Four United Conservative Party leadership candidates gathered at the Westin Hotel in downtown Calgary on Thursday morning to take aim at the perceived frontrunner in the race, Danielle Smith, and her flagship policy.
“We’re here united in our opposition to one policy position — the Alberta Sovereignty Act,” said candidate Travis Toews, who took the podium first. “The act is a false bill of goods.”
Fellow candidates Brian Jean, Leela Aheer and Rajan Sawhney also spoke at the event.
Candidates Rebecca Schulz and Todd Loewen were invited but did not attend, with the former posting on Twitter that she also does not support the policy, but is concerned about disunity in the party. CBC News has reached out to Loewen for additional comment.
Support of caucus
All four present at the Westin Hotel said should Smith win the leadership, they would not support the proposed legislation as they understood it in its present state.
“Either the sovereignty act is something that’s a symbolic gesture, like motions that have been passed by Quebec’s National Assembly, or the sovereignty act is blatantly unconstitutional and the equivalent of starting a bar brawl in the middle of confederation,” Aheer said.
“Either way, Danielle Smith is playing with fire and selling a fantasy to her supporters.”
Speaking to reporters after the event, Toews was asked how caucus would support the act should it come to the floor, given his campaign has secured the most endorsements in the campaign.
“Let’s put it this way. I believe getting the sovereignty act passed, certainly in the form that I’ve seen and in the concept I’ve seen, would be very difficult to get through the Legislature, based on feedback I’ve had from caucus members that are supporting my leadership,” he said.
Smith has said the actual language of the bill will be drafted with caucus’ full involvement. But at this point, support among caucus for the legislation is far from certain, which would complicate its passing.
“I want to have a detailed read [of the act] before I could actually say definitively. But with my limited understanding today, I would not be able to support it,” said UCP MLA Tracy Allard, who is supporting Toews.
UCP MLA Tany Yao, who is supporting Jean, said he respects Smith’s desire to be more aggressive in negotiations with Ottawa, but is unsure of this specific mechanism in doing so.
“I am unsure as to whether this particular tact would be effective at achieving its goal,” he said.
In a statement from her campaign, Smith said “tens of thousands” of UCP members had embraced the plan to introduce the act. She said she respected the right of her fellow leadership candidates to criticize the plan.
“I entirely trust the judgment of our UCP membership to select the leader they feel will best defend them against Ottawa’s continued unconstitutional attacks against our province,” Smith said.
“I will respect their decision when it is made. I would expect my future caucus colleagues to do the same.”
Debate has shaped the race
The candidates took particular aim at a news release issued by the Smith campaign earlier this week. In that release, Smith argued for the mechanisms that, in her view, would allow for the implementation of the act.
But the group of candidates alleged the act wouldn’t stop equalization, the carbon tax, federal travel mandates or enable the province to build interprovincial corridors.
“The sovereignty act is just useless and meaningless virtue signalling,” Sawhney said. “Danielle needs to be forthright. She needs to provide the wording of her act, so we can be clear on exactly what it will do.”
Jean claimed the sovereignty act focuses on things that were either “things that could never happen” or “things that [Smith] could never change.”
“Danielle is deceiving UCP members about reality,” he said. “I have strong policy differences with some of the people on this stage, on items like lockdowns, and mandates, and many other things.
“We may disagree strongly on policy, and on freedoms. But we don’t disagree on reality.”
In recent weeks, the race has largely revolved around the act, which has alarmed legal experts and drawn criticism from Premier Jason Kenney, who earlier this week said it would turn the province into a “banana republic.”
Smith, meanwhile, has blamed the “‘woke’ media, entrenched interests and the “political establishment” for utilizing fear-mongering to discredit the act.
“In my view, the restoration and reassertion of provincial rights across our country will protect all provinces from the destructive overreach of Ottawa,” Smith wrote in a release issued on Tuesday.
The UCP is due to announce the results of the leadership vote on Oct. 6.