Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in 2019 (Photo: ActuaLitté/Wikimedia Commons).

Ottawa can afford to speak softly on constitutional matters because it carries a big stick.

One of Imperial Oil Resources Ltd.’s drainage ponds at its Kearl site north of Fort McMurray (Photo: Nicholas Vardy).

Readers following the federal reaction to the constitutional nonsense, starting with the Smith Government’s so-called Sovereignty Act and now seeping into new legislation emanating from Alberta these days know that the feds are unfailingly polite and emphasize Ottawa’s willingness to try to work with the United Conservative Party Government for the good of all. 

After all, no one in the federal government wants to give Premier Danielle Smith an opportunity to crow about getting up their nose.

Still, while federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault spoke softly yesterday about the Alberta Energy Regulator’s disgraceful nine months of silence about the flow of toxic sludge from Imperial Oil Resources Ltd.’s Kearl oilsands mine 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, there was a hint of steel in his remarks. 

Mr. Guilbeault called AER’s failure to report the pollution to Environment Canada, or to the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation that are most impacted by the risk from the spill of water containing arsenic, dissolved metals and hydrocarbons, “very worrisome,” which has to be in the running for understatement of the year. 

“For over half a year, the Alberta regulator did not communicate with Environment and Climate Change Canada, nor did they communicate with the Indigenous nations,” Mr. Guilbeault told media in Ottawa yesterday. Alberta has an agreement with Ottawa that all such incidents must be reported to Environment and Climate Change Canada within 24 hours, he said. 

Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage (Photo : David J. Climenhaga).

No such thing happened. Last month, there was an additional release of 5.3 million litres of polluted water from an overflow of an industrial wastewater storage pond. The AER has now placed non-compliance and environmental protection orders on the company. 

Both First Nations say their members harvested food on Crown land near the ongoing release of pollution without knowing about the hazards because nobody bothered to tell them. This makes the public silence of the oil company, the AER and the provincial ministers responsible for the energy and environment portfolios all the more deplorable. 

“Our systems are failing Indigenous peoples, clearly,” Mr. Guilbeault said. “And we need to find solutions.”

For her part, Alberta Environment Minister Sonya Savage, who was energy minister at the time the flow of wastewater from the Kearl mine began, claimed in a statement late last week that she and Premier Smith had only been briefed on the situation by the AER “in the last 24 hours.” 

If that’s so, that’s yet another shocking aspect to this story and suggests that the system is so full of holes the AER is barely capable of doing its nominal job. 

“Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault was offered a briefing today by our government but did not take that opportunity prior to releasing his statement on the matter,” Ms. Savage’s March 3 statement continued huffily. If true, you can hardly blame him. 

University of Calgary environmental law professor Martin Z. Olszynski (Photo: University of British Columbia).

So where’s Ottawa’s quietly carried big stick, you wonder?

Listen carefully to Mr. Guilbeault’s remarks yesterday: “We can’t investigate what we don’t know. There are many problems with this, but we can’t send enforcement officers to do water sampling if we don’t know that there’s a leak, and if we’re not notified as per our agreement that we have to be notified within 24 hours.” (Emphasis added.)

These words have the sound of being carefully chosen. Ever so politely and indirectly, the minister is saying: We know Alberta cannot be trusted to keep its agreements. And bullshit unconstitutional legislation like the Sovereignty Act and changes to trespassing legislation will not stop federal officials from doing their jobs.

As University of Calgary environmental law professor Martin Z. Olszynski has pointed out on social media and in media interviews, changes planned by the UCP to the Petty Trespass Act and the Trespass to Premises Act supposedly intended make it an offence for federal inspectors – say of toxic spills sites in Alberta – are just performative pish-posh. 

Here’s the thing: As Professor Olszynski put it succinctly in a tweet, “In the event of a conflict between valid federal and provincial laws, the federal law is deemed paramount. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.”

That is to say, in well-established federal constitutional law, the doctrine of federal paramountcy says that where there is conflict between provincial and federal laws, “the federal law will prevail and the provincial law will be inoperative to the extent that it conflicts with the federal law.” It’s the same deal in the U.S. Constitution, and Australia’s too, in case you were wondering. 

Federal paramountcy applies to laws in which compliance with the both laws is impossible, but also with legislation where the provincial law is incompatible with the purpose of the federal law, thereby frustrating the federal Parliament’s intention. 

This is clearly the intention of both Alberta’s proposed trespass legislation and its ridiculous new Firearms Act. Supposedly the latter, Bill 8, allows Alberta’s justice minister to enact regulations about how federal law is administered in Alberta.

Alas for Alberta, in the unlikely even it ever actually tries to enforce this performative legislation, provinces can’t just wish federal regulatory regimes away.

