[Analyse] When Alberta eclipses Quebec in the autonomist chapter

Every Wednesday, our parliamentary correspondent in Ottawa Marie Vastel analyzes a federal political issue to help you better understand it.

With the expected re-election of François Legault next Monday and the obtaining of a second mandate for the Coalition avenir Québec at the head of an autonomist government, the debate on the independence of Quebec is not likely to prevent many people from sleeping in Ottawa. It is rather 3,000 kilometers to the west that resonate with sovereigntist claims, where the leadership race of the Alberta Conservatives is fueling the secessionist aims of citizens dissatisfied with the fate reserved for them by the Canadian government. The constitutional threat is no longer Quebec, but Alberta.

Everything indicates that Danielle Smith, former leader of the right-wing Wildrose party, will be elected head of the United Conservative Party (PCU) on October 6 and will become de facto Premier of Alberta. At the heart of his campaign: the promise to introduce at the first opportunity an « Alberta sovereignty act », which would exempt the province from any federal law or policy considered contrary to Alberta’s interests or infringing in its fields of competence. Deputies would take advantage of it with “special motions”, adopted on a case-by-case basis. It would then be up to Ottawa to contest this Alberta action.

The feeling of alienation from the West in recent decades has become more radical within a fringe of the Alberta conservative movement. The rivals of Mme Smith also went there with their own autonomist proposals – although less draconian.

“The dynamic with Ottawa is more complicated, because the confrontation is stronger than before,” observes political scientist Frédéric Boily, of the University of Alberta.

In this sense, Alberta is “in the process of taking the role of leader” in terms of claimant provinces vis-à-vis the federal government. It is no longer from Quebec that the greatest number of requests for the repatriation of powers or jurisdictions originate. “I have heard the name of Justin Trudeau mentioned much more often in the debates of the leadership race of the PCU, in Alberta, than in the debates of the Quebec campaign”, indicates Professor Boily.

Danielle Smith also cites Quebec as an example and maintains that she also wants to make Alberta “a nation within a nation”. Except that the Quebec sovereignty movement was transparent, explicit and used democratic tools, through popular referendums, recalls constitutional law professor Eric Adams. Quebec politicians have never claimed to be able to free themselves from the Canadian Constitution, and the government is still today challenging before the federal courts laws that it considers go beyond Ottawa’s areas of jurisdiction.

The Alberta movement tries, with only one fringe of a political party, “to enter by the side door”, adds in comparison Professor Adams, of the University of Alberta. The PCU has 124,000 registered members. In 2017, half of the members had spoken in the leadership race. Alberta has 2.8 million eligible electors.

Marginal, but risky

Many Alberta observers and political commentators speak of a constitutional crisis on the horizon. Outgoing Prime Minister Jason Kenney called Danielle Smith’s proposal « crazy », worthy of a « banana republic ».

The federal government closely monitors the outcome of the leadership race on a daily basis. When the time comes, he will respond to the claims of the one he expects to see become prime minister next week.

Professor Adams says the threat is not exaggerated. Because the aspiring Prime Minister proposes nothing less than to declare — even if she does not present it as such — unilaterally the sovereignty of her province by violating the Constitution. “Alberta and the rest of Canada must take very seriously that some political leaders are willing to violate the constitutional traditions and institutions that are the very foundation of our democracy. »

Danielle Smith’s eventual bill could be watered down to have a chance of passing. Conservative politicians (some supporting other leadership candidates) have criticized the idea. The Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta recalled that she had the power to assess the constitutionality of a law before giving it Royal Assent. The future Prime Minister could also wait for the general elections in May before trying to legislate.

If so, its chances of success are slim, notes pollster Janet Brown, because although the majority of Albertans feel aggrieved by Ottawa, a slim minority will go so far as to wage war with Ottawa. a priority issue. “If Alberta is going to be the problem child of the Canadian federation, it is strictly because of the leadership race and the conservative base that wants it to be so,” she has said since. Calgary.

Quebec no longer has a monopoly

However, this conservative fringe may be isolated, but the separatist fever that it feeds overflows the borders of Alberta.

Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba joined their voices to that of Alberta this summer to demand, like Quebec, greater power in immigration in order to better alleviate the labor shortage on their territory. . However, their request was made through official channels, by means of a letter addressed to the Federal Ministry of Immigration.

Whatever Danielle Smith says, political scientist Jared Wesley predicts that her proposal has no chance of passing the test of the courts. But the militants that it will have galvanized, disenchanted, risk on the other hand to become even more radicalized, he worries.

And in the meantime, the rhetoric and the threat from Alberta announce complicated months for Ottawa. Justin Trudeau’s government will have to manage not only the demands of François Legault, but also — and probably first and foremost — those of the next premier of Alberta, who will cause greater headaches in Ottawa than her more recent predecessors. .

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