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Alberta’s Sovereignty Act a sensible step in a chronically dysfunctional federation

By Barry Cooper

Canada is habitually described as a federation (or sometimes “confederation”). Legally of course, it is one. But has Canada been a functional federation – and is it one today? Some history is required. In 1867, under the perceived threat of American ambitions directed at British North America, the de facto federation of Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario) was expanded to the Maritimes and transformed into a self-governing Dominion. The result found legal expression in the British North America Act (later renamed the Constitution Act, 1867).

A year later, Great Britain’s Imperial Parliament passed the Rupert’s Land Act specifying that the Hudson’s Bay Company would surrender its rights and privileges over the enormous lands stretching north and west from the (much smaller than today) Ontario and Quebec, under terms and conditions to be negotiated by the Company, Britain’s Colonial Office and Canada. The new Dominion obtained these lands via an Imperial Order-in-Council: territorial expansion was a gift from the Imperial Crown.

This inspired Canada’s incipient empire-builders in their nascent capital, Ottawa, to extend their new political entity from its historical “Laurentian” core out to the Pacific Ocean, incorporating British Columbia in 1871, and tying all of that together with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Many inhabitants of the enormous “missing link” in-between did not welcome the Canadians. They had not been consulted about any of this, which helped spark the political resistance by the Red River Settlement in 1870 and the much more serious and violent North West Rebellion 15 years later. At that point, the territory was occupied by a paramilitary frontier regiment – the North West Mounted Police (later the RCMP).

The various numbered treaties with Indigenous peoples followed and, in turn, agricultural settlement and its subordination to the commercial interests of Laurentian Canada by means of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s grotesquely named “National Policy.” It imposed heavy tariffs on imported manufactured goods, greatly inflating prices for critically needed farm implements and thereby needlessly complicating and slowing the Prairies’ economic development while enriching Laurentian Canada.

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