Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
New Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is all about making sure Ottawa knows that “natural resources development, conservation policy and its export are the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces under the Constitution, under Sect. 92 (a).”
It’s a point she emphasized in an almost hour-long press conference yesterday, which followed her meeting with Cabinet. Earlier in the day she was sworn in as the province’s 19th premier.
Doubling-down on Alberta’s independence from Ottawa when it comes to resource development and export of product was one of the pillars of Smith’s five month-long campaign as she ran to be the next leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP).
But not when she was campaigning, not during her acceptance speech on Oct. 6, and not when she was sworn in yesterday did she mention the role Indigenous nations played in the development of those natural resources.
And that’s a major problem, say Indigenous leaders.
“I think what we’re looking at is very, very dark days when it comes to trying to get our natural resources to market because you’re not only going to have to fight Ottawa, you’re going to have to fight Indigenous people,” said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation.
“If the energy industry or development of Alberta’s resources is a part of Danielle’s platform, it’s going to have to absolutely include Indigenous people because otherwise if you start to push away, push back against Indigenous involvement in major projects in their traditional territory, you’re going to have people fighting every step of the way,” he said.
After three-and-a-half-years of working with Jason Kenney, the former UCP premier, who delivered on his campaign promise in 2019 of a Crown corporation that would backstop Indigenous investment in natural resources, Indigenous nations aren’t willing to turn back the clock, says Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam.
“Kenney had it right. Kenney knew what he was doing. He made things happen regardless of his stance, his right (wing) policies. He made sure that the First Nations were engaged in issues that were important to move Albertans forward,” said Adam.
Late last month, Kenney announced the largest project to be supported by the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC). An equity partnership was formed between Athabasca Indigenous Investments (comprised of 23 First Nation and Métis communities) and Enbridge Inc, with Athabasca Indigenous Investments having an 11.6 per cent equity ownership worth $1.12 billion in seven Enbridge pipelines in northern Alberta.
The AIOC backstopped the investment to the amount of $250 million. The deal is expected to bring $10 million annually to the partnership communities. Prior AIOC-backed investments totalled $158 million for three projects involving 15 Indigenous communities.
Quintal echoes Adam’s assessment of Kenney.
“If we ever want to see Alberta ever flourish, the former UCP… leadership team was on to something. They were starting to get success stories,” said Quintal.
Adam says Smith has made it clear that she’s not interested in working with Indigenous nations on resources.
“She comes at it with the right-wing approach that (the resource) belongs to them and they don’t care about any issues like that. That’s the approach that she’s using. It’s sad that it had to go down this path,” he said.
Cora Voyageur, a professor in the Sociology department at the University of Calgary and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, believes Smith doesn’t understand the importance of working with Indigenous people.
“I don’t know if she’s ever heard of the duty to consult and that type of thing and the fact that many Indigenous communities are involved in oil and gas and are…increasingly involved,” said Voyageur.
Quintal says he’s concerned that Indigenous people were not a part of Smith’s platform.
“I think we need to definitely, as Indigenous peoples, not just challenge, but I think, outright make clear to the premier…that there needs to be a large part of the Indigenous people in any platform she is bringing forward,” he said.
“I think it’s important any new leadership that takes over here in Alberta, they absolutely need to ensure that Indigenous people are part of their overall platform and policy development.”
Voyageur calls Smith out for her lack of a “big tent approach” and “pandering” to the Freedom convoy.
She says she’s not surprised that Smith has chosen to seek a seat in the legislature in Brooks-Medicine Hat instead of the urban Calgary Elbow riding which was already vacated by UCP MLA Doug Schweitzer.
“I get the sense…her base is in the rural areas and I don’t think she would get the tractions with the urbanites that she would get with the rural people,” said Voyageur.
UCP MLA Michaela Frey stepped down to allow Smith to appoint herself as the candidate in Brooks-Medicine Hat. The byelection will take place Nov. 8. The earliest Smith could be in the legislature would be Nov. 29.
Prior to the by-election, Smith said she would announce her new Cabinet on Oct. 21, the start of the UCP’s annual general meeting. That meeting will take place Oct. 21 to Oct. 23 at the River Cree Resort in Enoch.
Another pillar of Smith’s campaign is the Sovereignty Act, something she proposed to put in place as her first order of business. She pitched the Sovereignty Act as a tool she would use to challenge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. However, yesterday, she walked back the strength of the Sovereignty Act, saying Alberta would abide by the rulings from Supreme Court of Canada, unless there were new grounds to challenge those rulings.
Quintal sees the separation Smith is promoting between Alberta and Ottawa through the Sovereignty Act as a challenge on the path to reconciliation.
“When we look at what she’s pushing—and that’s not to say as an Albertan there might be some justification in some of her comments—but the reality of it is, is that it’s only going to complicate things. Especially when we’re looking at developing policy toward reconciliation, developing policy towards dealing with Indigenous people,” he said.
As to when Smith should attempt to transform her campaign platform into government policy, Quintal says she should wait until she gets a mandate from the Alberta public.
Voyageur points out that Kenney stepped down as leader of the UCP after receiving just over 51 per cent approval from party members. Smith was elected as leader on the sixth and final ballot with close to 54 per cent support.
A provincial election has to be held no later than May 2023.
To win that mandate, says Voyageur, Smith will have to “get out of her little cocoon and get out and see people that aren’t part of her echo chamber.”
She needs to be more inclusive, says Voyageur, and give Indigenous people a seat at her table.
“For her to think in a province with the second largest Indigenous population in the country, to think she doesn’t need to extend an olive branch, she’s in big trouble…She needs to reach out to the Indigenous population and ask them what they want, what they need, what they would like to see. Ask them how they would like a relationship to develop and what she can do to help,” said Voyageur.
“Time will only tell what will happen. In my view, it’s a toss up right now in regards of what direction (Smith) wants to go and we’ll see what’s going to happen in the general election,” said Adam.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.