As Professor Olszynski told me, the Supreme Court if Canada has already confirmed that firearms regulation is valid criminal law. “The province can try pass its own law based on property and civil rights, but even if that’s successful, if there is conflict with the federal law (e.g. these guns are banned), federal laws prevail.”

It’s the same deal, as he told the Canadian Press, with the trespass laws if they’re used to try to keep federal inspectors from trying to carry out their lawful duties.

CORRECTION: This story has been edited to clarify the timing of the overflow of 5.3 million litres of polluted wastewater at Imperial Oil’s the Kearl mine, which occurred after nine months of seepage of industrial wastewater from the same facility. In addition, a link to the AER’s order has been added. 

Join the Conversation


  1. Yes, the Federal Minister is probably well aware a provincial election is coming up very soon and the current Alberta government is desperate for any fight with the Feds to try boost its popularity. So yes, he is not going to play Smith’s game and for now will walk softly. Likewise, the Feds are probably not going to let the sovereignist tilting provincial government’s questionable trespass and fire arms bait or provoke them. In fact, they may not ever have to, even if Smith manages to stay in power. Afterall the courts may deal with this provincial over reach.

    A lot of the UCP’s action or inaction here plays to their base, but not well to the rest of Albertans. Yes, a lot of Albertans have reservations about the Feds approach to energy and environmental issues, but they also do realize environmental issues and concerns about climate change are valid. The same Albertans may not agree with the Feds muddled approach to gun control, but they are not gun nuts either. So Smith over estimates support in her attempt to stir up battles with the Feds on such issues.

    Perhaps importantly, it wasn’t just the failure of the energy company to notify the Feds and others of this leak. Smith rightly condemned them, but it was also a failure of Alberta’s government oversight regulator to notice this and notify the Feds and others.

    This wider failure does not help the current provincial government’s credibility. Certainly not with the Federal government, which is showing patience for now, but also with Albertans. We also deserve a provincial government that takes our environmental protection more seriously.

  2. This reminds me of what an oilman told me during the Klein years. He claimed that he was involved in a sour gas well blow out in Northern Alberta that killed about 150 buffalo and Klein made truth of the saying ” Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up”. It was all covered up by Klein and the oil industry and no one got to know anything about it. Is it true? I have no proof, but bet it was. He had no reason to lie.

    1. Alan K. Spiller: Knowing how shady Ralph Klein was, I wouldn’t doubt that for a second. Peter Lougheed wasn’t too impressed with Ralph Klein either. He was also saying how the oilsands were being developed wasn’t good. This was brought up when Ralph Klein was premier of Alberta. Here we go again, with Danielle Smith and the UCP. Look at who was at her event in Edmonton, recently. There were plenty of seniors. They are easily fooled, and don’t mind paying $20 billion for something that the oil companies should have been taking care of to begin with.

    2. “And I guess any self respecting rancher would have shot, shovelled and shut up.” 2003. Referring to an outbreak of mad cow disease.

  3. Thanks to the Harper government, the only thing thinner on the ground than AER inspectors are Federal inspectors. Sure, what is left of Federal law may trump Provincial law, but so what? It is meaningless without enforcement. So, stay in your little cities where you can continue to believe this fantasy about the rule of law. Meanwhile out in the real world of rural Alberta, it is a very different, and as the Fort Chip people and any farmer and rancher victimized by the oil industry knows, a highly toxic one.

    1. Kang: The red tape reduction by the UCP, gets these unfortunate results. The land will be so damaged from pollution, that we all will be suffering. Some of the Stephen Harper cabinet members were in Mike Harris’ PC government in Ontario. We know how badly that ended up.

  4. Funny that UCP introduce anti – trespass legislation related to keeping Federal Environment officers off lands when the Alberta regulator was negligent in monitoring the pollution? This tells me the energy minister and premier knew about this long before the news leaked out. Another case to demonstrate how totally unethical the UCP really is.

  5. A casual observer might be tempted to apply the slang term FUBAR [ “not working; completely messed up; bungled; disordered; confused.”] to the ongoing failed regulatory oversight that is meant to either prevent and/or mitigate misadventure and error, even as, the captured regulatory process appears to be structured and implemented by calculated and deliberate design.

    Even as, political lip service still continues, when it is convenient, to publicly and loudly advertise the virtues of accountability, responsibility, and the rule of law. Naturally, where such virtues conflict with and are detrimental to an apparent well established culture of cronyism and regulatory capture there arises the characteristic totenstille [the deathly hush, or dead silence].

    So, it is hardly surprising that there is further evasiveness, deception, and dead silence [when deemed appropriate?!!] from Premier Walking Eagle and her coterie of advisors and benefactors who have been both hypnotized and mesmerized by an idea that could certainly be characterized in graphic terms as turning sh_t into gold. What does all of that mean?

