As early returns suggest Albertans want to scrap equalization, province must

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In the wake of preliminary results suggesting that the province of Alberta’s referendum on equalization payments has passed, the authors of the Free Alberta Strategy say that it is time for Ottawa to stop “attacking” the province and come to the negotiating table to craft a better deal that respects its sovereignty.

“We’ve been subjected to a completely unjust and exploitive Constitution long before Canada had any interest in what was then the Northwest and Rupert’s Land. So that’s not going to go away,” said Barry Cooper, a political scientist at the University of Calgary and co-author of the Free Alberta Strategy, in an Oct. 18 interview with The Hill Times. “Whatever the outcome of the referendum today, this is a structural problem.”

The Free Alberta Strategy, released Sept. 28, outlines how Alberta can gain “provincial legislative sovereignty within Alberta.” The document calls for the province to pass into law the Alberta Sovereignty Act, granting the Alberta legislature the ability to refuse any federal legislation or judicial decisions that “constitute an attack on the interests of Albertans,” end federal equalization transfers from Alberta, opt out of all federal programs that interfere with provincial areas of jurisdiction, and replace the federal government’s acting authority over the province, letting the provincial government negotiate its own international trade and market access relationships.

On Oct. 18, Albertans cast ballots in a referendum about rejecting the concept of equalization payments, which are given to provincial governments to help address fiscal disparities based on estimates of provinces’ ability to generate tax revenues. According to Fairness Alberta, the province sends $15- to 27-billion in equalization payments annually to the federal government to be distributed to “have not” provinces, such as Quebec, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia.

While the full results of the referendum may not be known until Oct. 26, unofficial results posted by several of the province’s largest municipalities suggest that Albertans voted in favour of removing equalization from Canada’s Constitution.

Barry Cooper, co-author of the Free Alberta Strategy, says the Trudeau ‘regime’ has exasperated the problems Alberta faces, and believes that the province should secede from Canada. Photograph courtesy of Barry Cooper.

Mr. Cooper calls the renegotiation of transfer payments “at best a baby step,” adding it should be combined with a second referendum on independence in three months, because, “without that, it’s pretty much toothless.” He believes that the only way “anything can be done” to solve Alberta’s woes is through independence, but said the other authors of the Free Alberta Strategy “aren’t quite there yet.”

He acknowledged that such a referendum would be deemed unconstitutional, but said that is “besides the point,” because the Constitution has not been fair to Albertans. “If you’ve got a lousy, stinking Constitution that doesn’t work for people in this part of the country, then why should we respect it? It’s a source of oppression and shame, and it’s nothing we should be proud of.”

Mr. Cooper said that the problems that Alberta faces have been exacerbated by the Trudeau “regime,” which has “managed to bring together what previous governments had only partially done.” And because Ottawa is “filled with pigheaded bigots who don’t like us very much and aren’t really in a mood to negotiate,” he said he believes Canada is headed for a constitutional crisis regarding Alberta’s sovereignty.

Rob Anderson, a former Airdrie MLA and co-author of the Free Alberta Strategy, said the aim was to offer the provincial government a clear plan that could be implemented to protect Alberta and “assert our role within Confederation.” Mr. Anderson said the document’s authors have been meeting with different groups across the province, primarily via “large Zoom calls” to discuss the strategy.

A “great deal” of the community and business leaders feel “very strongly” that Ottawa is attacking Alberta’s economic interests, according to Mr. Anderson, who added that it’s being done so systematically that it’s “essentially causing an existential crisis to our economy.” He said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) is also part of the problem, as he has been a “complete pushover” when it comes to Alberta’s interests.

“The only difference between a Conservative prime minister and a Liberal prime minister is the Conservatives stop attacking Alberta enough for us to catch our breath. And then as soon as the Liberal gets back into power, it’s back to Alberta being the national punching bag again. Neither deal with any of the systemic problems.”

For Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Mr. Anderson said the movement presents an opportunity to recapture the base of support that he has lost, “if he is willing to show some courage and actually stand up for Alberta’s interests, rather than whatever he’s been doing over the last three years on this issue, which is not much.” A ThinkHQ poll released on Oct. 4 found that 77 per cent of respondents disapprove of Mr. Kenney’s leadership, while 61 per cent of those strongly disapprove.

Rob Anderson, co-author of the Free Alberta Strategy, says if Premier Jason Kenney won’t fight for a better deal for Albertans, ‘someone else will have to.’ Photograph courtesy of Rob Anderson.

But if Mr. Kenney won’t implement the plan or attempt to negotiate with Ottawa, Mr. Anderson said “someone else will have to, whether that’s a new leader or a new party.”

If Ottawa agrees to negotiate an agreement that is fair and beneficial to Alberta, Mr. Anderson said all of Canada will be stronger as a result. “But if they play this game of attacking Alberta to essentially buy electoral support in other parts of the country, and if they continue to attack our industry and cost us tens of thousands of jobs, then it’s gonna get nasty, and the elbows are gonna come up.”

Document speaks to ‘deep frustration’ felt by Albertans

Returning Conservative MP Michael Cooper (St. Albert—Edmonton, Alta.) said the document speaks to the “deep frustration felt by Albertans of this current government, and Alberta’s place more broadly within Canada.” Mr. Cooper said the average $20-billion lost through federal taxes each year has “not been a good deal” for Albertans.

He said the province’s energy sector has been “decimated” by federal polices, such as passing Bill C-69 to create a new Canadian Energy Regulator, and Bill C-48, “which targets one product, bitumen, from one place, Alberta,” and the increasing carbon taxes up to $170 per tonne by 2030,

While Mr. Cooper said he doesn’t agree with the document’s specific policies, when he and his Alberta colleagues return to Ottawa they will “continue to stand up and fight against a government that has been uniquely hostile to the province.”

Mr. Cooper said that from a practical standpoint, amending the Constitution Act to remove Section 36(2) would require seven out of 10 provinces to vote, which is “not going to happen anytime soon.” But by putting the issue on the ballot, Premier Kenney is given leverage to work with the provinces and “fight for a better deal” for Albertans.

NDP MP-elect Heather McPherson (Edmonton Strathcona, Alta.) said while it is important to recognize the anxiety Albertans feel, the authors of the Free Alberta Strategy are “putting forward some pretty erroneous information to Albertans.” Ms. McPherson said while many Albertans agree that equalization payments should be examined and renegotiated, the question on the ballot of ending them altogether “doesn’t mean much of anything,” since the constitutional amendment can’t be done.

Ms. McPherson said during her election campaign,…

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