PHOTOS: Tough talk from Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous, above, was directed at Saskatchewan’s cranky government. Below: Saskatchewan’s lame duck premier, Brad Wall (Photo: Jake Wright, Wikimedia Commons); Alberta United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, who calls Mr. Wall “the real leader of Western Canada”; Saskatchewan Highways Minister David Marit; and former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas as a young man (Photo: Canadian Museum of History).

In case you were wondering, there’s almost certainly a backstory to the great Saskatchewan-Alberta licence plate war that broke out yesterday.

Firstly, though, for those of you who dozed through the day, we need to deal with the frontstory … which is that the increasingly cranky Saskatchewan Government still led by lame duck premier Brad Wall did something fairly strange even by the standards of a Western Canadian conservatives.

To wit, it published a news release stating that people driving vehicles with Alberta licence plates won’t be allowed onto jobsites run by the government of the under-populated flat province immediately to the east of us.

The press release issued by Saskatchewan Highways and Infrastructure Minister David Marit didn’t make it clear if the ban will soon be extended to trucks owned by welders from British Columbia, now that they’ve elected an NDP government too, not to mention one that’s considerably chillier to pipelines than Alberta’s. But probably not, seeing as the minister supposedly has his knickers in a twist about something completely different.

New contracts awarded by Mr. Marit’s ministry “will require suppliers to ensure that no vehicles displaying Alberta license plates are present on ministry-funded work sites,” the release said. The list of verboten Albertans includes contractors, sub-contractors, consultants and workers.

“Ministry staff will enforce the contract provision through job site monitoring,” the release added, not explaining what will happen if they catch a worker with an Alberta plate on his or her pickup.

“Saskatchewan contractors tell us that vehicles with Saskatchewan plates are not welcome on Government of Alberta job sites,” Mr. Marit explained in the release. “Saskatchewan operators feel forced to register their vehicles in Alberta if they want to do business there,” the document rambled on. “Today’s announcement just levels the playing field.”

Say what?

This astonishing revelation was initially met in Alberta by what we might call a WTF moment. Nobody had any idea what the heck Mr. Marit was talking about, since there is no such policy and never has been.

Reporters here called up local construction industry types for their insights: Nobody knew nothin’. “We weren’t aware of any complaints, so it seemed to come out of the blue for us,” a puzzled Paul Cashman of the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association told the CBC.

There’s little doubt, though, that the Wall Government’s bizarre pronouncement was soon met by whoops of joy in the NDP Cabinet Room in Edmonton.

After all, Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government has regularly been excoriated by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party for not being as unpleasant to the governments of other provinces as he would be about their lack of enthusiasm to see our deeply desired bitumen pipelines running through their backyards.

Arguably, Ms. Notley’s approach has worked better than Mr. Kenney’s ever did in the days he was a big shot in prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government. Just the same, this criticism has gained a certain amount of traction with a large segment of Alberta voters.

So what could be better than an opportunity to talk tough in defence of Albertans to the government of the premier so unpleasant Mr. Kenney once called him “the real leader of Western Canada”? Talk about showers of blessings!

Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous, no doubt forcing himself not to grin and snicker, fired back: Saskatchewan has one week to cut the crap or we’re heading to court. If we had an army, the tanks would be on their way to the border.

By the way, it’s a violation of the New West Partnership inter-provincial trade agreement, Mr. Bilous added, which the new Saskatchewan policy obviously is.

“Brad Wall is absolutely desperate,” Mr. Bilous snapped about Mr. Kenney’s hero. “We know our economy is growing by four per cent, their economy is in the dumps. He’s grasping at straws.” This sounds about right as a matter of fact.

But then, Saskatchewan’s already in a swivet about the Alberta NDP’s efforts to promote the local craft beer industry at the expense of watery corporate brew from Saskatoon, so we can probably expect the war of words to continue.

But what about the backstory?

That’s easy. Auto insurance has cost less in Saskatchewan than Alberta in most years since 1945, when the CCF Government of Premier Tommy Douglas set up Saskatchewan Government Insurance.

SGI, as the Wall conservatives like to call it nowadays without any explanation of what those letters stand for, continues to keep rates for its no-fault insurance down despite the Saskatchewan Party’s “free market” predilections.

Mr. Wall would have loved to privatize it, of course, but that was a step too far for Saskatchewan voters even in the long-ago days when he appeared to be the Mr. Congeniality of Confederation.

