Alberta/Ottawa conflict could determine fate of Canada’s future as a Confederation

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Appeared in the Western Standard, September 24, 2023
Alberta/Ottawa conflict could determine fate of Canada’s future as a Confederation

Much is being made of the verbal warfare between Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault over grievances both old and new, punctuated by his surprise appearance at the recent Tory convention in Quebec City.

At issue are the Trudeau government’s plan to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (Smith supports the 2050 goal but opposes the interim 2030 plan), forthcoming oil and gas emission caps, and proposed clean electricity regulations that will land particularly hard on provinces (e.g. Alberta) not blessed with the abundant hydropower resources of central Canada and British Columbia.

Smith is right to take a hard line—all these measures are daggers aimed at the heart of Alberta’s abundant oil and gas reserves. Energy production has long been the foundation of Alberta’s prosperity. Without it, Alberta would quickly become a poor province. Under the climate regulations mentioned above, not even the province’s agricultural industry would be spared. Livestock will be targeted for methane emissions and farming targeted for nitrous oxide emissions. Smith’s battle for control over Alberta’s natural resources (oil, gas and agriculture) is an existential fight over Alberta’s economic future.

The sparring between Smith and Guilbeault has transcended the technocratic and entered the domain of the Constitutional nature of Canada itself. While recently travelling in China, Guilbeault criticized Alberta and attacked one of Canada’s most prominent companies (Suncor and its CEO Rich Kruger)—again, in China where many corporations are de facto state corporations and where leaders of even state-controlled corporations are jailed for even slight criticisms of the government. In other words, Guilbeault justified intensifying his regulatory imposition on Alberta because of the defiance of one private-sector Canadian company (Suncor) headquartered in Alberta. "To see the leader of a great Canadian company say that he is basically disengaging from climate change and sustainability, that he's going to focus on short-term profit, it's all the wrong answers,” he said. "If I was convinced before that we needed to do regulation, I am even more convinced now."

Premier Smith rightly observes that this battle has become not only existential for Alberta, but a defining battle for Canada as a Confederation of semi-autonomous provinces rather than a unitary country governed almost entirely from Ottawa, where provincial autonomy is merely the right to implement federal fiat in the language of the locals.

While provincial autonomy has already suffered a setback in rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada, including the Carbon Tax Reference case, there’s a Canadian Constitution and it has pretty clear language. As outlined in The Distribution of Legislative Powers: An Overview, “The provinces can generally legislate in relation to natural resources under their powers regarding taxation; local works and undertakings; property and civil rights in the province; and matters of a merely local or private nature in the province. In 1982, section 92A was added to the Constitution Act, 1867, expanding the areas of exclusively provincial jurisdiction to include exploration for non-renewable natural resources in the province; development, conservation and management of non-renewable resources and forestry resources in the province; and development, conservation and management of sites and facilities in the province for the generation and production of electricity.” Parliament does have and has used legislative powers over natural resources in the provinces, but only in limited circumstances.

Virtually everything in the Trudeau/Guilbeault playbook (carbon taxes, pending oil and gas caps, pending nitrous oxide regulations, pending clean electricity regulations) cuts directly against Alberta’s Constitutional prerogatives as a province.

Guilbeault, standing in a country (China) that leads the world in greenhouse gas emissions by a large margin with no plausible plan to reduce those emissions, made clear his thoughts on Alberta, provincial sovereignty and private-enterprise autonomy. Worse, he’s suggested he may wield the full power of the Canadian government to punish an entire province because of the choices of one private-sector Canadian and one premier.

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