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Bill 1 and Alberta’s ongoing descent into authoritarianism

Canadian Politics

Alberta premier and United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney arrives at a rally protesting against Bill C-69 in Calgary. Tuesday, April 9th, 2019. Photo by Tom Ross/660 NEWS.

Since winning the April 2019 Alberta election, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government has pushed through a swath of legislative policies, much of it reflecting a decidedly authoritarian bent.

The creation of the Canadian Energy Centre (a.k.a., the energy war room), which the government designed to counter alleged foreign interference by groups trying to “lock in” Alberta’s oil is one example. The endless, strong-arm measures directed at reducing union wages, doctors’ fees, and university and municipal funding provide others. Nothing so exemplifies the UCP’s authoritarian mindset, however, as its recently introduced Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act.

Introduced in the legislature on February 25, right after the Throne Speech, Bill 1 would give police and prosecutors the power to hand out stiff provincial penalties for disrupting any infrastructure the government deems essential – and not only “critical” as the name of the Bill suggests – thus broadening the scope in such a way as to give this authoritarian administration dangerous leeway.

Fines would start at $1,000 and rise to as much as $25,000 on the second day of a blockade. Corporations could also be fined up to $200,000, including for aiding, counselling or directing blockades.

Bill 1 arises in both a general and a specific context. The general context is the dispute on the Wet’suwet’en Territory in British Columbia over the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the solidarity protests and blockades that erupted throughout much of Canada in December 2019 and in the first two months of 2020.

The specific context is the decision by Teck Resources Ltd. on February 23 to withdraw its application to proceed with building an oilsands mine in northeast Alberta. The company’s withdrawal came only days before a decision on final approval for the project was expected from the federal government.

Touted by Teck Resources as promising to generate 7,000 jobs during construction and 2,000 operational jobs as well as an estimated $70 billion in government revenues over its lifetime, the project was pivotal to the UCP’s boastful claims about its economic acumen. In the weeks leading up to Teck’s decision, Kenney had also loaded the political dice, arguing that a Liberal government rejection of the project would bring western alienation to a “boiling point” and have “devastating impacts” on the Albertan and Canadian economies.

Coming just days before Alberta’s Throne Speech, Teck’s decision to withdraw—which also let the federal Liberals off the hook—put a wrench in the Kenney government’s efforts at self-promotion. In fact, given current world oil prices, the Teck mine was unlikely to proceed. But at least it would have been a symbolic victory, a way of showing UCP supporters that the government was fighting for them. Now it was gone.

Visibly angry, Kenney sought out the usual suspects to blame for Teck’s decision: the federal Liberals, of course, but also Indigenous and climate justice activists in the news around the Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockades. In Kenney’s words, they were “urban green left zealots”.

In announcing Bill 1, Kenney tried to frame it as a law and order measure directed at the “anarchistic” actions—the words of some right-wing columnists—while not tampering with free speech: “Albertans and Canadians respect our constitutionally protected freedoms of expression, of assembly, and to protest but blocking railways, roadways, and commuter trains and critical infrastructure is simply and plainly illegal.”

The Opposition NDP was rebuked by some supporters as well as the Alberta Green Party and critics on the left for being insufficiently critical of Bill 1—in fact, voting in favour of a motion supportive of “current laws and their enforcement,” which NDP leader Rachel Notley defended by saying the NDP was happy with a deterrent to the disruption of rail lines and other transportation. At the same time Notley characterized Bill 1 as “deeply flawed”, and in a Facebook post on March 3, 2020, she asserted that the Bill “has the potential to breach the constitutionally protected rights of Indigenous people to occupy their traditional territory as set out in evolving and complex court decisions,” and “threatens rights to free expression and peaceful assembly that are the fundamental rights of all Albertans as citizens of Canada.”

Beyond the Legislature, the Bill has been roundly criticized, including—to much surprise—by the usually UCP-friendly Edmonton Journal. Terming Bill 1 an “overreach,” the Journal’s editorial of March 4 suggested Kenney is mimicking legislation passed or pending in several US states that “criminalize protests taking place at critical infrastructure.” These laws have faced legal challenges over free speech, and are likely to face the same in Canada. Citing an expert in constitutional law, the Journal notes three likely challenges to the Bill: (1) that the province lacks jurisdiction to enact criminal law; (2) that it similarly lacks jurisdiction to legislate in areas of infrastructure, such as railroads, interprovincial highways, and pipelines; and (3) that it violates protesters’ Charter rights. The Journal’s scathing synopsis: “To devote resources on enacting, enforcing and defending a constitutionally questionable and redundant law amounts to fiscal irresponsibility.”

The Journal’s concerns were echoed in a March 6 media release by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). In introducing Bill 1, the AFL declared, “the Kenney government is attempting to take advantage of a specific protest event”, the Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockades, “to wipe out all dissenting voices in Alberta.” the AFL argues further that the Bill is an “extremely far reaching and punitive” measure “clearly designed to stop or discourage all collective action that goes against the UCP agenda, including potential labour or worker action.”

David Climenhaga, a prominent political blogger, cogently argues, “Bill 1 is unconstitutional in a way that shows deep contempt for the whole concept of the rule of law, which is ironic if not surprising given the way this government and Canadian Conservatives in general are always prattling on about the rule of law when someone is doing something they don’t like.” Climenhaga suggests—without any real hope it will happen—that, given the legislation’s unconstitutionality, Alberta’s Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell should refuse to sign it into law.

Like so many of the Kenney government’s actions, Bill 1 may be just more red meat thrown to its angry base or, as the Edmonton Journal contends, “an expensive and unnecessary public relations exercise.” Nonetheless, the threat is real and shows in stark terms the authoritarian animus motivating the UCP government.

Trevor Harrison is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Albertawide research organization. He is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy, and public policy. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles and book chapters, and a frequent contributor to various media, including radio and television.

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