Braid: Ending Sovereignty Act, Smith echoes Alberta government’s long history of protest

In Alberta terms, Premier Danielle Smith is more traditionalist than radical.

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So far, UCP Prime Minister Danielle Smith’s battle with Ottawa doesn’t even measure up to the little wine war of 2018.

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NDP Prime Minister Rachel Notley, furious with BC for trying to limit tar sands shipments, ordered a boycott of BC wine.

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He continued with bluster and missed shipments until BC Premier John Horgan appeared to relent, though he said he did not.

That episode showed that even the NDP can bow to Alberta’s long tradition of responding to perceived injustices.

Smith’s plans for a Sovereignty Act are in tune with Alberta government protests dating back to the 1930s. In Albertan terms, he is more traditionalist than radical.

Resistance has often been crucial. Had Prime Minister Peter Lougheed not waged his bitter fight over the National Energy Program in 1980, Alberta’s right to ownership of resources and revenues would have been effectively nullified.

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The only new thing Smith promises is the potential nullification of federal laws. It is no exaggeration to say that this earned him the leadership and position of prime minister of the UCP.

In recent clarifications, he said Alberta will not challenge Supreme Court rulings. The province would only act in areas considered exclusively provincial by the Constitution.

There is still room for conflict with a federal government that routinely assumes authority to regulate resources, which are clearly a matter of provincial ownership.

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Cut oil or natural gas shipments? It has been done before.

After the Liberals introduced the NEP, Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed cut oil shipments to the rest of Canada.
After the Liberals introduced the NEP, Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed cut oil shipments to the rest of Canada. Archive photo from Postmedia

On Thursday, Smith began his preparation for the sovereignty bill, which will be introduced shortly after the legislature opens on Nov. 29.

She sent a letter to her ministers telling them to report all dealings with Ottawa to Intergovernmental Relations.

Smith is the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, as well as Prime Minister.

She wants details of all conversations with Ottawa about anything, especially funding, and any meetings ministers, deputy ministers and senior officials have with their federal counterparts.

That’s a big command because so many departments routinely deal with the feds: energy, justice, jobs, children’s services (the child care initiative), finance, and so on.

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But big Ottawa action often starts with a few casual tracks at a junior level. Smith is building an early warning system.

None of this is unusual. It is the modern repetition of very old grievances. Anger builds until Alberta makes a flashy move. The rest of the country gasps, but eventually we all move on, often for the better of the dispute.

In 1978, fresh from Ottawa and Montreal, I went to a meeting of Western prime ministers in Yorkton, Sask.

Angry prime ministers waved a list of 57 federal intrusions into provincial jurisdiction, including a protest against federal regulation of video games.

At the time, the great game, Pong, featured a single cue ball bouncing back and forth.

I found that funny, but I soon realized that the provinces had been accumulating evidence since 1977. A massive study covered just about every grievance today: RCMP, gun control, environment, energy, immigration, the whole show.

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That was the prelude to a real crisis. After Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals introduced the NEP, Lougheed cut oil shipments to the rest of Canada, first by 60,000 barrels a day, then by another 60,000. A planned third reduction did not happen because the feds buckled and began negotiations.

Part of the NEP was a federal tax on the export of natural gas. Lougheed fought back, and in 1982 the Supreme Court ruled that the tax was unconstitutional.

Don Getty, as Lougheed’s energy minister in the 1970s, was furious when Ottawa tried to establish Ontario as the only site for Alberta’s natural gas upgrade.

Getty, who later became prime minister, surprised Ontario when he stopped the shipments.

Don Getty was Lougheed's energy minister in the 1970s.
Don Getty was Lougheed’s energy minister in the 1970s. Archive photo from Postmedia

“We just stopped sending it to them,” he told me in 2011. “I had the authority to approve all shipments going east, and all those documents just piled up on my desk because I didn’t sign them.”

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Ontario Premier Bill Davis soon called to say, “We have to go see it because we don’t have gas here,” Getty recalled with delight.

The anger around all of this was even more intense than the emotions Smith mounted in the prime minister’s office. Alberta’s economy had been wrecked by the twin plagues of the NEP and interest rates approaching 20 percent.

But when Lougheed fought back, he was widely accused of tearing the country apart.

In 2012, the eastern-based Institute for Public Policy Research asked a national panel of 30 prominent people to name the most important prime minister of the previous 40 years.

Peter Lougheed won by landslide.

Danielle Smith is well into this longstanding Alberta tradition. She has some decidedly strange ideas about other matters that concern me far more than her attitude toward Ottawa.

On the federal front, Alberta’s biggest risk is that it could get into a fight and lose disastrously. Lougheed himself feared such an outcome.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

Twitter: @DonBraid

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