    In concrete terms it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Alberta [UCP] Government approach to and application of ‘the rule of law’ is demonstrative of a consistent pattern of behavior that is suggestive of arrogant noncompliance, where for example;

    “Alberta didn’t live up to the terms of a deal it has with the Northwest Territories to inform it about threats to its shared watershed after two major oilsands tailings spills, the territory’s environment minister said Friday.”


    “Mr. Speaker, this violates the Bilateral Water Management Agreement with Alberta which commits our governments to communicating quickly and transparently about issues which could affect shared waters. This is not the first time that information hasn’t been shared in a timely manner.”


    It might also be noted that the entire oil and gas industry life cycle costs, including the cleanup costs [reclamation and remediation], spillovers, various externalities, ect., according to a Alberta Energy Regulator report “cites a $260-billion price to cover the Alberta oilpatch’s cleanup costs, a figure Observer first reported last November, and that the AER explained away as “a hypothetical, worst-case scenario” in which “industry stopped producing all hydrocarbons.” The September presentation includes $130 billion for mining—mostly the cost of clearing the industry’s massive tailings ponds—plus $100 billion for conventional oil and gas and $30 billion for provincially-regulated pipelines.”

    The result? More dead silence accompanied by zero follow up, or any additional analysis, because the immediate corporate state concern remains focused and concentrated on further short term resource exploitation.


    Even though, “It’s a big deal,” said Thomas Schneider, an accounting professor at Ryerson University who has tracked liability management issues in the oilpatch for years. “I mean $260 billion is a lot of money… We’re sitting on a huge liability, and then it’s just a matter of who’s going to end up having to pay for it.”


    Based on past behavior and practice, going forward are the profits going to continue to remain private and personal, while; the costs and liabilities are socialized? Where both past and current behavior are discussed in the following:

    “Danielle Smith’s Billion Dollar Giveaway to Polluters: Unravelling the R-Star scheme and the history of regulatory capture in the Alberta oilsands, with Regan Boychuk”


    And of course noting the obvious and ‘coincidental’ apparent quid pro quo:

    “Oilpatch funds balloon for pro-Smith political group after she supports royalty break”


  6. I am glad you mentioned the UCP’s planned changes to the Trespass Acts; I am concerned about the consequences of the signals the UCP is sending to their base.

    Messages the UCP has sent their base are:

    1. Its OK to break laws that are not in your best interest.
    2. Its OK to own illegal guns.
    3. Federal employees on your land are trespassing. (Unless you read the fine print)

    Given these messages, it is too easy to imagine some low IQ, gun-toting redneck (pardon the redundancy) to come upon a federal employee on his land legally collecting water samples and decide its OK to take a shot, thinking he is within his rights because of the messages he has heard from his government.

  7. A point of clarification. There are two separate incidents. Leakage from a tailings pond first detected in May 2002 due to the failure of a clay liner. Imperial Oil has been working to correct the leak by reinforcing the liner since last fall. The second release of 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater due to the overflow of a storage pond took place on February 4, 2023, not nine months ago. (Source: AER Order date February 6, 2023)

  8. I guess this will be considered another example of federal over-reach, since the feds decided to rat on Alberta for allowing O & G companies to pollute Alberta’s landscape with their effluent. My suspicion that the goal of the UCP and their fellow travellers is to make Alberta so hostile and so unliveable to anything that would be considered sentient and living, they will just pack up and get out. All the better, because industry will be free to rape and pollute to their hearts’ content.

    I recall, years ago, someone telling me that Evangelicals have no thoughts to give for the state of the environment or the damage that they intend to do to it, this life and this world is only a stop before reaching the better one. He was speaking about the numbers of Evangelicals that were in the RPC and how many of them were, shall we say, the worst people ever. Of course, when you believe that you’re already saved and headed for the afterlife without a worry or care, you would be inclined to break all the furniture before you’ve thrown off your mortal coil. Or, as the Bible says, God gave Man dominion over the earth, so wreck it.

    1. Just: You know, while I no longer hold to their beliefs, I was raised by Evangelicals and I can tell you that the emphasis of what teachings there were about the environment (or, as they would have said, the land) was on stewardship, not dominion. Christianity seems to be transitioning in to a much darker thing and distancing itself from its founder’s teaching. There’s probably a scripture somewhere to explain what’s going on, Matthew 7:15-20, perhaps, or Mark 13: 5-7. DJC

      1. While you may have called them that the evangelical movement as it was even when I was a kid was much different from when you were reared. (You are quite a lot older than this bird ). What his friend told him is accurate. Ditto for climate change, god is in control of the climate anyways don’t you know, he wants us to have control over the capitalist economy, thats the most important teaching of American Jesus.

