Alberta Draws Academia Into Its Fight With Justin Trudeau

Federal funding promises can shape how much, or how fast, provinces advance their own agenda items, and Alberta wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to know that his to-do list will have to wait.

Premier Danielle Smith announced that the province would take steps, through a bill introduced this month, to reinforce the work that she contends is most important to Albertans and to her United Conservative Party government. This latest attempt to square off with the federal government in Ottawa continues to deepen her party’s view that Mr. Trudeau, a Liberal, has thrust his ideological agenda onto Albertans.

“Albertans don’t want federal funding to show the world how virtuous we are, or to polish Canada’s halo internationally,” Ms. Smith said at a news conference on April 10. “After all, a lot of that money came from hardworking Alberta taxpayers in the first place, but this federal government has not let reality get in the way of a good headline, and never missed an opportunity to grab more control from the provinces.”

[Read Ian Austen’s article from 2022: Conservatives in Western Canada Pass Law Rejecting Federal Sovereignty]

The bill, called the Provincial Priorities Act, would essentially make the Albertan government an arbiter on federal funding deals, with the power to invalidate agreements that its municipalities and health agencies, for example, make with Ottawa. Consultations on the bill are planned for this summer, and it is expected to take effect in early 2025, the government has said.

Postsecondary institutions are also covered by the proposed legislation, raising alarm at university administrations that the government might impede academic freedoms.

Rajan Sawhney, the minister of advanced education, was not present to take questions at the news conference announcing the bill and has largely been silent on the issue. But Ms. Smith offered some insight behind the government’s thinking on the CBC program “Power & Politics,” saying that there wasn’t enough “balance” on university campuses and that she intended to complete a review of federal research grants to assess gaps. She zeroed in on journalism schools and her thoughts that not enough conservative journalists and commentators have come out of those programs.

“I have been given enough indication that the federal government uses its power through researchers to only fund certain types of opinions, certain types of researchers, and I don’t think that’s fair,” she said, adding that it could mean that Alberta uses some of its “own spending power” to support that research.

But colleges and universities in Alberta have seen years of staggering financial cuts that have created a postsecondary education system “on life support,” the University of Calgary Students’ Union said in response to the provincial budget, which was released in February.

Bill Flanagan, president of the University of Alberta, said in a statement that he and other postsecondary partners would be using the bill’s consultation period to push for “targeted exemptions.”

Federal research grants are adjudicated by independent panels of peers, and grants are allocated by three main agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Daniel Paul O’Donnell, president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations and an English professor at the University of Lethbridge, has sat on some of those committees.

“There is a danger that people will self-censor in order to make sure that they make it through the bureaucrats in Alberta,” he said.

He told me about the strict process behind each application review, and the various criteria, such as the qualifications of the researcher and the capacity of the university to support the research, that drive grant approval decisions.

“It would be unethical to create a research question in order to ensure you get funding by matching the provincial government’s interests,” Professor O’Donnell said.

Vjosa Isai is a reporter and researcher for The New York Times in Toronto.

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