May 31, 2023 - 3:30pm

In the oil-rich Canadian prairie province of Alberta, voters placed their confidence in Danielle Smith’s Right-wing populist United Conservative Party, which won re-election on Monday night against its Left-wing opposition, the New Democratic Party.

The result is set to have major implications for the rest of the country. Smith vowed in her victory speech to carry on her fight against Justin Trudeau’s federal government over the future of Alberta’s energy wealth amid the Prime Minister’s efforts to fight climate change. And though there is nothing new about an Albertan leader declaring war on Ottawa (it’s practically part of the job description), what’s been startling about this premier is the extent to which she and her party have openly flirted with separatist and sovereigntist sentiments, something unheard of for a provincial government outside of Quebec. 

Though it remains a minority stance in the province and Smith is not an avowed separatist (that threshold has yet to be crossed), she has more than anyone else enabled such currents to migrate from the fringes to the centre of political debate.

The United Conservatives have been in power since 2019, but Smith only ascended to the premiership in October of last year after an internal party leadership struggle that saw the last premier, Jason Kenney — an ex-federal minister and himself a man of impeccable Right-wing credentials — ousted from office over the base’s opposition to his Covid-19 restrictions. 

Smith, who fumbled a previous shot at power back in 2012 before becoming a talk radio host, won the contest to replace Kenney thanks to the support of anti-vaccine mandate, anti-Ottawa insurgents. The central plank of her platform was a sweeping (and constitutionally dubious) “Alberta Sovereignty Act”, which would authorise the provincial government to nullify the enforcement of federal laws — whether related to energy, health regulations, or gun control — which it deemed to be against the interests of Alberta. 

Upon winning office, however, the Smith government ended up passing a somewhat toned-down version of the bill, which was renamed the “Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act”. But there was little appetite for toning things down rhetorically. Sounding almost like a states’ rights advocate from the US Tea Party, Smith claimed, as the act was being passed, that provinces were “sovereign, independent jurisdictions”, even going so far as to question Ottawa’s legitimacy as a national government. This position is actually antithetical to the one held by the statesmen of the Canadian Confederation in 1867, who empowered Ottawa at the expense of the provinces in an explicit rejection of the American constitutional model. 

In any event, the sovereignty issue seemed to fade by the new year, and was not prominent in the recent campaign. In fact, minor parties calling for independence failed to win an appreciable share of the vote, indicating that there is no momentum for an outright break with Canada. 

However, a future sovereignty agenda could still be discerned in Smith’s other policy priorities: an independent Alberta police force to replace the Mounties; an Alberta Pension Plan; moves toward some form of private healthcare; and, of course, upholding the Sovereignty Act, which the opposition vowed to repeal. 

There is nothing too dramatic about each of these plans when treated separately: after all, Ontario already has its own police and Quebec has its own pension plan. Taken together, however, these opt-outs from the structures of the Canadian federation would amount to an increasingly functionally separate existence for the province. With four more years in power for Smith’s party, it’s anyone’s guess how far the idea of a sovereign Alberta can, or indeed will, go.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.