In more ways than one, 2018’s provincial election in New Brunswick was historic. First and foremost, it led to the province’s first minority government in a century, and the weeks following the election were full of uncertainty as to who would form a government. While Brian Gallant’s Liberals won the popular vote by six percentage points, they ended up with one seat fewer than Blaine Higgs’s Progressive Conservatives (PCs). Both political parties found themselves in the novel situation of having to rely on smaller political parties to form a government. A month and a half after the election, the incumbent Liberals were defeated in a nonconfidence vote and the PCs went on to form the government with the support of the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB).
The emergence of smaller political parties is another novel element of 2018’s election. The Green Party and the PANB each won three seats, marking the first time since 1991 that four parties are present in the legislature. Together, the Greens, the PANB and the NDP collected 30 per cent of the popular vote in a province where the historic swing between Liberals and PCs has been faltering. No government has succeeded in winning a second term since Bernard Lord’s PCs in 2003, an election where third parties only received 9.7 per cent of the popular vote.
New Brunswick has now had four different premiers since 2006, a clear indication of the population’s growing discontent with its politicians. No political party seems to be able to propose a solid plan to help this small rural province face the many challenges with which it has to grapple: a rapidly aging population, an increasing divide between the main urban cores and the rural hinterland, a growing debt and the ever-present linguistic issues, to name but a few.
The overbearing presence of the language issue during the campaign and the first months of the Higgs government is a third historic element of this election. While the language issue is always present in New Brunswick, the way in which it manifested itself this time was singular. There was a clear divide between Acadian regions, which voted overwhelmingly for the Liberals, and anglophone regions, which voted for the PCs. This divide has always been present to a certain extent, but has been amplified in the last two elections and reached a crescendo in 2018. Higgs became the first unilingual premier in decades, thanks to the support of the openly anti-bilingualism PANB, and the ruling party was left with a single francophone MLA in a province where Acadians represent a third of the population.
Higgs’s past made the marginalization of Acadians in government all the more problematic. Higgs had run for the leadership of the Confederation of Regions (CoR) party in 1989. The CoR, an openly anti-bilingualism party, was in many ways the PANB’s ancestor. To have a unilingual premier with this skeleton in his closet and to have him form a coalition government with a party holding similar views to the CoR on the language issue created unrest within Acadian society.
A year in, where do we stand and how has this minority government fared?
Tiptoeing Around Language
As was to be expected, language, which dominated the campaign, remained an issue. Staff shortages at Ambulance NB were the election’s central topic and one of the first issues tackled by the government. The PANB had argued that bilingual requirements for paramedics – in compliance with New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act (OLA) – were behind these staffing problems. During the campaign, both the PCs and the PANB had argued that bilingual requirements led to recruitment issues and were responsible for idle ambulances in rural regions. Even though Ambulance NB eventually countered these claims, the issue was framed as “lives over language.”
In the government’s first weeks, Health Minister Ted Flemming asked Ambulance NB to disregard the OLA and put an end to bilingual requirements in certain regions of the province. Corrected by his Premier, he flip-flopped and a compromise that respects the OLA and reduced response times in most areas was found. This solution was generally applauded and hinted, in spite of Flemming’s initial disregard for the OLA, that the government would act in good faith with regard to linguistic rights.
Yet another controversy was in the works. In December 2018, it was reported that the former Liberal government had withheld information concerning the Francophonie Games, scheduled to be held in Moncton-Dieppe in 2021. The estimated cost of organizing the games had soared from an initial $17 million to $130 million. In January 2019, after failing to reach a compromise with the federal government, the PCs, who had campaigned on a fiscally conservative platform, announced that they would cancel the games. Some saw the failure to find a compromise as a hostile gesture toward the Acadian community, though most agreed that public money should go toward more urgent issues and durable projects.
