, which gives provinces jurisdiction over natural resources. But the power to extract, process and market them isn’t unfettered. Under s. 91 of the constitution, the federal government has a wide suite of powers to regulate fisheries, waterways, oceans, pollution and other areas deemed to be of national or international importance.
“It’s a fractious area of Canadian federalism,” says Adams. “While the prairie provinces pound the desk and say the constitution gives us exclusive jurisdiction over the development of our oil and gas sector — which is true — it’s also the case that, time and again, the Supreme Court has recognized the division of powers also allocates important environmental jurisdiction to the federal government.”
The Supreme Court reinforced that message in 2021 when it upheld the constitutionality of Ottawa’s carbon price legislation. Since greenhouse gases do not respect provincial borders but instead have global impact, the court said, the federal government could manage them.
The Impact Assessment Act (formerly Bill C-69) is headed to the Supreme Court, too.
What Smith and Moe really think their sovereignty gambits will do to protect their provinces from a potential loss is anyone’s guess. But the plan Smith lays out in her Sovereignty Act is a non-starter, says Adams.
To begin with, there’s no acknowledgement of Indigenous people and their inherent land and treaty rights.
“One thing that’s become abundantly clear with Quebec’s experience is that any provincial sovereignty or quasi-separation movement is going to quickly run up against the reality of Indigenous people in those territories who have a very different concept of sovereignty in relation to the Crown, federal and provincial governments,” says Adams.
“There’s a certain naiveté that fuels some of the provincial rhetoric that it’s going to simply be a matter of claiming we are a nation within a nation,” Adams says. “But as Quebec discovered, if Canada is divisible into nations then provinces are divisible, too.”
As for the dream of being able to force other provinces to bend to Alberta’s will? That’s not going to happen.
“We have in our federation a diversity that in other respects, I think, Alberta and Saskatchewan cherish,” says Adams. “But when it comes to trade corridors and ocean ports for their resources, they become quickly frustrated by other provinces having different priorities and policy objectives [than] the further development of hydrocarbons.
“Frankly, there’s not much Alberta and Saskatchewan can do about that,” says Adams.
“They can get angry that Quebec doesn’t have the same policy on pipelines, but we’re not in charge of Quebec, and they’re not in charge of us. Any claim that a legislative act will wave a magic wand and enable Alberta to strongarm other provinces to do its bidding is pure fantasy.”
For Adams, the most troubling part of Smith’s plan was her initial vow that Alberta would ignore court rulings it disagreed with.
“It was the most direct, and I think irresponsible, challenge to the rule of law that I’ve seen issued by a political leader,” says Adams. “Even the suggestion that court decisions could be ignored or weighed against some political calculus is a sad moment in Canadian politics.”
While Smith has walked back her court talk, she’s still treading on dangerous ground, says Adams.
“The rhetoric may have changed around the courts, but I remain deeply concerned it hasn’t changed around whether Alberta will respect federal laws if it decides they’re unconstitutional or against its interest — whatever that means. It has to be a given that our political leaders respect the rule of law and follow the constitution, and that power cannot simply be deployed on a whim.”
For God, Oil And Country
Simon Enoch heads the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Saskatchewan branch. He recently studied links between right-wing Christian/Patriot populism that’s flaring up now and social media networks the fossil fuel industry set up in 2015 to defend and promote its interests.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers strategy was modelled after the American Petroleum Institute, says Enoch.
“In fact, I think they used the same name, Energy Citizens,” he says. “It was a public relations effort to mobilize people to be more supportive of the oil industry and move them along a chain of activism from vocal support online to writing their MPs and more public events like town halls and rallies.”
The industry’s campaign, perversely enough, was inspired by similar grassroots initiatives by environmental groups to mobilize and motivate their supporters.
From the start the rhetoric had a hard edge, says Enoch.
“The petro-populism that the oil industry propagated lent itself to an ugly form of ‘us vs. them’ nativism against foreign environmentalists and Laurentian elites trying to take our resources,” Enoch says. “I’m not surprised it attracted more extremist, white supremacist, anti-immigrant elements.”
Those elements first emerged during the 2019 Yellow Vest protests. With open support from right-wing Christian populists south of the border, they were front and centre in last winter’s convoy protests.
