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New Brunswick premier says weak Tory results in byelections reveal linguistic divide

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says his party's poor performance in Monday's three byelections is a sign of a deepening political divide along linguistic lines in the province.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs speaks in Fredericton, N.B. on Thursday, February 9, 2023. Higgs says the Progressive Conservatives didn't expect a win from the byelection considering the history of the ridings, which have traditionally formed a strong part of the Liberal's francophone base. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says his party's poor performance in Monday's three byelections is a sign of a deepening political divide along linguistic lines in the province.

The premier told a news conference Tuesday he had not expected his Progressive Conservatives to win any of the ridings, which have traditionally formed a solid part of the Liberals' francophone base. 

And he accused the official Opposition Liberals of fuelling that linguistic divide for political gain. "I feel like we see that politically in the province, where there's certainly a value for the Liberals to maintain a political divide along linguistic lines," Higgs said. 

"And that's unfortunate, because any time we try to maybe say, 'OK, let's address some issues that are causing us not to be stronger as a united province and as a bilingual province,’ it turns into a linguistic divide, and I would say, often fuelled by the Liberal party."

The Liberal party swept all three seats in the eastern New Brunswick ridings of Dieppe, Restigouche-Chaleur and Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore. The Tories received just 8.5 per cent of the vote in Dieppe and 15.7 per cent in Restigouche-Chaleur – finishing a distant third in both – and in Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore, where Liberal Leader Susan Holt was running to enter the legislature, they did not field a candidate.

The Liberals, Greens and a political lobby group for Acadians – Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick – have for months accused the Higgs government of targeting the province's francophone minority with policies and political appointments. 

They include the appointment of Kris Austin as minister of public safety and solicitor general. The Acadian society has said Austin, former leader of the defunct People's Alliance of New Brunswick, once proposed to merge the francophone health system into the English one and abolish the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick.

Higgs had also proposed an overhaul of French-language education in schools, which was dropped in February but not before it caused an uproar. The proposed program would have cut the hours kindergarten and elementary students in the English system spend learning in French – from about 90 per cent of the day to 50 per cent. 

Higgs on Tuesday recognized that some of his government's policies may have contributed to the divide between English and French speakers, but he also said his former education minister, Dominic Cardy, shared some of the blame.

Cardy resigned last October and released a blistering letter calling out Higgs's leadership style and values and accusing the premier of wanting to take a "wrecking ball'' to the education system.

Higgs said Cardy's actions "created some angst in the system, but unnecessarily."

"It wasn't me who said that I was trying to eliminate French immersion. That was not something that I said. That was a former colleague of mine."

Higgs said he doesn't want linguistic groups to be pitted against each other, adding that he wanted to see economic growth and development in all regions of the province. "So, given my optimistic nature I am hopeful that we will get beyond linguistic differences," he said.

"We'll be able to be the real model that I'm trying to achieve here, which is a bilingual province that truly is the only one in Canada and truly benefits from being just that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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