EDMONTON — In what may have been an unprecedented show of unanimity, all of Alberta's treaty chiefs have spoken out strongly against the provincial government's proposed sovereignty act.
"It is nothing but a dangerous and damaging plan to undermine democracy and abandon the rule of law," said Chief Darcy Dixon of the Bearspaw Nation, one of dozens of chiefs from Treaties 6, 7 and 8 who appeared Friday at a news conference to protest the proposed legislation.
The act is the United Conservative Party government's signature bills for the upcoming legislative session.
"This is a far cry from sovereignty," Dixon said.
Premier Danielle Smith told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Friday that it would be called the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act. She has said it would be intended to give the province the power to opt out of federal legislation it deems harmful to its interests.
Although the proposal has been widely derided by constitutional scholars, Smith has said the bill won't break any of its rules.
Yes it will, said the chiefs, who represent 61 First Nations and all of the province's treaty groups.
"We take offence to Danielle Smith's forthcoming sovereignty act and outright reject it," said Arthur Noskey, Grand Chief of Treaty 8.
The chiefs argue that the treaties are with the Crown, not the provinces. It's not up to Alberta to recast the terms of the deal.
"We entered into treaty with the Imperial Crown," said Regena Crowchild, an elder and treaty adviser from Treaty 7. "We certainly did not enter into treaty with (Premier Smith)."
Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis First Nation said the bill is ultimately aimed at easing resource extraction in the province.
"This bill sets up the province to allow extraction at any rate, completely unprotected."
Others pointed out that although the bill has been discussed and debated publicly for months, nobody from Smith's office or cabinet contacted First Nations about it.
"There has been zero consultation," Alexis said.
"If (Smith) is going to do anything for the people, it can't be done without the people and that's what's happening right now."
In an emailed response, Smith's spokeswoman Rebecca Polak said consultations are coming. She said Smith and Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson are to set up meetings with the chiefs.
"The Government of Alberta acknowledges the concerns of the chiefs from Treaty 6, 7 and 8 regarding the proposed Alberta sovereignty act," Polak wrote. "We are committed to ensuring the legislation specifically states nothing within the act is to be construed as abrogating or derogating from any existing Aboriginal and treaty rights."
Richard Feehan, the Opposition NDP's Indigenous relations critic, said his party has already been talking with the chiefs.
"(We) have been hearing their very serious concerns about Danielle Smith’s Sovereignty Act," he said in a release.
"From the very moment Danielle Smith promised this would be her first piece of legislation, Albertans have been very vocal in their opposition to this damaging bill."
The proposed legislation has been highly controversial since it became the centrepiece of Smith's campaign for the leadership of her party last spring.
While its proponents call it a warning to Ottawa against interference in Alberta's resource industry, others have said it would not withstand a constitutional challenge and that it would drive away investment in the province by creating uncertainty.
Alberta chiefs aren't the first to oppose what they call provincial encroachment on the Crown-Indigenous relationship.
When the Saskatchewan Party of Premier Scott Moe introduced its own similar legislation, the Saskatchewan First Act, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said it ignored treaty rights.
"The blatant disrespect that this province continues to display is unbelievable," wrote Chief Bobby Cameron, who represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.
The next session of the Alberta Legislature is to begin Nov. 29.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press