October 29, 2021
Dismissing Alberta’s referendum to remove equalization from the Constitution because the province can’t make the change on its own, as the Globe and Mail’s editorial board argued this week, is beside the point, not to mention lazy. Not even Premier Jason Kenney claims Alberta has such a power. The federal government and other provinces are not obliged to negotiate the way the premier seems to think they are, but the Constitution states specifically that provincial legislatures, as well as Parliament, may initiate the amendment process.
Alberta’s equalization vote, followed by a motion in the legislature, is a legitimate means of starting such a process. When considering ways premiers assert powers they don’t have, Kenney’s detractors will have to look elsewhere.
Where the critics are right is that the Kenney-led referendum campaign had little to do with the question on the ballot itself, and instead urged Albertans to vote “yes” in order to gain “leverage” in other areas, such as provincial jurisdiction over natural resources. Because, ultimately, that is what this is about: asserting Alberta’s right to control its energy industry unmolested by the Trudeau Liberals or anyone else. Globe columnist Robyn Urback was only stating the obvious when she argued that the referendum was no more than “theatre,” a way for Kenney to gin up his base against an external opponent.
For good or ill, this is how Canada is governed: as a never-ending conflict over who controls what, despite the fact the separation of powers in the Constitution are pretty clear.
Consider British Columbia’s bogus claim, which was eventually dismissed by the Supreme Court , that it could stop the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline or regulate the amount of bitumen that can flow across its borders. Or Quebec’s equally bogus claim that it can unilaterally alter the Constitution to declare itself a nation and name French as the only official language in the province. In both cases, provincial premiers were performing for an internal audience.
Kenney’s predecessor, Rachel Notley, was also guilty of this, when she introduced legislation to curtail oil and gas exports, specifically to B.C., which also would have run afoul of the Constitution.
While the federal government has generally refused to assert its own powers over trade and commerce — allowing provinces to erect and maintain internal trade barriers — it constantly interferes in areas of provincial control, from daycare to health care to natural resources.
Canada is a country that doesn’t work in theory or in practice.
There are few avenues for regional concerns to be addressed at the national level. The Senate lacks democratic legitimacy and the provinces are not given equal representation, as in other federations. Strict party discipline in the House of Commons means that deviation along regional or provincial lines is not tolerated, unless it is to the benefit of Quebec or Ontario. At one time, cabinet posts were seen as a way for provincial concerns to be heard, but no one seriously believes that anymore, given the rise in power of the Prime Minister’s Office.
So it is left to blustering premiers, who, with no legislative authority beyond their borders, look for creative ways to generate attention nationally and to assure certain constituencies are placated. For B.C. Premier John Horgan, it was the Green party that was holding up his minority government. For Quebec Premier François Legault, it is the nationalists, and for Kenney, it is a libertarian wing of his party that is increasingly spotted with separatists.
As for equalization itself, it is a program sorely in need of reforming. While it is intended to address inequalities in fiscal capacity, the provinces have been converging — and yet, the program keeps growing as it is tied to GDP growth. To borrow a technical term from my colleague Colby Cosh , this is “insane.”
Alberta’s complaints are legitimate, as the Trudeau government is blatantly hostile to the energy industry. Yes, it purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline, but only after it cancelled Northern Gateway and changed the regulatory framework that prompted Energy East to be cancelled. Appointing Steven Guilbeault, a longtime anti-Alberta oil activist, as environment minister is an obvious signal that Ottawa will only grow more hostile.
During the 1990s, the old Reform party slogan was, “The West wants in.” A better slogan today might be, “The West Wants to be Ignored.”
The strangeness of Canada is that not only is it not designed for governing a geographically large and diverse country, with a Constitution that was essentially transplanted from the United Kingdom, but that the provinces have an unusual amount of power by world standards. Despite perpetually claiming impoverishment, the provinces raise disproportionately more revenues and are responsible for more spending than the federal government, much more so than other OECD federations.
So, we can laugh at the way premiers try to use national issues to bolster support locally, or claim powers they don’t have, but this is as Canadian as hockey.