“We’ve had political and economic leaders on the prairies stoking talk of sovereignty and autonomy for their own interest for a long time,” says Enoch. “Unsurprisingly, it’s convinced a certain segment of the population that the impasse between the federal and provincial government is irreconcilable, and that separation is required — or at least some sort of sovereignty.”
Legality aside, there are real-world consequences to the “red meat” policies pushed by Smith and Moe.
Both say Quebec is the model to follow. But Quebec has 8.4 million people, and their “sovereignty” comes at a cost, says Adams.
“I often get asked ‘can Alberta do the same as Quebec?’ Well, of course it can. If Quebec wants to exercise independence and duplicate more structures within its own borders, that’s a policy choice,” says Adams.
“But Quebec is the highest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada,” adds Adams.
“Citizens pay to fund those structures,” he says. “I find it puzzling where Alberta and Saskatchewan think there is something to be gained by trying to emulate a high-tax jurisdiction in the name of greater control.”
Smith’s fervent support of anti-vaxx groups is problematic, too. It comes at a time when Alberta is facing a desperate shortage of medical professionals, and, like Saskatchewan, is trying to recruit people to the province.
“If I was a doctor, why would I want to locate to a rural locale if I know my advice wouldn’t be followed, and the provincial government would actively frustrate my attempts to ensure the best health outcomes for the community?” says Enoch.
Sovereignty isn’t Smith and Moe’s real goal, of course. They want to shield their resource sectors from federal oversight on climate change and the environment.
They also want the popularity — and votes — that comes from being seen to ‘stand up’ to the Trudeau government.
But the extremists who have infiltrated their base have very different goals, and that could pose a problem, says Enoch.
“What happens when people realize these moves are just tokens?” asks Enoch. “Having a provincial police force isn’t going to stop the federal government from enforcing environmental regulations or public health standards. Then how do you hold back the calls for real separation when you’ve been stoking the flames of federal/provincial discord for years?
“The oil industry has created a Frankenstein monster that’s going to frustrate climate efforts going forward,” Enoch says. “The industry wants to paint itself as being part of the solution, so I think it will continue to distance itself from the more radical elements in the movement. But the monster is on the loose, and it’s going to do damage.” ■
Like Alberta premier Danielle Smith’s Sovereignty Act being full of legal holes, Scott Moe’s white paper on a $111 billion hit to Saskatchewan’s economy from federal climate and environmental policies is full of economic holes, says University of Regina economist Brett Dolter.
The carbon price analysis, which puts the tab to Saskatchewan at $37.2 billion by 2035, is an example, Dolter says.
“The government has a pattern of talking about the money spent on carbon pricing, but then ignore that the money doesn’t just go to Ottawa and get burned on the steps of Parliament,” says Dolter.
“The same week the premier released the [white] paper, the latest installment of the federal climate action incentive rebate was deposited in everyone’s account,” says Dolter. “It wasn’t the best timing from the government’s perspective.”
The government analysis also focuses on costs to the economy as it is today. There’s no acknowledgement of ongoing improvements in green energy and technology.
“When the government looked at electric vehicles, they assumed there would be an $18,000 premium to buy electric all the way to 2035,” says Dolter. “But battery costs are falling drastically. Major car companies believe costs will continue to fall, and soon electric vehicles will carry the same sticker price as internal combustion vehicles.”
The government also ignored the fuel savings from switching to electric. Dolter has calculated the difference: 40 to 60 cents per unit of electricity versus $1.70/litre for gasoline.
The government plays up the costs to agriculture too, while ignoring the potential costs of not addressing climate change.
“That’s missing from the conversation right now,” says Dolter.
“If you talk to climate scientists, they say Saskatchewan might get a longer growing season. But we’re going to get warmer temperatures, which means more evaporation, more drying out of crops, the potential for longer, more intense droughts. Leaving that out of the cost benefit analysis seems irresponsible.”
Also missing from Moe’s calculation: the economic benefits to Saskatchewan from investing in green energy and technology (including mining rare earth minerals).
“We seem fixated on this doomsday can’t-do attitude which surprises me, because I historically think of Saskatchewan as having a hard work, can-do attitude,” says Dolter. “But the bottom line is that climate change exists [and] we need to act on it. Let’s have constructive debate on how to meet our targets, rather than moaning and groaning about how climate change is here and we need to address it.”