In its perpetual sea of political blue, Alberta’s two biggest cities stand out as islands of progressive resistance. In the 2021 municipal elections, Calgary and Edmonton elected progressive councils, while in the 2023 provincial election, the NDP won every seat in Edmonton and a majority of those in Calgary. Now, it seems, Danielle Smith’s UCP government has decided to punish them for their disloyalty.

Bill 20, the “Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act,” would give Smith’s cabinet the ability to fire mayors and councillors, overturn bylaws and even postpone elections if it sees fit. The only constraint on this power would be public outcry, and with a majority government that might have to wait years to be heard. For a government that complains endlessly about federal overreach, its new Bill 20 plumbs some impressive new depths of hypocrisy.

The proposed bill doesn’t technically run afoul of our Constitution. It dictates municipalities are entirely beholden to the provinces that created them, which means they have no real legal standing. “They absolutely can exercise this control over both those cities or any city if they wish,” University of Alberta law professor Eric Adams noted in an interview with Global. “The province could make Edmonton and Calgary disappear if they wanted to through legislation. But just because you have a power, of course, doesn’t mean that it should be exercised.” Even Tyler Gandam, the president of Alberta Municipalities and mayor of Wetaskiwin — hardly a bastion of progressive politics — described it as a “power grab.”

The bill’s first target could be the proposed amendment to the land use bylaw in Calgary that would see the city move forward with the so-called “blanket upzoning” recommended by its Housing and Affordability Task Force. Her stated opposition, not surprisingly, is informed by the federal government and its interest in “rewriting the zoning laws” in Calgary. Yes, bigfooting Calgary’s city council on this issue would pretty clearly put the province at odds with federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his promise to eliminate housing “gatekeepers,” but that’s a fight for another day — and one neither is particularly anxious to initiate.

But Smith’s looming fight with Naheed Nenshi, who will almost certainly become the leader of the Alberta NDP in June, is a different matter entirely. Bill 20 is a gift for the probable future leader of the Opposition, who will get to brandish his credentials as a former mayor and remind Albertans about the importance of both strong municipal leadership and political independence. Indeed, with the Alberta NDP’s path to power running straight through cities like Calgary and Edmonton, as well as smaller urban centres like Lethbridge, Red Deer, and Medicine Hat, this UCP attack on cities seems particularly ill-advised.

It may even stir some resistance within the UCP’s ranks. Take Back Alberta, the group that now essentially controls the party’s executive and clearly influences many of its policy decisions, is led by someone who self-identifies as a “decentralist.” As David Parker told the National Post’s Donna Kennedy-Glans back in January, “I believe in localism. I believe we need to take power away from institutions.” Now, Parker and his fellow travellers will have to decide what they believe in more: their supposed principles or their proximity to power.

But Smith’s attack on the independence of Alberta’s municipalities will resonate far beyond its provincial borders. It is a reminder to other municipal leaders across the country — especially in provinces with their own conservative premiers — that their independence and autonomy are now clearly in jeopardy. It would not be at all surprising to see this legislation taken up in places like Saskatchewan or Ontario, where Doug Ford has already meddled in municipal political issues many times before.

It may even turn up the heat on the long-simmering conversation about the need to invest Canada’s cities with more constitutionally guaranteed authority than they were given back in 1867. In the 21st century, as the demand for commodities like oil and gas inevitably start to wane, Canada will need to develop new sources of economic strength and opportunity. Those will be found almost entirely in our cities, where the vast majority of people and our centres of knowledge and learning are located — and where they can be combined to develop, harness and commercialize knowledge and ideas.

We won’t be able to do that effectively if our major cities are mere vassals to their respective provincial governments. Yes, constitutional change is hard at the best of times, even during challenging moments when it is most necessary. But if the Trudeau government is looking for a way to advance its political argument against the provinces and their corrosive impact on Confederation, Smith’s new legislation offers a pretty tempting target.

Keep reading

It seems that everything Danielle Smith has done is at the whim of her oil & gas friends who she really works for. Albertans don't seem to see they no longer have a provincial government, but that the oil & gas have taken over control of the province.

Too true!!

Perhaps a national discussion on the erosion of what little municipal autonomy they are able to practice today is in order. This could lead to a national referendum asking the people directly if they agree a constitutional amendment is in order to ensure cities are afforded fair representation in the highest law of the land, which they clearly do not enjoy now. Some, or perhaps the majority of Premiers may not agree, but with the people voting independently from provincial governments, the premiers will have to respond one way or the other to their own citizen's will on the central issue: cities are the economic engines of the nation and house the vast majority of the population yet receive so little support in return, and thus deserve more autonomy to look after their own interests.

Some could argue that the federal government has no constitutional right to even hold a national referendum on entities that are currently legal creatures of the provinces. The counter argument would be that federal ridings and electoral rights cover every cm2 of the nation, including cities, and therein the federal government will be addressing its own electorate that reside in cities.

Danielle Smith has no legitimate comeback to the federal-provincial geographical overlap and prefers to portray the feds as powerless or non-existent in her province ... but oh, please keep that federal oil subsidy money flowing while we continue to ignore your right to stick up for your own constituents (regardless of party affiliation).

Smith seems to want to govern a separate nation. Like it or not, she rules a province that is part of a confederation until Albertans themselves decide otherwise.

Cities are a better example of the "localism" touted by Parker than is his cohort of rural areas spread out over the entire, vast geographical area of the province.
Because people in cities actually live in the SAME place, they naturally have a more utilitarian bent when it comes to governance. You could even say they're the actual "grass roots" of the province because collectively they comprise the majority of the population and in a democracy the majority rules, right?
Calgary is taking that so seriously that they have had community hearings about re-zoning over several long days because 900 people wanted to speak. And Jyoti Gondek expressed impatience with the ideological fights "between mom and dad," since she just wants to get more frigging HOUSING for people in her city already. The fact that the conservative-backed attempt to "recall" her went nowhere is another indicator that their influence is waning, and the fact that thrice-elected Nenshi is teeing up to challenge them directly bodes well.
So I think this utilitarian aspect will win out because there's a shelf life for constant chaos and obstructionism being the order of the day.

I agree. No other sector of government is closer to the people on the ground than city council. Arrogantly lording it over BC's big city with not a small amount of condescension cost Christy Clark her job. She lost nine urban ridings in the next election. That won't happen with Smith whose support comes from rural and small town Alberta. I think Nenshi may have a shot of winning more seats in medium sized towns, like High River and Red Deer, thus trimming down UCP's fluffy edges.

We actually have some hope now with Nenshi, as do a lot of people who are have also been feeling quite desperate. We went and heard him speak here in Lethbridge; the room was full and you could just feel people leaning toward everything he said.
We lived on the island when Christy Clark was premier but I don't remember that incident you refer to with Vancouver was it? What was it again? We were delighted when she was turfed but I've read that conservatives are starting to gain traction there again. WTF.

This is fascism at work! So if a city wants to ban gas hookups in new buildings Smith can just fire the Mayor! She is a truly transparent politician. We cab see right thru her.