Finally, like his Liberal predecessor, Higgs has had a complex relationship with the Commissioner of Official Languages. The office has been without a commissioner since Katherine D’Entremont left her position in May 2018, two years before the end of her term, after what can only be described as a difficult tenure. At a time when linguistic tensions were escalating, leading to the surge in PANB votes, she faced criticism from both the governing Liberals and the opposition PCs. Michel Carrier, who had served as commissioner from 2003 to 2013, was named interim commissioner in July 2018, a position he is still holding almost a year and a half later, even though the OLA states that the position must be filled within a year. The PCs cancelled the nomination process initiated by the Liberals, and instigated a new one in May 2019.
As of October, and as the province celebrates the OLA’s 50th anniversary, a commissioner has yet to be named. The PANB, which holds the balance of power, campaigned to abolish the Office of the Commissioner and have threatened to topple the government if it follows the recommendations proposed by the interim commissioner in his annual report submitted in October 2019. Higgs immediately announced that he rejected parts of the report.
Higgs’s stance on official languages has been to shift the focus from access to service toward education by insisting that anglophone students acquire adequate French skills. While this is long overdue, it goes beyond the scope of the OLA and is in no way a substitute for the government’s obligation. The OLA’s goal has never been to create a bilingual population; rather, it is to ensure that each citizen has access to public services in the official language of their choice.
Given this focus on education, it was no surprise that French immersion once again became a political football. The program, introduced in the 1970s, has been controversial for its limited availability and limited results – after close to 50 years, barely one in five Anglo New Brunswickers is bilingual. After announcing in February that it was considering putting an end to early immersion, the government eventually backtracked and stuck with the status quo. This was another example of how French immersion is a political issue: since 2008 every new government has proposed a new entry point for the program.
Reinventing New Brunswick Schools
Beyond French immersion, education has been a busy topic in the first year of the Higgs government. Perhaps the most controversial proposal made by the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, Dominic Cardy,1 is the implementation of mandatory vaccinations in provincial schools. Under this proposed law, children of parents who refuse vaccination for other than medical reasons would be suspended from school. This would give the province the strictest vaccination policy in Canada. The bill has yet to be passed into law; if it goes through, it will without a doubt face a court challenge.
In October 2019, Minister Cardy released a “Green Paper on Education in New Brunswick.” This paper aims to position New Brunswick as a world leader in education, as did the 10-year education plan published by the previous Liberal government, by taking politics out of the classroom and basing policy on evidence and science. Cardy’s plan would achieve this by giving more power to schools, by redefining the roles of school districts and District Education Councils and by removing grades from kindergarten to second grade, replacing them with “flexible learning environments.” These ideas have received a generally positive reception from experts and practitioners, though specifics haven’t been provided.
Natural Resources, Local Governance and the Climate Crisis
The PCs campaigned on a fiscally conservative platform aimed at reducing the deficit and repaying the debt. The government presented a balanced budget in March 2019 by reducing spending by $215 million – the bulk of which came from infrastructure projects – and thanks to a $185 million increase in federal transfer payments. Even though federal transfer payments were responsible for 85 per cent of the province’s increase in revenue, and represent 30 per cent of the province’s budget, during the first ministers’ meeting in December 2018 Higgs proposed abolishing transfer payments as a way to force provinces to develop their natural resources. This proposal, meant as a jab at Quebec for blocking the Energy East pipeline, was ill-advised and rightfully condemned.
Higgs, a former Irving Oil employee, has actively promoted the oil and gas sector and travelled to Saskatchewan in February 2019 for a rally to revive the Energy East project, a pipeline that would bring oil sands bitumen to the Irving refinery in Saint John. Alongside his Conservative counterparts, either dressed in cowboy attire or wearing “I love Canadian pipelines” t-shirts, he supported Saskatchewan’s legal challenge to the carbon tax (Higgs launched but eventually dropped his own provincial challenge) and pleaded for a nation-building “energy corridor” based on an industry he knows well. However, in the aftermath of the federal election, in which the Liberals won the popular vote in the province and managed to hold onto power, Higgs acknowledged that Prime Minister Trudeau’s climate plan would remain in place and announced that he would finally look into creating either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system for the province.
