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PETER McKENNA: Alberta’s Fair Deal fix amounts to scuttling federalism, equalization

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney in on a collision course with the rest of Canada. "Albertans would be better off focusing on collaboration and cooperation with their other partners in Canada rather than picking inter-provincial fights," writes Peter McKenna. - Reuters

Amid a drastically changing economic, public health and environmental milieu, the drafters of Alberta’s recent Fair Deal report — along with its 25 recommendations — seem to have turned the mantra “the West wants in” into something akin to “Alberta wants more.”

No one is doubting that the province of Alberta is hurting at the moment — what with slumping economic growth and resource revenues, cancelled oil sands projects and shrinking capital investment and job losses and home foreclosures. Times are tough in the oil patch these days.

But does rectifying the situation reside in pitting one region (or province) of the country against another? Does attenuating the current economic troubles in Alberta require weakening the bonds of Canadian federalism? How will that lead to a fairer Canada?

From the very outset, in the executive summary, the panellists don’t hold anything back: “A substantial majority of Albertans do not believe they are receiving a fair deal from the federal government. Many are angry and want the Government of Alberta to reassert its position in Confederation and minimize Ottawa’s overreach.”

The driving force underpinning this push for a “fair deal” is the current systemic inequity in the existing federal structures and the fact that other provinces are benefiting handsomely at Alberta’s expense. “In this report we explain what we heard and what we learned, and include recommendations for actions that Alberta can take to get fair treatment within Confederation. …The goal is for Alberta to reassert and reclaim its rightful place in Confederation,” the document states.

It is true that the authors of the report are not advocating the use of political ransom or the prospect of Alberta’s independence as a negotiating strategy. But they do note balefully: “Some Albertans believe that the only way to get Ottawa and other provinces to pay attention to unfairness and misunderstandings is to use the threat of separation, implying that if Alberta does not get a fairer place within the federation, the province will pursue secession from Canada.”

What is needed, then, is substantial reforms and structural change to ensure that Alberta’s place in the federation is properly respected and accommodated. Besides pressing for the codifying of a strict principle of representation by population in terms of the House of Commons, the tract urges Alberta to “work with other provinces and the federal government to democratize the Senate appointment process.”

It also calls for the province to “assert more control over immigration for the economic benefit of Alberta,” a fairer share of federal public sector opportunities and federal offices in the West and altering (or abolishing) the residency requirement for federal courts.

Moreover, it recommends the creation of an Alberta Pension Plan (and the ditching of the CPP), an Alberta Police Service (replacing the RCMP) and an Alberta Chief Firearms Officer. More controversially, it highlights the need to “secure a seat at the table when the federal government negotiates and implements international agreements and treaties affecting Alberta’s interests.” 

Not surprisingly, the panel recommends that the Alberta government move forward with a referendum on Canada’s constitutionally entrenched $20- billion equalization program. It does not mince its words here: “Proceed with the proposed referendum on equalization, asking a clear question along the lines of: Do you support the removal of Section 36 — the principle of equalization —from The Constitution Act, 1982?”

According to the report itself, Albertans expressed “an overwhelming negative reaction to equalization, especially as applied to Alberta as currently practised.” 

It went on to add: “The panel heard from many Albertans who argued that Alberta should seek to abolish equalization by amending the constitution.” 

Of course, equalization-receiving provinces in Canada will not be thrilled with the tenor of the Fair Deal document.

By holding a referendum on a straightforward question on equalization, though, the report maintains that it would create substantial political and legal pressures on the rest of the federation. “The referendum would…morally obligate the federal government and other provinces to come to the table and negotiate the proposed amendments to the Constitution,” it says.

The problem for Alberta is that it has absolutely no chance of securing the support of seven provinces (representing at least 50 per cent of the population) needed to amend the Constitution. There is just no way that provinces like Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia would sign on to such a proposal. They can’t afford to. 

So pushing hard on the equalization button will only increase tensions and strains in the overall federation. Albertans would be better off focusing on collaboration and cooperation with their other partners in Canada rather than picking inter-provincial fights. 

Still, sensitizing all of us to what is happening on the ground in Alberta — and why — is always a good thing. And it wouldn’t hurt, either, if every Canadian undertook a careful read of this 60-page treatise.

 Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.


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