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Alta. sovereignty act damaging to business: Calgary Chamber of Commerce

CALGARY — Alberta's proposed sovereignty act threatens to scare off investors and talent and derail the province's plans for economic growth, a prominent business group warned Wednesday.
The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. The Calgary Chamber of Commerce says Alberta's proposed sovereignty act will be damaging to businesses. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — Alberta's proposed sovereignty act threatens to scare off investors and talent and derail the province's plans for economic growth, a prominent business group warned Wednesday.

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce pushed back against the United Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, one day after Alberta Premier Danielle Smith introduced her flagship bill in the legislature.

“There’s no shred of evidence that this act will lead to economic growth," Chamber president and CEO Deborah Yedlin said in an interview.

“You can’t tell me this is going to support economic growth and support continued economic diversification in this province.”

The Chamber had expressed its opposition to the idea of a sovereignty act, which was a key plank of Smith's successful race to replace former premier Jason Kenney as leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party.

But Yedlin said the details of the proposed legislation, as revealed Tuesday, have "gone further" than even what the business group expected.

Under the proposed legislation, cabinet would have the power to direct provincial entities — including Crown-controlled organizations, police, health authorities, municipalities, school boards — to not use provincial money to enforce federal rules deemed harmful to Alberta's interests.

Smith has said the bill is needed to reset Alberta's relationship with Ottawa and would be used to push back on issues including fertilizer restrictions, firearms, energy and health care.

The UCP government has said any resolution brought under the act must first be introduced, debated, voted on and passed by the legislative assembly. However, critics have said the proposed bill appears to give Smith and her cabinet the power to rewrite provincial laws behind closed doors.

“It could be perceived as being undemocratic," Yedlin said, adding Alberta has a labour shortage right now and anything that negatively impacts the province's image will interfere with employers' ability to entice young workers from other jurisdictions. 

"For people wanting to come and build a new life in this province and take advantage of the opportunities that are here, the views that are being presented right now are not necessarily supporting the attraction of the talent that we need."

She said it will also make it harder for the province's energy sector to work collaboratively with the federal government. The oilsands industry, for example, through its Pathways Alliance industry group, is currently seeking federal support for its proposed multi-billion-dollar carbon capture and storage network.

"This (bill) will cause transactional friction, which will cause companies to rethink their investment plans," Yedlin said.

Alberta has clashed with Ottawa many times in recent years over federal initiatives the province believes has hurt its economy, and in particular, its largest industry, the oil and gas sector. Under Kenney, the province launched a legal challenge against federal Bill C-69, the Impact Assessment Act, which Alberta saw as being anti-oil and damaging to its economic interests.

Smith has said her proposed legislation will give Alberta a way to fight back against federal initiatives that are harmful to the province's interests or infringe on the division of powers in the Constitution.

But even some of Smith's cabinet ministers have expressed their concern for what this type of legislation could mean for Alberta businesses. 

Provincial Environment Minister Sonya Savage, who had the Energy portfolio under Kenney, wrote in an op-ed in September that she was hearing from international investors concerned about the possibility of a sovereignty act.

"I can tell you, for certain, that the sovereignty act is not the solution. Implementing the Sovereignty Act would create instability and chaos," Savage wrote at the time.

Kenney, who resigned his seat in the legislature Tuesday, has been a staunch critic of the legislation. In September, he said it would turn Alberta into a "banana republic" and drive away investment and job creation.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said it is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but added that as an oil and gas lobby organization, it needs to be able to work with all governments and parties.

"We are concerned about any government policy that has the potential to create uncertainty for investors," said CAPP president and CEO Lisa Baiton in an emailed statement.

Not all business groups in Alberta have been as vocal as the Calgary Chamber has been on the bill. On Wednesday, the Business Council of Alberta — whose membership includes the CEOs of some of the province's largest companies — said it doesn't have a position on the proposal yet and is still consulting with members and legal partners to assess its implications.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press