Alberta dismisses fears federal funding veto bill would put chill on academic freedom

EDMONTON — Alberta's advanced education minister is rejecting concerns her government's proposed gatekeeping law would lead to political interference and jeopardize $500 million of federal funding for academic research in the province.

A bill introduced this week by Premier Danielle Smith, if passed, would give her government veto power over future deals between Ottawa and any entity regulated by the province, including municipalities and post-secondary schools.

"The desire is not to impede academic freedom,” Advanced Education Minister Rajan Sawhney told reporters Thursday.

"We want to make sure that this funding does align with provincial priorities,” Sawhney said. But she added, “I can't think of a single grant stream that's going to the post-secondaries that would be problematic.”

Smith has said the bill is necessary because Alberta won't stand idly by as the federal government reaches past it to deliver funds to provincial entities pursuing and promoting projects — such as safe drug supply, federal green power mandates and net-zero housing rules — that are offside with Alberta priorities.

Pointing to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the premier said she’s worried Ottawa is funding ideologically driven research projects.

The council is the federal research funding agency that promotes and supports research and training in the humanities and social sciences.

Council president Ted Hewitt said in a statement that grants and scholarships are awarded through a competitive process and an external review by committees of academic experts from across Canada and around the world.

Three of the province's large comprehensive academic and research institutions — the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge — all said in statements Thursday that they are seeking more details from the province about how the proposed law would will be implemented.

For the University of Alberta and University of Calgary, federal dollars add up to more than a third of total research funding.

Political scientist Lisa Young said she was surprised to see post-secondary schools swept up in the bill, because Smith had signalled before that it would only affect municipalities.

“This offhand comment about ideology was really worrisome," Young, with the University of Calgary, said in an interview.

"It also raises the question of whether there is a desire to interfere with the independence of the research-funding agencies,” she said, adding that for researchers who rely on federal funding to conduct their work, any interference would be "devastating."

Eric Adams, a constitutional scholar at the University of Alberta, said the bill is likely constitutional because the specified agencies fall under provincial jurisdiction.

But Adams said if the province does interfere in the flow of research dollars to universities, it would raise huge concerns around institutional integrity, academic freedom and the day-to-day function of the schools.

“A free society is one in which we imagine that people are able to speak out freely and research freely areas that the government doesn't agree with,” he said.

“I don't imagine that (impairing academic freedom) is what is being contemplated, but the fact that it is today an open question is concerning."

Opposition NDP critic Rhiannon Hoyle said the bill will spark a massive brain drain.

Smith’s government has yet to outline the details of the new approval process under the bill.

It plans to consult stakeholders before writing the specific rules or exemptions. If passed, the law is expected to take effect in early 2025, and the government said it would not be retroactive.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2024.

Lisa Johnson, The Canadian Press