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Alberta Politics

Once upon a time Alberta had a provincial police force. Fair Deal report could recommend we have one again.

While much of my undergraduate studies at the University of Alberta focused on Canadian politics, one of my favourite courses covered a topic far away from the prairies – the Habsburg Monarchy. It was a combination of an unfamiliar topic and a passionate professor that made this course memorable. So my interest was piqued when the words “South Tyrol” began circulating in Alberta political circles this week.

Angela Pitt (source: Facebook)
Angela Pitt (source: Facebook)

“Should Alberta be an autonomous Province? South Tyrol has” asked Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt in a Facebook post linking to a website showcasing facts about the autonomous province in northern Italy.

While most of the separatist fever that swept Alberta following the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in October 2019 appears to have subsided, the United Conservative Party government is expected to release the final report of the “Fair Deal Panel” when the province-wide state of emergency expires on June 15.

Unless she was planning a post-COVID vacation to the Dolomites, this is likely the reason why South Tyrol was on Pitt’s mind.

“Autonomous-province” sounds similar to the “sovereignty-association” historically promoted by some sovereigntists in Quebec but it is unclear whether in practice Alberta actually has more autonomy in Canada than does South Tyrol does in Italy. Canadian provinces already have incredible amounts of autonomy to do things like form parole boards, establish police forces (more on this in a moment), conduct adventures in foreign affairs and abdicate responsibility for approving oil sands development to unelected and unaccountable boards.

Much of South Tyrol’s status appears to be a result of it having a German-speaking majority population in a country where most people speak Italian. The former princely county of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was annexed by Italy after the First World War.

Charles I, the last Habsburg Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and King of Bohemia.
Charles I, the last Habsburg Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and King of Bohemia.

I expect many German-speaking South Tyroleans would probably prefer to re-join their linguistic cousins in Austria than remain in Italy.

I am not sure which other province or region Alberta would join if we adopt what might be Pitt’s version of an autonomous-province. Perhaps Frederick Haultain’s dream of a Province of Buffalo could be finally be realized if Alberta merged with its smaller cousin to the east, Saskatchewan? Or maybe British Columbia’s Peace Country will finally be released to unite with its northwestern Alberta cousins?

But Red Deer-South UCP MLA Jason Stephan is certainly whittling down the number of possible candidates.

Stephan apologized to the Legislative Assembly this week after describing other Canadian provinces as “hostile, parasitic partners” in a speech about federal fiscal policies and equalization program.

The rookie MLA and sole UCP backbencher appointed to the powerful Treasury Board committee also claimed that “Alberta must liberate itself from this mess.”

While Alberta is not going to separate from Canada, the final report from the government-appointed Fair Deal Panel will include recommendations to increase provincial autonomy from Ottawa.

Jason Stephan (source: Facebook)
Jason Stephan (source: Facebook)

The Fair Deal panel was announced by Premier Jason Kenney at last November’s gathering of Alberta conservatives at the Manning Centre conference in Red Deer.

The panel and its open-mic town hall meetings were both a relief valve and a steering wheel meant to allow Albertans to vent their frustrations while allowing Kenney to attempt to keep control of the latest burst of separatist fervour. The separatist fervour from Alberta’s right-wing fringe, despite the media attention it generated, now appears to have mostly died out.

The panelists included former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, former Progressive Conservative MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans, Peter Lougheed‘s son Stephen, and perennially disgruntled UCP backbencher MLA Drew Barnes of Cypress-Medicine Hat and fellow backbenchers Miranda Rosin of Banff-Kananaskis and Tany Yao of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo. The panel was tasked with making recommendations on topics including withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, replacing the Canada Revenue Agency by establishing a provincial revenue agency, opting out of federal programs like pharmacare, forming an office of a Chief Firearms Officer, and forming a provincial police force.

Drew Barnes Wildrose MLA Cypress Medicine Hat
Drew Barnes

Kenney already announced plans to appoint a Chief Firearms Officer, one of the recommendations the panel was tasked with studying, and there has been speculation by Postmedia columnist Don Braid that the report could urge the creation of a provincial police force to replace the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Alberta.

Once upon a time, Alberta, like most other provinces, had a provincial police force.

The Alberta Provincial Police was formed in 1917 after the North West Mounted Police hastily withdrew from policing in Alberta.

The NWMP had been created in 1873 and was part of the federal government’s suppression of the North West Rebellion in 1885, but, by 1917, Ottawa’s attention was focused on the First World War and there was little federal interest in enforcing provincial prohibition laws that had been enacted in 1916.

The APP merged into the RCMP in 1932 following negotiations between the provincial and federal governments during the Great Depression. The agreement to offload the costs associated with policing to the RCMP stipulated that former provincial police officers who transferred to the federal police would maintain their seniority and be eligible to receive pensions in accordance with their years of service.

