By Dean Bennett
THE CANADIAN PRESS
EDMONTON-The Alberta legislature has voted to remove from the government’s sovereignty bill a controversial provision that granted Premier Danielle Smith’s cabinet the power to bypass the legislature and rewrite laws as it saw fit.
Smith’s United Conservative caucus used its majority Wednesday night to pass an amendment to affirm that the Alberta legislature still has the last word on lawmaking.
The Opposition NDP voted against the amendment, saying the legislation remains “a hot mess express” of unconstitutional presumptions and capricious provincial powers that offend the democratic process and put a chill on business investment.
The bill was introduced just over a week ago by Smith as the centrepiece legislation of her government to resist what it calls federal intrusion in areas of provincial authority under the Constitution.
Prior to the vote, multiple NDP members, including Leader Rachel Notley, renewed their call for the bill to be scrapped.
Notley said while the bill effectively rolls back the power of cabinet to rewrite laws, an accompanying change narrowing the definition of federal harm was still worded too ambiguously to be effective.
She said the bill rollout has been “a lesson in legislative incompetence” given the premier introduced the bill eight days earlier and for days rejected accusations it granted her cabinet sweeping powers before, in the face of mounting criticism, announcing there would indeed be changes.
Notley said egregious flaws remain in the bill given it says the legislature, not the courts, get to decide what is and is not constitutional.
She said the bill still gives broad, undefined power to cabinet to direct municipalities, health regions, schools and city police forces to resist implementing federal laws.
And she said Smith profoundly failed Alberta treaty chiefs by failing to consult them before introducing the bill.
“They have really messed this up,” said Notley, adding the failure to consult will “absolutely torch the critically important nation-to-nation relationship that should exist between this premier and the leaders of the treaties.”
NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said while the bill is aimed at Ottawa it is actually a Trojan Horse attack on Albertans themselves by a government that can’t see past grievance politics and its own internal dramas to do the basic yet necessary work of providing proper health care, education and social services.
“Amend away this hot mess express,” Phillips told the UCP benches. “It does not save it unless this bill is entirely pulled.”
No UCP members spoke to the bill Wednesday night before voting to pass the amendment.
The vote came after the UCP members used their majority to pass a motion from Government House Leader Joseph Schow to limit debate — the second time it has done so in debate on this bill.
Such measures are allowed to balance discussion with keeping the business of the house moving.
Schow said 15 hours of debate is a healthy total, particularly given the NDP has said it won’t work to make the bill better.
“If the Opposition has no amendments to put forward then we’re going to stop wasting the time of the assembly and move on with the people’s business,” said Schow.
The bill was expected to move to third and final reading later Wednesday night.
Earlier Wednesday in Ottawa, First Nations chiefs from Alberta and Saskatchewan called for both provinces to scrap their respective provincial rights bills, calling them inherently undemocratic, unconstitutional and an infringement on Indigenous rights.
Treaty 6 Chief Tony Alexis of Alberta’s Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation said there has been no consultation or dialogue with First Nations around the Alberta bill and it could set a harmful precedent.
On Wednesday afternoon, Rick Wilson, Alberta’s Indigenous relations minister, told reporters that while bill specifies that treaty rights are respected, he has heard the leaders’ concerns and will work to address them.
Wilson said the title of the bill itself, the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, is problematic.
“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, like, what does that mean?” said Wilson.
“In fairness, there’s not a lot of clarification around what that means. Should we have done more consultation? Absolutely.”
With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.