'Isn't about fed-bashing for kicks': Saskatchewan aims to assert autonomy with bill

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government introduced a bill Tuesday to unilaterally amend parts of the Canadian Constitution, signalling the province is gearing up for a fight with Ottawa over its environmental policies.

The Saskatchewan Party government is leaning on Section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which "permits provincial legislatures to amend the constitution of the province" — in this case, the Saskatchewan Act.

It's the same section Quebec relied on when it unilaterally changed the Constitution to make French its official language earlier this year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said it's legitimate for provinces to modify the section of the Constitution that applies specifically to them.

Saskatchewan wants to add several articles in the Constitution that pertain to its autonomy and its ability to control the development of its non-renewable natural resources, forestry resources and electrical generation.

It also wants to amend the Saskatchewan Act to reassert that it has exclusive jurisdiction over its natural resources. It would also set up a tribunal to determine economic harms caused by federal environmental policies.

"We think we're on solid ground with respect to … both of those amendments, based on the fact that these amendments don't purport to change the divisions of powers between the federal and provincial government," Mitch McAdam, director of the provincial government's constitutional law branch, said Tuesday.

"We feel we're on solid constitutional footing."

Saskatchewan's NDP Opposition criticized the proposed bill as a "copy-paste" of what already exists in the Constitution.

Section 92A of the Constitution Act says provinces have jurisdiction over its natural resources.

"If it makes the government feel better — fine. I don't think it has a lot of legal significance," NDP justice critic Nicole Sarauer said.

Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre sponsored the bill, which was introduced in the legislature on Tuesday.

"This isn't about fed-bashing for kicks," she said.

"It's about our place in this federation and our responsibility to the people of Saskatchewan to foster economic growth."

Eyre said the bill could help establish a legal basis for challenging federal regulations that hurt industries.

"We would look, for example, at defining, quantifying, assessing that economic harm in dollar-figure terms and potentially using that as evidence in a future case," Eyre said.

The bill would help in court cases surrounding jurisdictional debates, said McAdam.

"It's not just symbolic. That's something that the courts can look to and can be an interpretive aid when the courts are called upon to decide where that boundary line is," McAdam said.

He said the bill can also inform future decisions when there is a request for an injunction or the government files a reference to the Court of Appeal to get its opinion on a matter.

"It will give us those tools that we will need to take that case forward to the courts," McAdam said.

Moe made a commitment that his government would "respect and follow all the laws of the land" as it puts forward its changes.

The same was echoed by McAdam.

"(The act) recognizes that that's the role of the courts and the courts are the ultimate arbitrators of where that diving line is between federal and provincial jurisdiction," McAdam said.

Danielle Smith, Alberta's new United Conservative premier, has proposed a sovereignty act to resist federal laws and court rulings it deems against provincial interests, but her office has maintained it would remain onside with the Constitution.

Eyre pointed out that Alberta does not yet have a bill, and that the Saskatchewan first act is unique. She said the bill was created following months of legal and economic analysis.

"So this is ours, and ours alone," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2022.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press