Unlike the touted evidence-based approach to education policy, the PCs’ longstanding opposition to the carbon tax and the party’s push to expand Canada’s oil and gas industry – including shale gas in New Brunswick – directly contradict the current scientific consensus regarding climate. To be fair, they are not the only party in the country struggling to balance economy and ecology.
New Brunswick’s economy relies heavily on natural resources, especially the forest sector. In their platform, the PCs promised to review the use of herbicide glyphosate on Crown lands, and both the PANB and the Greens proposed to ban its use on Crown forests. With the support of those two parties, action is possible, but has failed to materialize.
In June, Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland announced that NB Power, the province’s publicly owned utility, would cut its use of the herbicide along transmission lines by 30 per cent and that he would organize a cross-party meeting on the issue of glyphosate. Nevertheless, the forest industry continues to rely heavily on the spray. Twenty-eight per cent of all glyphosate used on Canadian forests was used in New Brunswick, even though the province represents 0.7 per cent of the country’s land area. Any action on this front is bound to face strong opposition from the industry.
The government also promised it would review the management of Crown forests, namely the 25-year backroom deal made in 2014 with J.D. Irving – the province’s main player in the forestry sector – by David Alward’s PC government, in which Higgs served as Finance Minister. This deal, which increased the amount of Crown softwood for industrial operations by 20 per cent and significantly reduced protected areas, was opposed by 184 academics. In spite of PANB and Green support on this issue, the government has not yet taken action.
Finally, New Brunswick has a unique model of local governance. With a population of 770,000 (only slightly larger than Mississauga, Ontario), there are 104 municipalities and 237 local service districts (LSDs), the name for unincorporated areas managed by the province. Nearly a third of the province’s residents live in communities without a local government. This fragmented local governance structure and democratic deficit have been an issue for decades. Since the 1990s no government has dared to act on this issue, fearing to lose precious rural votes.
Though the PC platform didn’t specifically address the issue, it proposed to overhaul the Local Governance Act and support regionalization. The government’s actions have been more modest than proposed, but well received nonetheless. The government has allowed municipalities to charge a hotel levy, answering a decades-old demand. It remains to be seen how, or whether, Higgs will tackle deeper structural governance issues.
How Long will the Government Stand?
The PANB offered its support to the PCs for 18 months. This could very well mean New Brunswickers will be heading back to the polls in 2020. The Liberals elected a new leader by acclamation in April. Kevin Vickers, a political outsider and former RCMP officer, became a household name when, as Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, he helped take down Michael Zehaf-Bibeau during his terrorist attack in Ottawa in 2014. The PANB will try to create linguistic controversies to galvanize its base, but is unlikely to advance its position. The Greens will hope to consolidate their advances and to benefit from their party’s recent success in PEI, where the Greens now form the Official Opposition.
Having to rely on the PANB, the PCs haven’t had the opportunity to govern as they had hoped, yet they risk being shut out of Acadian ridings once again. Higgs has not become bilingual and his government’s record remains thin. Many PCs campaign promises have yet to be kept, and those that have been implemented are mostly banal. The challenges of a minority government will probably mean that, come election time, they will have to rely on more than their track record of eliminating the front licence plate, reintroducing juice and chocolate milk in schools, or reviewing the moose tag draw to increase hunters’ chances of receiving a licence.
In the meantime Higgs has warned that, to change the province’s fortune, difficult decisions will have to be made in the coming years. Talking a page from his Liberal predecessor, he insists that “everything is on the table.” In the coming months, we’ll probably see whether what he’s serving at the proverbial table appeals to voters and whether this historic election was an indication of things to come or just a glitch in our province’s long tradition of status quo.