When officers hung up their blue APP uniforms on April 15, 1932, it was reported in the Calgary Daily Herald that it took more than a month for the red RCMP uniforms to arrive in Alberta. So during the short period following the return of the federal police, RCMP officers worked in civilian clothes or, for those who worked as police in Alberta before 1917, wore the uniforms of the old NWMP.

RCMP Take Over Policing of Alberta, Calgary Daily Herald, April 15, 1932
RCMP Take Over Policing of Alberta, Calgary Daily Herald, April 15, 1932

While Alberta politicians have generally expressed pleasure with contracting policing responsibilities to the federal government, there have been several attempts to reinstate a provincial police force. 

A resolution at the United Farmers of Alberta convention of 1935 called for the re-instatement of the APP, but the UFA were swept away from Alberta politics when the party lost all its seats in that year’s election.

The next notable attempt to reinstate the APP came in 1937 from Edson MLA Joseph Unwin, the Whip of the Social Credit government caucus. Unwin introduced a motion to abolish the RCMP in Alberta and replace it with an Alberta Provincial Police Force.

Unwin argued that it was preferable that “the police force in the province should be indisputably at the exclusive orders of the attorney general.” Given this comment and the context of the time, it is fairly safe to speculate that Unwin was hoping to create a police force that would enforce the Social Credit ideological and political agenda in Alberta.

Joseph Unwin
Joseph Unwin

Unwin introduced the motion the same week he was arrested on charges of libel and counselling to murder in what would become known as the Bankers’ Toadies scandal.

Unwin and British Social Credit expert George Frederick Powell were arrested when police raided the party headquarters following the printing of a pamphlet advocating the “extermination” of nine prominent Edmontonians. The nine men, labelled as “Bankers’ Toadies,” included Conservative Party leader David Duggan and Senator and former mayor William Griesbach.

Unwin was sentenced to 3-months hard labour for the libel charge, which was later overturned on appeal. He did not resign as an MLA when he went to jail and his return to the Legislature was celebrated by Social Credit MLAs with a “snake dance” on the floor of the Assembly.

Unwin was defeated by Labour Party candidate and United Mine Workers president Angus Morrison in the 1940 election.

Various PC MLAs called for the creation of a provincial police force during the 1980s and early 1990s but most of those calls were quickly discredited because they were usually followed closely by racist comments about RCMP officers wearing turbans or speaking French.

Ted Morton MLA
Ted Morton

Anti-oil patch activist Wiebo Ludwig called for the creation of a provincial police force during his brief run for the Social Credit Party leadership in 2000 before having withdraw from the race after a judge refused to waive the conditions of his bail.

Motions recommending the creation of a regional police force or to make public studies conducted to assess the creation of a provincial police force were introduced by Wainwright MLA Doug Griffiths in 2003 and Lethbridge-East MLA Ken Nicol in 2004 were debated in the Legislature but gained no real traction.

But perhaps the most infamous call for the reinstatement of a provincial police force in Alberta came in the Firewall Manifesto in January 2001, signed by Conservative luminaries Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton, Rainer Knopff, Andrew Crooks and Ken Boessenkool.

In 2006, Morton, then a candidate for the leadership of the PC Party, called for the creation of a provincial police force, a proposal mocked by outgoing premier Ralph Klein. “We studied it and it was rejected,” Klein said. “Thus far, we’re getting a pretty good deal with the RCMP.”

Premier Ed Stelmach defeated Morton in the leadership race and signed a 20-year agreement with the federal Conservative government that would have the RCMP continue as Alberta’s police force until March 31, 2032.

Ed Stelmach
Ed Stelmach

“This is wonderful news for the province and for Albertans,” Stelmach said in an August 2011 press release. “This agreement makes good financial sense for Alberta and strengthens a valuable relationship with a partner who continues to play a key role after more than a century keeping Alberta communities safe.”

In 2006, the Alberta Sheriffs Branch was created from the Courts and Prisoner Security branch.

The Fair Deal report will have to be publicly released before we know for sure what it recommends, but a move to create a new provincial police force in 2020 would face two powerful political factors

First, systematic racism and police violence against people of colour in the Canada and the United States has led to mounting calls to “defund the police.” Massive protests calling out systematic racism have taken place across the country, including a 15,000-strong rally outside the Legislature in Edmonton and similar rallies in Calgary and around the province. City councils and police commissions are now facing increased public pressure to reign in budgets and address systematic racism in the civilian police forces.

Jason Kenney (source: Flickr)
Jason Kenney (source: Flickr)

And most shockingly, video footage of RCMP officers assaulting Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam has made international headlines.

