The High Cost of Freedom
BY RICHARD SCHNEIDER
Freedom. It’s a word we hear a lot these days. It’s what the people of eastern Ukraine are slowly regaining. It’s what the Uyghurs in China have been denied. And apparently, some would have it that freedom is under threat right here in Alberta.
If the idea that Albertans are horribly oppressed does not ring true to you, you are not alone. The strident voices demanding “freedom from government tyranny” are a small, but loud, minority. The rest of us are left scratching our heads wondering what all the fuss is about. “Should I be concerned? Maybe they’re on to something.” Rest assured, they’re not.
One can certainly understand the intrinsic appeal of freedom. Who wants to be told what to do? But let’s take a minute to think this through. What is the nature of the oppression we are under? The issue that has garnered the most attention recently has been the loss of personal freedoms related to COVID control measures. But that’s yesterday’s news. Most control measures have now been lifted, outside of specific sites such as hospitals.
Longer term, the main grievance relates to the perceived unfair treatment of Alberta within Canadian Confederation. Rather than applauding the benefits our resource economy provides to the rest of Canada, we get barbs and barriers to progress. No wonder bashing Ottawa has long been a favourite pastime of Albertans, up there with hockey and curling.
But with Premier Danielle Smith’s new sovereignty legislation, Alberta’s fight with Ottawa has moved into a new and troubling phase. This legislation has nothing to do with reducing COVID control measures (which were mostly provincial anyway). It has nothing to do with getting pipelines built. And it has nothing to do with establishing Alberta’s “rightful” place in Confederation. It is simply a unilateral decision to ignore federal rules the premier doesn’t like. “Freedom.” Of a sort.
The flaw in Premier Smith’s reasoning is that the rules she is proposing to ignore are not Ottawa’s rules. They are Canadian rules. They concern values that transcend provincial boundaries and need to be addressed at the national scale.
A case in point is the protection of species at risk. The development of the federal Species at Risk Act was not something cooked up in the basement of 24 Sussex Drive. It was the result of a decade of difficult debate involving stakeholders from across the country. The constraints the Act imposes on resource development reflect the trade-offs that Canadians, including Albertans, believe are necessary to safeguard our natural heritage. The article on woodland caribou in this issue (page 18) provides a good example of the Species at Risk Act in action. This Act has been instrumental in motivating meaningful caribou conservation action in Alberta after decades of provincial neglect.
The Impact Assessment Act is another piece of federal legislation vital for safeguarding Alberta’s environment. For example, a recent assessment made under the Act determined that the Grassy Mountain Coal project in southern Alberta would cause significant harm to the environment and the project was disallowed. This decision aligned well with the values of most Albertans, who view the protection of the Eastern Slopes as a priority. In stark contrast, the UCP government’s pro-development agenda for this region is remarkably out of step with public opinion. A 2021 government survey on coal development generated 25,000 responses, and a full two-thirds of respondents felt that the economic benefits of coal development are “not important at all.” Environmental protection was an overriding concern. It is very revealing that 85% indicated they were “not at all confident that coal exploration and development in Alberta is regulated to ensure it is safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible.”1
Let’s not forget climate change. Federal policies to reduce carbon emissions are a key point of angst among Alberta’s “freedom fighters.” These policies are not seen as steps needed to limit the amount of future warming. They are seen as an unwarranted attack on Alberta’s prosperity. The thing is, these attitudes are again seriously out of sync with the opinions of most Albertans. A recent poll found that 62% of Albertans feel that more should be done to address climate change, not less.2
It is no accident that these examples all involve environmental protection. Premier Smith is simply doubling down on the “development at all costs” agenda that Jason Kenney initiated. Recall Kenney’s Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act, another piece of legislation designed to remove “unnecessary” rules that were getting in the way of industrial development. And don’t forget UCP plans to increase forest harvesting by 30% — well above sustainable limits. And plans to expand irrigation well beyond the ecological capacity of southern rivers. You get the picture.
In summary, the “freedom” the UCP government is pitching mainly means “freedom from rules that constrain industrial development.” But these rules, at both the federal and provincial level, were enacted for a reason. They are the mechanism by which resource development objectives are balanced against environmental protection objectives, as demanded by Albertans. Previous Conservative governments understood this. Consider the following quote:
There are more and more people doing more and more activities on the same piece of land. The competition between user groups creates conflict, and often puts stress on the finite capacity of our land, air, water and habitat. What worked for us when our population was only one or two million will not get the job done with four, and soon five million. We have reached a tipping point, where sticking with the old rules will not produce the quality of life we have come to expect. If we want our children to enjoy the same quality of life that current generations have, we need a new land-use system.
This passage from the Land-Use Framework was written just 15 years ago and reflected the views of Ed Stelmach’s government. Unfortunately, the balanced approach to land use that Stelmach championed was never implemented. The Wildrose Party came into existence at that time and, sensing a political vulnerability, launched a disinformation campaign to convince rural landowners that the Land-Use Framework was a ploy to take away their land rights (it was not). The architect of that campaign was none other than our freedom-fighter-in-chief, Danielle Smith. Needless to say, the Land-Use Framework quickly went from a major planning achievement to a political liability, and faded into oblivion.
Clearly, a change in direction is needed. We need a government that is willing to govern in the broad public interest and to defend, rather than ignore, rules to safeguard the environment. When candidates comes knocking on your door in the run up to the election, be sure to quiz them on their party's plans for protecting the environment.
- Alberta Government (2021). Coal policy engagement: initial engagement survey results. https://open.alberta.ca/publications/coal-policy-engagement-initial-engagement-survey-results
- von Scheel, E. (16 Nov. 2022) “Albertans say they aren't afraid of transitioning away from oil.” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-oil-and-gas-poll-1.6652674
Richard Schneider is a conservation biologist who has worked on species at risk and land management in Alberta for the past 30 years. His recent book, Biodiversity Conservation in Canada: From Theory to Practice, includes a detailed case study on Alberta’s caribou. Richard currently serves as the Executive Director of Nature Alberta.
This article originally ran in Nature Alberta Magazine - Winter 2023.