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Danielle Smith eyes an Alberta middleman for federal-city deals

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith walks to the podium to speak on invoking her government’s Sovereignty Act over federal clean energy regulations, in Edmonton on Nov. 27, 2023. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith walks to the podium to speak on invoking her government’s Sovereignty Act over federal clean energy regulations, in Edmonton on Nov. 27, 2023. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Here's a non-exhaustive list of things that Premier Danielle Smith's government would like to know by month's end:

  • How much money, if any, the Village of Rycroft received from Ottawa for a Canada Day pancake breakfast in 2022, and what Strathmore got for fireworks.

  • The terms of any lawn-mowing or snow-removal agreement between the City of Cold Lake and its air force base.

  • The length of any RCMP building leases with the towns of Two Hills and Three Hills.

  • The date by which Canada Post must renew its rental deals for the tiny patches of land it uses for community mailboxes in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray and, for the sake of thoroughness, every other municipality.

The provincial government wants to know about all funding arrangements between a federal level it publicly distrusts and the municipal level it constitutionally controls.

Alberta Municipal Affairs describes its request for information from all cities, towns, villages and counties as an "overview" to understand the "scope and scale" of these deals, but this sort of scope appears to be the stuff of budgetary microscopes.

It's made municipal leaders around the province wonder why this inventory is being demanded, albeit with a certain level of suspicion as to the motives of the premier behind the Sovereignty Act and repeated protests about jurisdictional turf.

In the official provincial statement, Alberta wishes to "stand up for our constitutional jurisdiction" and ensure "equitable funding" for communities.

But there have been enough breadcrumbs dropped on the way here to interpret where the provincial government might be going with this, and it's an Alberta-shaped wedge between these two other levels of government.

Stop/Arrêt

Just as Smith and other UCPers have eyed Québec with some envy for having its own pension plan, tax collection agency and police force, the premier has also twigged to that province's vaguely titled An Act Respecting the Ministère du conseil executif.

This law prohibits any municipal body from entering into or negotiating an agreement with the federal government or its agencies without express authorization from the Québec government.

At a premiers' conference in November, Smith said Alberta would study adopting a law of its own.

"If defending our jurisdiction by passing legislation similar to Quebec assists us in being able to get fair treatment, then that's what we're going to do," she told reporters.

Why was Smith musing about this measure at this point? Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser had begun a cross-Canada announcement tour with the Housing Accelerator Fund, often dropping hundreds of millions of dollars at a time on cities whose councils had negotiated directly with Ottawa and bypassed the provincial level.

Because Québec had a law in place barring such agreements, Canada instead transferred that province $900 million to disperse to towns and cities on its own for housing construction.

Many premiers around the pan-provincial table had Québec envy, and Smith wasn't the only premier musing about mimicking that law. New Brunswick's Blaine Higgs was making similar noises.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, Fort Saskatchewan Mayor Gale Katchur, centre, and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith chatted in November at Dow Chemical's announcement of plans for the world's first net-zero carbon emissions plastics complex.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, Fort Saskatchewan Mayor Gale Katchur, centre, and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith chatted in November at Dow Chemical's announcement of plans for the world's first net-zero carbon emissions plastics complex.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, Fort Saskatchewan Mayor Gale Katchur, centre, and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith chatted in November at Dow Chemical's announcement of plans for the world's first net-zero carbon emissions plastics complex. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Provinces' beefs with direct federal deals with cities weren't new in 2023; the frustrations have been long-standing in Alberta and elsewhere. Municipalities are indeed the constitutional purview of provinces, and past deals like the federal gas tax-sharing program have gone through provinces.

The Trudeau government has on many occasions used Ottawa's considerable (and considerably in-deficit) chequebook on initiatives that are legally in the provinces' domain. That spans from child care to dental care and soon pharmacare. Housing is technically in that bucket, too, though the prime minister got roundly criticized for insisting it "isn't a primarily federal responsibility."

It was in Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver's mandate letter from Smith to be "protecting the province's constitutional right to oversee the governance of Alberta's municipalities without federal interference."

Fair dealing

Before Smith was even premier, the idea of barring federal-municipal deals came up in the fair deal panel struck by predecessor Jason Kenney — the same panel that recommended Alberta create its own pension plan and police force, among many ways to wrest freedom from Ottawa's grasp.

But the panel urged against blocking mayors and Canadian ministers deal-making. Panellists expressed concerns it would be an extra layer of bureaucracy

"The benefits of red-tape reduction and local autonomy and accountability outweigh any concerns about possible back-door federal encroachments for political expediency," the report states.

Mayors are resistant to demands to loop in the province because bilateral agreements are routinely more efficient than trilateral ones. Naheed Nenshi, Calgary's former mayor, said provincial politicians might have sometimes gotten miffed about missing out on the chance to cut project ribbons with MPs and councillors.

It's not often Nenshi echoes the views of the fair deal pro-Alberta-pension types, but he agrees on the "red tape" concern with Québec's idea. He recommends Smith not bother with this idea.

"She will have to spend a bunch of money to spend money," he said in an interview.

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, left, worked with his share of premiers and prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau at this 2016 infrastructure funding announcement.
Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, left, worked with his share of premiers and prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau at this 2016 infrastructure funding announcement.

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, left, worked with his share of premiers and prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau at this 2016 infrastructure funding announcement. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Several Alberta municipalities, meanwhile, will have to spend money (or at least staff hours) to draft a full inventory of all the money Ottawa spends on them. In central Alberta, Innisfail's town council voted in December not to comply with McIver's request.

"This one makes me a little nervous," said Todd Becker, the town's chief administrative officer. He speculated to council that this was part of the Smith government's sovereignty push.

"If you want more dialogue, more understanding, it's there, but just not certain why the government's asking for this level of information."

If Smith is considering a legal block or other measures to blunt the Trudeau Liberals' activity with cities, one wonders what she might make of his would-be successor.

Red and blue

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre last week used social media to take aim at the Montréal and Quebec City mayors' housing record while "Trudeau's giving billions" to them — leaving the mayors to quickly fire back that provincial law means no federal leader is directly giving them any money, and he should have understood that.

Poilievre has spoken of directly tying federal dollars to the number of homes cities can successfully build, and how well they squelch delays due to permitting or neighbourhood pushback.

He says he wants to "build homes, not bureaucracy," and eliminate "gatekeepers."

It's not clear how he would react to new provincial gates around funding deals or Canada Post's mail super-box lease agreements, or how premiers like Smith would react when a fellow Conservative is trying to overstep boundaries.

After all, RCMP leases for local detachment space and Canada Day celebration programs surely predate this Liberal government, and the Housing Accelerator program extends past the 2025 election. Any Alberta policy that apes Québec on municipal deals, like on pensions, would be a big provincial step with a long shadow — and bureaucratic imprint.