The many transgressions of Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government should be repugnant to all who value and celebrate democracy. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our legal guarantor of freedoms of assembly, expression, and association, still stands tall and is a defining feature of our federation. However, as various examples elsewhere in the world tell us, good constitutional frameworks can unravel if they are chipped away at over the course of time.
The downward slide of democracy in Alberta has not just occurred because the UCP took the reigns of power in 2019. Others factors, such as low civic literacy in both the general population and the mainstream media, dominant political parties that are self-involved to the point of collective narcissism, and an overall diminishment of public discourse are some of the more visible conditions that have set the proverbial table for the authoritarian impulses and behaviour of the current provincial government.
Among the unacceptable actions embarked upon by the UCP are the plotting of highly partisan referendums that are designed to diminish representative democracy; unilaterally taking possession of workers’ pensions while not seeking their approval or consent; clearing the way to appoint hyper-conservative partisans to the courts; targeting organized labour while at the same time preferencing their wealthy friends; using provincial government resources to harass members of civil society on social media; making it illegal to protest or dissent; retaining prejudiced staff members; firing Alberta’s elections watchdog while he was in the midst of investigating the premier; and setting up a war room to persecute Indigenous activists and environmentalists.
Bill 1, which has recently passed into law, is the most obvious and shocking example of the contempt for which Kenney and the UCP regard democracy. Titled rather innocuously as the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, the Bill came into force in June while most Albertans were focused on the pandemic. The Act provides for measures that are explicitly meant to impinge on free speech and assembly, effectively negating protests around what is subjectively named “essential infrastructure.”
The measures mean that any individual or company can be fined up to $25,000 and jailed for six months if found in violation of the Act and arrests could be made without warrant. The purpose of Bill 1 was to stifle Indigenous-led dissent on CN Rail properties for the dramatic overreach of the federal government on unceded lands. Shamefully, NDP Leader Rachel Notley said in the provincial legislature that the Bill would act as a “deterrent for this kind of activity,” referring to rail blockades and anything that gets in the way of pipeline development. Notley then went on to compare the Soldiers of Odin, an extreme hate group, with Extinction Rebellion, an organization dedicated to taking on inaction in the face of the climate crisis. Under pressure from their own supporters, the NDP now oppose the bill.
One of the hallmarks of any functioning democracy is an independent judiciary. That is why the move by the UCP to stack a committee charged with the vetting of potential judges is outrageous. Former Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, through his deputy minister, cancelled the appointment of seven members of the Provincial Court Nominating Committee (PCNC) via a generic email sent to the committee members on April 20, 2020. No reason was provided. Some members had in excess of a year remaining in their three-year terms. New committee appointees have contributed to the coffers of the UCP and former PCs. Even former NDP appointments had made substantial contributions to the then governing party. The PCNC in Alberta consists of eight government appointees and three ex-officio members.
Another illustration of the UCP’s outright defiance of Canadian democratic norms came about when they all but eliminated legislative debate on their most recent budget. Budget estimates are usually aired and debated in legislative committees for up to a week before final reading in the legislature. The UCP pushed through this process in a mere three hours. Equally troubling is that the UCP shut down debate on final reading of the budget on the same day. The UCP used a public health emergency as a pretext to hide their own budget. By ramming it through in the dead of night with nobody watching, they significantly diminished the capacity of Albertans to properly scrutinize their actions. This action itself is antithetical to democratic practice.
One of the traditional characteristics of Canadian politics is the capacity of political opponents to tolerate and debate those who are opposed to their policy or ideological perspectives. The authoritarian streak of the UCP came bubbling to the fore when its infamous ‘war room,’ (the organization running it was incorporated so to avoid scrutiny from freedom of information legislation), was established. The war room, whose official title is the Canadian Energy Centre, is an incorporated entity that falls outside the province’s freedom of information act. Its stated purpose is to expose misinformation and hold foreign-funded environmental organizations that are allegedly spreading falsehoods and tarnishing the good name of Big Oil in Alberta. Its original $30 million per year cost has been pared back because of the pandemic. Its workings are shrouded in secrecy which is dangerous to the most basic tenets of democracy.
That Alberta has gone over the precipice towards authoritarian rule is a surprise to nobody who has been watching its democratic devolution. Even the NDP, when upon the cusp of power and ascending public opinion polls in February and March of 2015, took down any mention of electoral reform and proportional representation from its website. As the governing party, it again disgraced itself by passing legislation that all but eliminated smaller parties from sitting on legislative committees. The anti-democratic actions in Alberta are heavy-handed moves to suppress the voice of citizens. A new political paradigm is desperately needed to ensure that this abject descent does not become an entrenched reality.
Chris Alders is the Democratic Reform Critic for the Green Party of Alberta and the party’s Candidate of Record in Edmonton-City Centre.