So Saskatchewan drivers – especially trades people who have worked for long spells in the Alberta oil patch for many years during our frequent booms – are highly resistant to giving up their green-and-white plates and the insurance that goes with them.

Up-to-date numbers are hard to come by, but in 2013, supposedly the last year for which statistics are available from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the average vehicle cost $882 to insure for a year in Saskatchewan, $1,140 in Alberta.

What’s more, Albertans not only pay more for insurance, costs here are rising faster than costs there. “Albertans are paying four per cent more for car insurance this year than they were in 2016,” Global News Edmonton reported in October. “Rates in the province are 24 per cent higher than the national average.”

The law in Alberta – widely ignored by Saskatchewan drivers as the number of plates visible on any weekday attests – requires vehicle owners to change registration and insurance after 90 days of residency.

The law is the same in Saskatchewan, as it happens. Except that, out-of-date Corb Lund songs notwithstanding, not so many folks make the same interprovincial move from west to east.

In the absence of actual facts, this seems likely to be the source of Mr. Marit’s doubtless sincerely held belief that “Saskatchewan operators have been subject to this treatment in Alberta for years.”

Don’t blame the NDP, though. Blame the Mounties! They, of course, know what’s what because they’re all trained in Regina.

That free-market Alberta is run by a social democratic government and social-democratically insured Saskatchewan by an ideologically free-market government is merely an unintended irony.

Mr. Wall announced on Aug. 10 he was retiring from politics. He hasn’t retired yet though. Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that he will leave soon. The tone is bound to improve immediately.

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  1. Canadians are the most stuck-in-the-mud people known to man. It’s illegal to bring lower-priced NB beer into NS. Local contractors call up their MLA when out-of-province work trucks trim trees along powerlines. Etc. Jealousy based on the deepest provincial attitudes, so I’m hardly surprised at Wall’s edict. Situation normal.

    Presumably it is legal to be a Canadian in Canada? Don’t tell the locals!

    When CETA is proclaimed and eventually European firms bid on things like construction contracts, the fury that will be engendered when foreigners win a bid and provincial contractors/companies used to having cosy relationships with their governments will be a sight to behold. It’s bad enough now when a “foreign” province gets the contract!

    I wasted more time in my career talking to locals with low event horizons when awarding contracts to out of province companies than getting on with the job itself. The sense of entitlement that the money was “theirs” was astounding. That is the reality of Canada. Ten provinces that might as well be foreign countries, and not very open to each other ones at that.

    1. It’s fair to say this attitude is a feature of most any true federation, not just Canada. In significant regards, the United States is much worse, although it is true that for the past century Americans have all seemed to see themselves as one nationality. Still, that seems to be changing now, as the south reopens the Civil War. If you assign significant constitutional roles to provinces, and one of the few tools at their disposal is tax policy, say to save money on health care by encouraging citizens to give up smoking, then some kind of import controls are essential. The answer would be to abandon our confederal constitutional arrangements and become a unitary state, like France or Finland. Good luck making that happen, though.

      1. Is it possible to have a “confederal” constitutional arrangement? A province alone is neither federated nor federal, therefore putting it together with any other province so-defined cannot be “confederal,” but merely “federal,” or so it should seem.

        The word “confederation” comes from its infinitive, “to confederate” — but can it literally mean “to join together federations from scratch?” Or does it mean “to join with an existing federation?” In any case, I think it’s more precise to say we currently have a “federal constitutional arrangement” where sovereign polities — colonies, charters, etc. — forfeit or exchange certain sovereign powers to or with a federal state, at least as many as to allow a federation to function.

        But there is one important distinction that involves a more common misuse of the term: in a federal state, each confederated polity — which, in Canada, becomes thence a province — is equal at the federal table, regardless population, geographic size, language, etc. The name (that is, the noun) “confederation” is often confused with confederacy, that being quite distinct from a federation in that each polity so-joined forfeits less sovereign power to the central government — sometimes so much so that there is no formal central government at all, but, rather, either ad hoc or regular meetings of the respective states or provinces in the confederacy. Even the kinds of powers forfeited might not apply equally among member states or provinces, some giving up more or less of them in accordance with some agreed-upon formula. What is the same as federations is the whole must agree on whatever an applicant must do to join: in a federation, the criteria apply to every applicant, whereas, in a confederacy, the criteria may be ad hoc and vary from applicant to applicant, depending on what the confederacy agrees to, and what the political and strategic environment is at the moment. In general, confederacies include states or provinces which each have much more latitude to act on their own than is the case in federations where provinces (, say,) are each more strictly proscribed in what they may do, and the proscription apples equally to each one.

