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A move by Alberta to solidify the province’s control over the federal government’s relationship with “provincial entities” is again pointing to strong intergovernmental tensions.

Bill 18 was tabled on April 10 and, if passed into law, would allow Alberta to vet any agreements between Ottawa and municipalities, universities and health authorities. This in turn would shape how they received access to housing and health care dollars.

From a constitutional perspective it seems clear: legislative and policymaking power over municipalities belongs to the provinces. But the growing responsibilities of municipal governments, combined with the greater fiscal might of the federal government, exacerbates intergovernmental tensions between Ottawa and the provinces.

Municipalities need money for housing and infrastructure. The federal government has the resources and willingness to contribute to development in these areas. Why wouldn’t provinces accept federal funding even if it meant accepting parameters on how the money is spent?

For Quebec, it is a matter of principle: the spirit and letter of the division of powers should be scrupulously respected.

A law adopted by the Parti Québécois (PQ) government in 1984 forbids municipalities to reach an agreement with another government in Canada without the province’s approval. The law is in line with Quebec’s idea of federalism in which a specific legislative and policymaking power should be assumed by either the Canadian or a provincial government.

This serves to protect Quebec’s autonomy in that Ottawa cannot necessarily spend money in areas of provincial jurisdiction even if it has the capacity to do so.

Alberta’s Bill 18 seeks to adopt this approach, but would expand it to include other provincial bodies.

It’s not surprising that Premier Danielle Smith’s United Conservative government is again turning to Quebec as a source of policy ideas to defend provincial autonomy. Other policy proposals debated in Alberta have found inspiration in past Quebec initiatives, something that was already clear under former premier Jason Kenney.

They include an earnings-related public pension program (the Quebec pension plan created in the mid-1960s), a provincial police force (the Sûreté du Québec formed in 1870) and referendums to make important collective decisions and potentially increase political leverage with the federal government (the 1980 and 1995 referendums on sovereignty).

While there is strong support in Quebec for many of these past measures, including the restriction placed on municipalities, it’s unclear that such consensus exists in Alberta. For instance, the creation of an Alberta pension plan does not seem to have enough popular backing or sufficient political will to materialize.

Bill 18 is more abstract than other potential measures outlined above aimed at fostering provincial autonomy. What the bill seeks to do is probably lower-hanging fruit politically than the pension proposal, for instance, which is much riskier for the politicians who promote it.

That said, the bill has faced strong criticism from key constituencies in Alberta, including from the mayors of both Calgary and Edmonton, the province’s two largest cities.

The policy consequences of the Quebec-style approach taken by Smith’s government are unclear. The idea that many policy problems are best solved by governments closer to the population and which can devise solutions tailored for specific situations is generally sound.

That logic is intrinsic to federalism. Yet that reasoning could justify the need to recognize the right of municipalities — which know more about local needs than their provincial masters — to strike their own deals with the federal government.

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Conversely, such reasoning could legitimize a pushback against the perceived interference of the federal government in municipal and provincial affairs. A potential way out of this tension might be to foster collaboration between all three levels of government, but negotiating agreements between three rather than two players is tricky.

Political scientist Jared Wesley from the University of Alberta points out that  intergovernmental agreements are highly labor intensive from a policy standpoint. Partly because of this and partly because reaching an agreement could take more time than for Ottawa to reach bilateral deals, federal investments in key policy areas such as housing and public transportation might take more time.

This is something that has happened in Quebec in the recent past.

A Quebec-style approach in Alberta could come with another challenge for the Smith government. Although the premier seeks to reduce red tape and bureaucracy, becoming an intermediary between provincial organizations and the federal government would likely lead to significantly increased administrative costs.

The control Smith seeks over federal spending in the province is also guided by ideological considerations.

The most recent push to increase Alberta’s autonomy via Bill 18 is directly related to political differences between Smith and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Smith’s government, for example, has vastly different policy views than Trudeau’s Liberals on energy and the environment.

These differences, alongside Smith’s need to please the United Conservative Party’s regionalist faction, explains why Alberta is seeking to imitate Quebec once again. The question is whether this move and its potential policy consequences would ultimately benefit the residents of Alberta.

The authors thank Enid Slack and Jared Wesley for their comments and suggestions.

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Daniel Béland
Daniel Béland is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and James McGill professor of political science at McGill University. Twitter @danielbeland and LinkedIn.
André Lecours
André Lecours is a professor in the school of political studies at the University of Ottawa. His main research interests are nationalism and federalism. He is the author of Nationalism, Secessionism, and Autonomy (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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