Second, Kenney has said that a great reckoning is coming for Alberta’s finances, which will likely mean more massive job cuts in the public sector across Alberta. If the Kenney is laying-off teachers and nurses, it will be difficult for him to explain to Albertans that he needs to spend money on creating a brand new police force. A lack of finances was the main reason why the provincial police were disbanded in 1932.

For Kenney there is also the inconvenience of the RCMP’s investigation into whether a “kamikaze” campaign for the leadership of UCP in 2017 defrauded donors. That investigation is being guided by a special prosecutor from Ontario.

Creating a new provincial police force in this context would be incredibly tone deaf and completely unnecessary. But like many political decisions being made in Alberta lately, the world appears to be moving in one direction and our government moving in another. It kind of reminds me of those Habsburgs just over a century ago.

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Alberta Politics

Kenney is the closest thing the Conservatives have to a “Svengali-like genius”

Six weeks after the federal election, Andrew Scheer has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, raising instant speculation about who might enter the contest to replace him.

Rona Ambrose
Rona Ambrose

While there does not appear to be an obvious heir apparent, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney‘s name immediately comes to mind as a potential successor. But is appears as though Kenny could just be a visitor in Ottawa for the foreseeable future.

Kenney told Postmedia columnist Don Braid yesterday he had “absolutely no intention” of running for the leadership and offered what appears to be an early endorsement of former interim party leader Rona Ambrose.

In response to rumours of his federal ambitions, Kenney told Postmedia’s  Stuart Thomson that “I should be flattered that they think I’m some kind of Svengali-like genius.” The thing is, Kenney is probably the closest thing to a Svengali the Conservatives have. Whether you believe he a brilliant political operator with good intentions or a sinister political beast plotting to smash his growing list of enemies likely depends on whether you are his ally or opponent (ask Rachel Notley and Brian Jean). But there is no doubt he is a skilled career politician.

He also checks a whole bunch of boxes on the list of Conservative constituency groups.

Kenney started his political career as a social conservative anti-abortion activist at a private Roman Catholic university in San Francisco. He returned to Canada to become a founder of the anti-tax Canadian Taxpayers Federation. He spent 19 years in Ottawa as a Member of Parliament and, after briefly losing some favour with the party during Stockwell Day‘s disastrous time as leader of the Canadian Alliance, proved to be a loyal solider to Stephen Harper and worked his way into a senior cabinet role. And he has deep connections to conservative think-tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (recently merged with the Fraser Institute) and New York City-based Manhattan Institute.

In less than two years, Kenney commandeered Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party and merged its membership with its decade-old bitter enemy, the Wildrose Party, by winning the United Conservative Party leadership. He then led the party to win the 2019 election. Plus, he, or his closest advisors, were not above testing the limits of what was acceptable in order to win. And since entering the Premier’s Office, he has been a master of sowing chaos and creating crisis in order to implement his political program.

Kenney is respected by Conservative partisans and, as long as he can keep up his winning streak, will remain one of the most prominent leaders of the Conservative movement in Canada.

Or maybe I’m just giving him too much credit.

Winning as a Conservative in Alberta is a much easier task than winning in other parts of Canada, including populous regions like Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. Kenney’s whistle-stop tour through Ontario during the federal election resulted in dismal returns for Conservative candidates, and a recent poll shows his approval ratings in Alberta have plummeted by 15-points since his government tabled an unpopular provincial budget, which serves as a reminder that while he is a skilled politician, he is not invincible.

Which is why he might be reluctant to jump back into federal politics.

Being premier of a large province is certainly a more influential office, at least it is in 2019, and comes with more prestige than being leader of the official Opposition in Ottawa. But staying in Alberta means he is not one-step away from becoming Prime Minister of Canada, which many people still speculate is his goal.

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Alberta Politics

Firing the Election Commissioner is bad for democracy and bad for Alberta

In an unusual but not unheard of piece of political theatre, New Democratic Party leader Rachel Notley was removed from the Legislative Assembly today when she refused to apologize for accusing the UCP government of obstruction of justice as it dissolves the independent Office of the Election Commissioner.

Rachel Notley Alberta Premier NDP
Rachel Notley (Source: Facebook)

Notley knew what she was doing, and did not take it lightly, as she was willing to be thrown out of the Assembly for a day in order to make her point. This is the first time in recent memory that a leader of the official opposition has been removed from the Assembly.

Meanwhile, Premier Jason Kenney was on a plane to Texas safely avoiding controversy when his United Conservative Party government introduced the omnibus bill.

Bill 22: Reform of Agencies, Boards and Commissions and Government Enterprise Act, a 174-page omnibus bill, is packed with legislative changes, including major changes to Alberta’s public sector pension plans, cuts to historical and sports groups, and dissolves the Office of the Election Commissioner. That last move in effect fires Commissioner Lorne Gibson and likely shuts down his years-long investigation into the UCP’s 2017 leadership campaign that has already led to more than $200,000 in fines.