        Thus, Canada would not necessarily become a unitary state if it forwent federation — that is, if it forwent a federal constitutional arrangement — but, since the federation already exists in which any one of its members may leave of its own volition (providing it first complies with the federal Clarity Act, a clearly-worded referendum in which some threshold of public agreement is achieved), then the departure of any or most provinces does not result in a unity state remainder: it would still be a federation as long as it consists of at least two provinces. Canada might, instead become some kind of confederacy, or an even looser group of partnerships defined by treaties, possibly also treating with the remainder federation (or confederacy, if voters so choose).

        And then there are complicating issues (as if the above weren’t complicated enough): those are the federal Territories and existing treaties of which there are a number of kinds: Aboriginal Treaties, inter-provincial trade agreements, and international agreements on, for examples, UN Declarations or trade agreements.

        This is why Quebec came up with the decidedly unclear concept of “sovereignty association” which, presumably, it already has in its federal arrangement, the one negotiated for it to confederate — or should that be “federate” because, being one of the first four to join together, there was as yet no federation to join with.

        I guess, in the strictest sense, Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia federated, and every subsequent colony or charter to join confederated. In any case, what we have now is most precisely called a federal arrangement.

        I would agree: it’s virtually impossible for a country our size, second biggest in the world, to exist as a unitary state — except, maybe, under heavy guard and coercion. The Soviet Union had such, and it never was a unitarian state.

        I think the main point is that it is easier to keep multi-polity states together, whatever their arrangement, federal or confederate, if the populations feel they have some measure of political autonomy. The point is not moot because large regions of Canada have not treated with Aboriginal nations, meaning, if the Crown is to have no competing sovereign claims, as 951 years of the Common Law precedents are founded upon, Aboriginal nations, all of which the Constitution obliges the Crown to treat with, either must be accorded some federal arrangement that vests their respective sovereignties (which are recognized as legitimate in law) in the Crown — like provinces have — or extinguish their sovereign claims like treaty Aboriginal nations have and receive whatever political autonomy the state is willing to give them.

        The difficulty is obvious: outside the federal Territories, province-like autonomy — that is, within existing provinces — seems unlikely (though not technically impossible), and last centuries’ treaties, which are unsatisfactory in this regard, anyway, would be rendered even more unfair and unsatisfactory. The difficulties here show how important it is to get this stuff right, right from the start, otherwise expensive reconciliation (and I don’t mean exclusively with indigenous nations) is the only just solution.

        Downy was right: this might take another hundred years. Will Canada still exist in its current federal arrangement? Will any still exist, anywhere?

    2. So, I’d like to weigh in here on your somewhat veiled reference to the Gerard Comeau “beer-smuggling” case out of New Brunswick (HM The Queen v. Gerard Comeau, case #37398). The free marketers are arguing in favour of provinces dropping all barriers to cross-border commerce in beverage alcohol. OK, that is a defensible position, supported by provinces’ frequent tendency to tamper with the booze market to support local producers, by such measures as preferential treatment in government liquor stores (most provinces), or allowing local product to be sold in corner stores but requiring imported product to be sold in government stores (Quebec), or providing subsidies to local producers (Alberta).

      But there is another, equally defensible position, one which has been advanced by, among others, the Governments of the Northwest Territories and of Nunavut, and many health advocacy organizations. This position holds, in essence, that alcohol is an age-restricted drug with serious adverse health risks if used to excess, and the provincial government has a legitimate public interest purpose in restricting its distribution and sale. This also applies to other harmful but legal substances, like tobacco and (soon) cannabis. Regulating this product from a purely market-oriented perspective without regard to its health and public policy implications is inappropriate.

      If the Supreme Court, in its ruling on this case, tosses out provinces’ and territories’ authority to regulate interprovincial commerce in alcohol, what about the provinces’ and territories’ carefully crafted plans for the roll-out of legal cannabis next year? The issues are quite similar.

  2. This is serious business. I moved from Ontario to Québec and did not register my vehicle. Eventually, the registration police caught up with me. Thirty days in delinquent registration jail and a thousand dollar fine.

