Drew Barnes

This is an interesting time in the history of Canada to be a constitutional scholar. As has been widely reported, on May 13th, the Government of Quebec introduced its controversial Bill 96 in the National Assembly. The Bill seeks to unilaterally amend Quebec’s constitution, as well as Canada’s Constitution. Since that time, both the prime minister and Alberta’s premier have indicated their support for the undertaking, so long as the amendments pertain only to Quebec.

This opens up a whole new avenue for our province to stand up for Albertans and defend Alberta’s interests. It also raises a key argument I have been making for some time: that Alberta needs its own constitution.

As many of you know, I was proud to serve on the government’s Fair Deal Panel. However, as I outlined in a letter to the premier at the time, the panel’s final report did not fully reflect the public’s frustrations, or provide enough in the way of immediate action.

I believe that the most important recommendation left out of the Panel’s final report was the creation of a constitution for the Province of Alberta.

While Alberta certainly does have a constitutional framework – first outlined in the Alberta Act of 1905 – this does not go nearly far enough in describing Albertans’ shared values, or our unique culture and identity.

The creation of a formal Constitution, including the election of an independent constitutional convention, is an opportunity to engage with Albertans from every region and build a forward-looking vision for our province as the strongest and most free jurisdiction in North America.

Done correctly, the creation of an Alberta constitution does not lead directly down a one-way path to independence. However, it would send a strong signal to Ottawa that Alberta’s days of being treated as a colonial offshoot of Eastern Canada are now at an end.

When I first raised this idea, it was entirely disregarded and even ridiculed by Premier Kenney’s team of political insiders. Yet last week, the premier (when he wasn’t responding in my quires in question period with personal attacks) finally came around to the idea.

The premier said as much in an interview with Don Braid in the Calgary Herald. 

“We are plotting out a longer-term strategy to build a stronger, more resilient and more autonomous Alberta within the constitution. One idea could be in the future the codification of an Alberta provincial constitution. Formalizing that might be a way of expressing some of the unique values that unite Albertans.”

Yes, Mr. Premier, it is a good idea. That’s why I raised it to you more than a year ago. Here are a few reasons why it is necessary. 

• Constitutions control and constrain governments: While most legislation and regulation put in place by governments is designed to restrict the freedoms of citizens, constitutions are one of the best ways for citizens to effectively restrict the powers of governments. A year and a half into “two weeks to flatten the curve,” you can see the need to retain the power of governments to do whatever they like. 

Constitutions are durable: Laws passed in a legislature can just as easily be changed or eliminated by a legislature.

Take, for example, the Klein government’s balanced budget law. It was supposed to be a game-changing victory for those who seek to constrain the size of government, but the PC government killed it four years later and went on a spending binge that has still not ended. Alberta has spent most of its savings, and is now exceeding $100 billion in debt.The only way to effectively limit the size and scope of government over the long term is through a constitution.

We can’t trust Ottawa: One of the most important freedoms we (somewhat) enjoy is economic freedom, including property rights. We rightly believe that the individual should be the primary beneficiary of their own labour and skills, and that individuals have the right to own and use their private property. Ottawa’s willingness to cede jurisdiction to international organizations that do not recognize these rights is cause to entrench them in our own constitution. 

No really, we can’t trust Ottawa: Under the Canadian Constitution, provinces have the right to develop natural resources. Clearly, the federal government does not like this arrangement, and over the past 30 years it has looked for ways to alter the deal. If Ottawa is willing to so brazenly flout the Canadian Constitution, are we Albertans not obligated to defend our own rights through our own constitution?

There is no question that Alberta – like Quebec – has many of concerns when it comes to our province’s treatment within confederation. However, unlike Quebec, we have been fighting for a fair deal with one hand tied behind our backs. If Quebec can unilaterally make changes to the Canadian Constitution, then so too can Alberta. Creating an Alberta Constitution gives us a real opportunity to defend our province’s interests, and protect Alberta’s citizens from its own government. 

Isn’t that what fighting for a fair deal is all about?

Drew Barnes is the Independent MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat

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