EDMONTON — Alberta is taking legal action against Saskatchewan’s licence plate ban, calling it a slam-dunk case over a small-minded policy.
“This petty and ridiculous restriction has real consequences for businesses and hard-working people on both sides of the border — and we are going to end it,” Alberta Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous said Thursday.
“We have every confidence we will win this dispute.”
Last week, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s government announced a ban on Alberta plates on any vehicles doing business on future Saskatchewan government road and building construction sites.
Alberta and Saskatchewan are both members of the New West Partnership interprovincial free trade deal.
Bilous said Alberta has filed the paperwork to have the dispute heard by a New West arbitration panel.
He said the process could take until next fall, with Saskatchewan facing up to $5 million in penalties if it’s found they broke the rules promising free and equal access for anyone seeking work or contracts in another province.
Bilous said if any money is awarded, it would be divided up among firms affected by the licence plate ban.
He had earlier promised to impose other “consequences” outside the lawsuit, but said Thursday he will focus on the free trade panel because there is no benefit escalating the dispute.
“What we want to avoid, quite frankly, is engaging in a process that will see continued escalation,” he said.
In Regina, the government stood by the ban.
Saskatchewan Economy Minister Steven Bonk said they were surprised Alberta had threatened litigation under the New West Partnership given the two provinces have already agreed to meet in Lloydminster next month to try to resolve the dispute.
“We were a little taken aback by this,” Bonk said.
He said there are other concerns that will be addressed in Lloydminster, including recent changes to Alberta’s tax structure on beer to help grow its own craft brew industry.
“It’s definitely our hope to settle this amicably,” said Bonk.
Wall’s team has given multiple reasons for the licence plate ban, but says it is primarily a response to similar rules on Alberta job sites.
Bonk said they have anecdotal information from Saskatchewan contractors but declined to name them because he said they fear retribution on Alberta sites if they go public.
“They’re hoping to do more business in Alberta, but they’re worried about being discriminated against if they were to bring their concerns forward,” he said.
Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason says those rules don’t exist in print or in practice.
“I’ve had detailed conversations with officials in my department,” said Mason. “I’ve reached out to construction associations and contractors, and nobody has told me that Saskatchewan licence plates are unwelcome on government job sites in our province.”
Bilous has also accused Saskatchewan of applying the licence plate ban to not only new contracts as promised, but also to existing ones.
Bonk said that is not the case.
Service Alberta, the department that handles licences, says a non-resident needs to register a vehicle if it is in Alberta for six months or more. However, commercial vehicles and trucks are not included in the requirement.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press