By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
First Nations leaders in Alberta are slamming Premier Danielle Smith on the province’s first piece of legislation under her leadership.
Yesterday, the premier introduced Bill 1, Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act.
The proposed legislation, she said, “is designed to be a constitutional shield to protect Albertans from unconstitutional federal laws and policies that harm our province’s economy or violate Alberta’s provincial rights.”
“Nothing in this Act,” reads the bill, “is to be construed as abrogating or derogating from any existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada that are recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.”
The act by its existence has already done that, said Treaty 6, 7 and 8 leaders, pointing out that they were not consulted prior to the act being drafted.
“The lack of prior consultation with Indigenous Peoples about this proposed Act indicates that Reconciliation is not a priority for this premier or this government,” said the Confederacy of Treaty Six Nations in a statement issued yesterday.
First Nation leaders have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in opposition to Smith’s campaign promise of a sovereignty act since she was elected in October by her party members as the new leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP). By default, she became premier of Alberta without seeking a general election, which is scheduled for May 2023. Smith did win a by-election earlier this month to take a seat in the legislature.
The sovereignty act allows Cabinet to bring forward resolutions to the assembly on “federal initiatives” deemed to be unconstitutional or Cabinet anticipates will “cause harm” to Albertans.
High on its priority list, said Smith, is regulating and controlling Alberta’s natural resources and economic development and battling Bill C-69.
Bill C-69 is federal environmental legislation that includes enhanced Indigenous consultation for projects that require federal impact assessments and certain federal regulatory approvals and permits. Impacts on Indigenous peoples and their asserted and established Aboriginal or treaty rights must be considered in making decisions on projects. Bill C-69 stresses the need for free, prior and informed consent.
“We understand the proposed Act as a ploy to access resources and extract them at an unrestricted rate, leaving the land unprotected,” said Treaty 6, 7 and 8 sovereign chiefs in a joint statement prior to the bill’s introduction.
“The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is just another unlawful attempt to continue the province’s deliberate abuse and exploitation of our peoples, lands, territories, and resources,” said Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey in a statement that followed the introduction of Bill 1.
Noskey went a step further saying Treaty 8 would manage their territory, including their resources, themselves. He invited industry with interests in Treaty 8 territory to meet directly with them at their governance table.
“If you want certainty, come to the table of the rights holders!” he said.
Smith’s legislation proposes to give Cabinet sweeping powers that go unchecked by the rest of the assembly. Although a resolution, introduced by her or her Cabinet, needs to receive approval from the legislative assembly initially, it does not need to return to the assembly for a further vote even though ministers can “suspend or modify the application or operation of all or part” of that resolution.
A clarification offered Nov. 30 from the Alberta Justice department states that Cabinet is only authorized to amend existing legislation as specifically outlined in a resolution brought under the act.
“If there is any dispute as to whether or not cabinet amended legislation outside of the specific recommendations contained in the resolution, including any amendments by the legislative assembly to the resolution, such actions would still be subject to both judicial review as well as review by the legislative assembly itself,” says the statement.
According to the sovereignty bill, a judicial review may be filed within 30 days of a resolution or action being taken. A constitutional court challenge can be made at any time so, “the constitutionality of each resolution brought under the Act will have to be carefully drafted and reviewed on a case-by-case basis to ensure the resolutions are constitutionally defensible,” says the government.
A resolution remains in place until it is rescinded by the legislative assembly or for two years. However, an additional two years may be approved by the assembly.
Directives imposed by the resolution must be followed by all provincial entities, which includes Crown corporations, such as the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation; public agencies; health authorities; school boards; municipal governments; municipal and regional police forces, including the RCMP as it has a contract with the province; and more.
However, the bill does not set out what measures can be or will be taken if those directives are not followed.
Smith has said that when this legislation is in place, it will be the federal government’s responsibility to move forward with any constitutional challenges.
As for the sovereignty bill itself, the provincial government says, “As written, it is likely to be found constitutional if challenged.”
Noskey disagrees. He calls the legislation unconstitutional, saying Smith and her government are “in dishonor of Treaty No. 8 (which) supersedes the Canadian Constitution and provincial legislations.”
While they are still reviewing the act, the Confederacy of Treaty Six Nations say, “As Indigenous Peoples, we understand individual freedom as something that can only exist in the context of good relations with others, including our ancestors and the generations to come.”
They believe “the proposed Act is self-centred, short-sighted and in opposition to these principles.”
Also yesterday, former UCP leader Jason Kenney resigned his Calgary Lougheed seat immediately after the act was introduced.
Kenney, who had been voted out by his party members as leader, had been critical of Smith’s sovereignty act while she was campaigning.
Kenney did not link his resignation directly to the introduction of Bill 1, but said in a statement, “I am concerned that our democratic life is veering away from ordinary prudential debate toward a polarization that undermines our bedrock institutions and principles.”
He criticized the far right for “a vengeful anger and toxic cynicism” and the far left for dividing “society dangerously along identity lines.”
Bill 1 can be viewed here:
Shari Narine is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with Windspeaker.com. The LJI is a federally funded program.