        1. Bird: I’m not disputing the accuracy of what you say so much as just stating that it is a relatively new thing. As for my age, I imagine I’m older than most of my readers. George VI was King when I was born, Louis St. Laurent was PM, Harry Truman was president, and Joseph Stalin was General Secretary of the CPSU. And I still write a blog post almost every day! DJC

    2. I’m not any kind of authority on religious beliefs, but I think Randi-lee is referring to a sect (or group of sects) called Rapturists. These people apparently believe the end of the world is imminent; that only a few worthy individuals (somewhere I saw the number 144,000; 12 tribes of Israel(?) x 12,000 I guess) will be saved by direct “translation” into Heaven; and the rest of the world (that’s us) will burn in Hell, or somewhere, forever.

      Apparently George Bush the Younger had a lot of these true believers in his administration. That’s why, and when, there was considerable interest in their belief system, all of a sudden. They’ve faded back into the shadows since, but the American religious right is still powerful—as we’ve all seen when they decided to back Donald Trump.

      I would not be surprised if a small but noisy number of Rapturist-wannabes reside in Alberta.

      Their “who cares, you’re all gonna burn anyway” attitude has been contested and refuted by other religious groups, but it sure seems the ones who shout loudest get all the media attention. So, of course, they’re the ones we remember.

      1. Mike: The 144,000 figure comes from scripture – Revelation 7:4 “And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.” Now, the book of Revelation probably doesn’t even belong in the Bible, but that’s a topic for another day. DJC

      2. to Mike J Danysh: “and the rest of the world (that’s us) will burn in Hell, or somewhere, forever.”
        The fundamentalist church of my childhood used the same tactics. Regarding the hellfire to punish our souls for eternity, I always wondered what sort of energy the Almighty uses to fire things up. Coal, natural gas, solar (that’s a stretch), some other fossil fuel or renewable resource? Until the big guy upstairs lets me know, I will have difficulty believing my soul will be consigned to everlasting torment.

      3. There’s an entertaining description of the “Rapture” happening to a modern technological society in the Marci McDonald book I mentioned in another comment here, in which she describes motor vehicles crashing into each other as their drivers get abruptly transported to another plane of existence like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam …

        Now that I mention it, I read that book from the public library, but I may need to own it. It’s too à propos to today’s political scene not to have at the ready.

  9. So, fluorescent fish & buffalo chips….IMHO…. as I had stated in previous post* back in Feb (16 or 17th?) ….I had read an article about the oil spill back then, and there’s an article in the Narwhal
    from Feb 8/2023 ….An Imperial oil tailings pond has been leaking for 9mths….the AER has ordered the company to fix the leak…..
    I’m not sure if this was the one I read or if was another one.
    So we just found out about it…? D&S ..nice try…
    So keep quiet and bring in the no trespassing legislation?

    *That Etch a sketch is working O.T.

  10. So AER somehow failed to notify the Feds that there was a leak. Whoda thunk it? And the environment minister only heard about it after—what? After the CBC outed the story? Hmmm…Ms. Savage says she and the Premier “have been briefed in the last 24 hours”, i.e. on 2 March 2023. Was that the ONLY briefing? Did either of their predecessors get briefings? Was this the ONLY time Smith and Savage heard about the leaks?

    As for Minister Guilbeault refusing a briefing, I can’t say I’m surprised. I wouldn’t want to listen to S&S whining “We never knew!” either.

    This, added to the anti-Fed screeching and tantrums from the UCP/TBA conglomerate is far beyond tiresome. So they’re gonna protect gun owners now, from federal laws? They’re gonna protect farmers from “trespassers” employed by the Feds? Even if they pass these latest excuses for “law,” they’ll either shy away from actually using them—or the courts will strike them down.

    The only upside is that, all the time that Smith & the Taker-Backers are doing their slapstick vaudeville act, they’ll have less time to screw things up by writing more “laws” behind closed doors.

    1. Mike: in the CBC article, Sonya S said she had been informed about the spill on Feb 7th….make of that what you will….there’s too many possibilites I could come up with, especially since it was about this time that Dani seemed to be MIA ??, on holiday in southern climes perhaps, purely conjecture on my part, unless someone else has anything to illuminate the time frame.

      And speaking of Vaudeville acts, if you have the fortitude: PP’S video from the airport on Friday, culminating in the grand finale of lobbying to bring back seal hunting: if that had been on stage, you wouldn’t find him for a month of Sundays, under the “rotten tomatoes ” ….these were another example of his roomba movements…and don’t get me started on Cooper’s actions.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.