The Election Commissioner’s investigation is related to illegal or irregular donations to the so-called Kamakaze campaign of Jeff Callaway, the former Wildrose Party president whose brief run for the UCP leadership is considered to have been a stalking-horse for front-runner Kenney. The RCMP are conducting a separate on-going investigation into the UCP leadership campaign.

Jason Kenney Alberta Politics
Jason Kenney (Source: Daveberta.ca)

Kenney’s campaign closely collaborated with Callaway’s campaign, and Matt Wolf, now the Premier’s Executive Director of Issues Management, played an intimate role. But that’s not the shady backroom business that is being investigated by the Commissioner or the RCMP.

The Office of the Election Commissioner was created in 2017 because it was determined that the Chief Elections Officer did not have the resources or political independence to launch thorough investigations into violations of Alberta’s election finance laws.

Wildrose MLAs argued against the creation of his office and UCP supporters have both despised and dismissed Gibson’s investigations, but it is the timing and brazenness of the firing that was shocking.

Before it was tabled for First Reading in the Assembly, Government House Leader Jason Nixon moved to fast-track Bill 22 by severely limiting debate to one hour at each stage in the Legislative process.

Finance Minister Travis Toews has framed dissolving the Office of the Election Commissioner, with its $1 million annual budget, as a money saving decision. But at the same time, the UCP government is spending $2.5 million on a public inquiry to intimidate its political opponents and is providing a $30 million public relations subsidy to the oil and gas industry through the creation of Canadian Energy Centre Ltd.

The UCP are changing the rules because people involved in the party broke the rules and were starting to get caught. Kenney knew that firing the Election Commissioner would be unpopular, but he is clearly willing to spend significant political capital to end the investigations into the Kamikaze campaign. It is a cynical move that is bad for democracy and bad for Alberta.

Notley asks LG to not give Royal Assent to Bill 22

Lois Mitchell
Lois Mitchell (Source: LG website)

Notley has asked Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell to not sign Bill 22 when it passes third reading.

It is clear that the best interests of Albertans would be served by allowing the Office of the Election Commissioner to continue its investigations into violations of Alberta’s elections laws, an unlikely outcome if Bill 22 passes, but it is both a serious request and a risky and potentially ineffective political move to ask the Lieutenant Governor to intervene (as she is likely to decline, or worse, simply not respond to the request). 

That said, the Lieutenant Governor does have a power known as reservation, which has rarely been exercised over Canadian history, and probably for good reason. The powers exist in Section 55 of the Constitution Act, and explained plainly, it means the Lieutenant Governor may adopt one of three courses of action in regard to any legislation passed by the Assembly: they may assent, they may “withhold” assent, or they may reserve their assent for “the Signification of the Queen’s Pleasure.”.

I am aware of two examples in recent history in which a Lieutenant Governor opted to withhold Royal Assent to a bill passed by a provincial legislature.

John C Bowen Alberta Lieutenant Governor
John C. Bowen

In 1937, Lieutenant Governor John Bowen refused to give Royal Assent to three bills passed by Premier William Aberhart’s Social Credit government, including the Accurate News and Information Act, which would have forced newspapers to hand over the names and addresses of their sources to the government, and to print government rebuttals to stories the provincial cabinet objected to. The unconstitutionality of the three bills was later confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 1961, Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor Frank Bastedo opted to withhold Royal Assent for a mineral rights bill, which was later approved through an order-in-council passed by the federal cabinet in Ottawa.

There have been two recent cases in Alberta’s history where Lieutenant Governor’s have publicly mused about withholding assent.

Ralph Steinhauer Alberta Lieutenant Governor
Ralph Steinhauer (Source: Alberta Lieutenant Governor on Flickr)

In 1977, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Steinhauer, the first person of Aboriginal heritage to be appointed to the post, considered withholding Royal Assent and publicly spoke against Bill 29:The Land Titles Amendment Act.

The bill introduced by Premier Peter Lougheed’s PC government was designed to prevent Aboriginal land claims in the northern Alberta, including the oilsands producing areas.

And in 2000, Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole publicly suggested she might have a long talk with Premier Ralph Klein before granting Royal Assent to Bill 11, a controversial health care bill.

And in one of the most odd-ball political plays including the  Lieutenant Governor: the Kudatah. Opponents of Notley’s NDP government collected signatures for a petition to present to the Lieutenant Governor to hold a a plebiscite on the carbon tax and Farm safety laws or else they would enact a secret clause in the Elections Act to overturn the results of the May 2015 election (or something like that). With everything else that is going on lately, I don’t think Albertans need or want a repeat of that.