  3. More unhinged conservative attacks from Brad Wall’s cadre of imbeciles.

    These are the same guys whose mantra aligns perfectly with the UCP. It would not surprise me if Jason Kenney and Brad Wall cooked up this illegal deal over craft beers and Cheetos.

    With a shortage of economic issues to raise, with Alberta’s improving economy well underway, it could be that the UCP desperately needs some talking points to bash and malign the government with, if it eventually comes down to wasted court costs. Who better than crony capitalist pal Brad Wall to aid in a devious little charade to sidetrack the government and help a kindred political spirit at the same time. There’s no licence required for monkey business — that’s quite apparent.

  4. Given the fate of the previous conservative government in Saskatchewan, I’m thinking Bradley just wants to make sure there is lots of demand for license plate manufacturers.

  5. “If we had an army, the tanks would be on their way to the border.”

    Closest thing would be the Rat Patrol.

  6. Has Premier Wall’s government lost its mind? Maybe the wheels are falling off now that Wall plans to depart, or as they say there is a lack of adult supervision right now. Wall has long been a most vocal advocate for free markets and in what seems to be one of his final acts is a most blatant violation of that. Isn’t it ironic? It is not a good note to end on, but the Saskatchewan Party’s best days may be behind them and Wall’s departure indicates that. Saskatchewan voters are getting restless about their poor economy and their governments questionable austerity cuts. I suppose their plan B is to create an external enemy or confrontation and if one does not exist, try and create it.

    Years ago I wondered about the number of Saskatchewan license plates on Alberta roads, which seemed to stay constant. That was until someone I met who came from Saskatchewan explained to me the differential in insurance rates. The Conservative government continues to operate the popular government run insurance company which offers cheaper insurance than Alberta’s supposedly “competitive” market served by a number of private insurance companies. Another irony in this story I suppose.

    It is a bit early for Christmas gifts and the Alberta government was likely not expecting one from the wise guy to the east, but they seem to have got one. The Alberta government was quickly and forcefully standing up for Albertans. This could also even be a tad embarrassing for Kenney who has praised the Saskatchewan government on many occasions. I could imagine Mr. Bilous whipped off that statement very quickly, in case the Saskatchewan government somehow came to its senses and realized on its own what a bonehead idea it had. I suspect he had to show a little restraint and give the week deadline, rather than a shorter period, which might have been tempting.

    It will be interesting to see what happens, but I think Mr. Bilous is not bluffing. If the Saskatchewan government does not come to its senses on this quickly soon, they will realize this is something they will deeply regret. Alberta has quietly put up with being the whipping boy for Mr. Wall for quite a while, but now the gloves are off.

  7. Hilarious that a right of centre Wall gets his panties in a knot over licence plates.

    Free trade within Canada? Bah! We believe in order, good government, and as many friggin rules and taxes as possible to protect our corporations and governments’ right to make a profit off every move we make.

    We have the RCMP patrolling the Quebec-NB border for guys buying cheaper beer.

    Back in the ’80s I bought a truckload of coal from a mine in Cape Breton (don’t ask…), and the truck driver had to register as a corporation in Quebec in order to bring it to me in Ontario, because he wasn’t allowed to drive through otherwise.

  8. The folks in the Sask. Gov’t who made this decision are clearly a bunch of hillbillies.

    I suspect that they are not representative of most clear thinking, intelligent Government members or voters.

    It does provide a few days of entertainment value though.

    Wonder what the UCP, whose members seem to have had a love affair with Brad Wall, will think of this. My guess….complete silence. Nothing new there.

    I can only begin to imagine what the US NAFTA agreement team must think of us when the read this. Bunch of
    hick patsies I would imagine.

  9. I wonder where it is that modern conservatives get their fact-averse tendency to believe things even in the absence of evidence… it goes back to their “tough-on-crime, lock ‘em all up” approach to the criminal justice system, despite the strong evidence that such an approach has no effect on crime, other than to make it worse. Look at The Donald, insisting in the face of irrefutable objective evidence (reported by the office of the US Trade Representative, no less) to the contrary, that the US has a trade deficit with Canada

    I have a theory, but I suspect it would be wildly unpopular and potentially offensive even to our host, so I won’t articulate it here, but readers of The Rational Wiki might be able to guess what it might be …

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