The Canadian province of New Brunswick held an early provincial election on September 14. Progressive Conservative (PC) Premier Blaine Higgs, who called the election in August, won a majority government.
The PCs, who had a minority government after 2018, won 27 seats. The Liberals got 17 seats, the Greens 3 and the right-wing People’s Alliance (PANB) got 2. The results, however, show that the province is more divided than it’s been in years – along linguistic lines.
New Brunswick’s linguistic divide
New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province. 32% of the population speaks French. They predominantly live in the north of the province. The Acadian Peninsula, the eastern coastline, and the bilingual city of Moncton have large numbers of French speakers. Most are Acadians and have their own distinct collective identity based around the mass expulsion of the Acadians of 1755-1763 (Le Grand Dérangement). They are culturally distinct from other French-speaking Canadians, notably the Québécois.
About 65% of the population speaks English, many descendants of the United Empire Loyalists who fled the American Revolution and settled in the south of the province. The Saint John River Valley and the Bay of Fundy areas both have high numbers of English speakers.
Language and politics in New Brunswick
The linguistic cleavage has played an important role in New Brunswick politics. The Francophone minority has long sought more rights (linguistic equality, French-language education, and reducing regional inequalities). These demands, however, have faced opposition from a portion of the Anglophone majority. Recently, however, political elites in the province have tried to reduce tensions and open conflicts by emphasizing cooperation and compromise.
New Brunswick, like the other Atlantic provinces, has long had a two-party system – Liberals and (Progressive) Conservatives. Like in the other Atlantic provinces, both are traditional brokerage parties. Clientelistic (historically), pragmatic, and primarily driven by political expediency rather than principle.
Politics usually tended to be less ideological and more about personality, local issues, and patronage. Although New Brunswick, in comparison to the other Atlantic provinces, has more ideological politics and a populist undercurrent, particularly in Anglophone areas
Most Francophones tended to support the Liberals. The traditional Conservative base has been old-stock Loyalist Anglophones in rural southern New Brunswick. This area also has a large Baptist population and is one of Canada’s Bible Belts. However, the Liberals retained enough support with Anglophones to win elections, while the Conservatives made efforts to attract Francophone voters. Both parties supported the inclusion of Francophones in government and sought to depoliticize linguistic conflicts.
Louis Robichaud, a Liberal, was the first elected Acadian Premier of New Brunswick, serving between 1960 and 1970. Robichaud’s legacy achievement was the Equal Opportunity program. This was a radical transformation of social services and municipal government that reduced regional inequalities and benefited the poorer French regions.
English and French have been the province’s official languages since 1969, with both linguistic communities being legally equal since 1981. Bilingualism and the equality of status have been entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedom.
Since the 1960s, both major parties have supported the policy of official bilingualism and advanced minority language rights. Richard Hatfield’s PC government (1970-1987) passed laws recognizing the equality of both linguistic communities and separated school boards along linguistic lines (educational duality). Frank McKenna’s Liberal government (1987-1997) had the Canadian constitution amended to recognize the equality of the two linguistic communities. Bernard Lord’s PC government (1999-2006) adopted a new, modernized, and strengthened Official Languages Act in 2002.
Resistance to official bilingualism
A substantial minority of Anglophone voters have opposed bilingualism or the implementation thereof. Critics of bilingualism claim that it is ineffective, too expensive or discriminates against those who don’t speak French.
The Confederation of Regions (CoR) party won 21.2% and 8 seats in the 1991 election, placing second. The CoR was a right-wing, anti-establishment populist protest party opposed to official bilingualism. It wanted to make English the only official language and to limit services in French.
The CoR benefited from a perfect storm: the weakness of the PCs after their landslide defeat in 1987 (the Liberals won every single seat!), the unpopularity of Brian Mulroney’s federal Conservative government, the Meech Lake constitutional reform debacle, and the poor shape of the economy in the early 1990s. The list goes on. However, the CoR’s success was short-lived. Wracked by internal divisions, the party lost all its seats in 1995.
The People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB) won 12.6% and 3 seats in 2018 and is sometimes compared to the CoR. Like the CoR, the PANB is a right-wing populist, anti-establishment party.
The PANB isn’t against official bilingualism, but advocates for “linguistic fairness” and “common sense language policies”. They wish to end duality in government services, abolish the Official Language Commissioner, limit bilingual hiring requirements, and lower language requirements for civil service jobs. They argue that the money spent on official bilingualism would be better used to invest in frontline services.
The People’s Alliance has repeatedly denied that they’re anti-Francophone or anti-bilingualism. But for Francophone civil society groups, the PANB’s ideas go against the very foundations of duality in the province.
The PANB was founded in 2010 and is led by Kris Austin. Austin is a former interdenominational minister and deputy mayor of Minto. The party ran just 14 and 18 candidates in 2010 and 2014 respectively and won relatively little support (1-2%) – although in 2014 Austin came within 26 votes of winning a seat.
New Brunswick’s recent politics
For years, the province had strong, emblematic leaders who served several terms. Indeed, prior to 2010, no government had lost reelection after just one term. Premiers like Louis Robichaud, Richard Hatfield, Frank McKenna, and Bernard Lord all served long mandates.
However, the three previous governments lost reelection after just one term in office. In 2010, Shawn Graham’s Liberals lost in a landslide to David Alward’s PCs. In 2014, Alward’s PCs in turn lost reelection to Brian Gallant’s Liberals. Finally, in 2018, Gallant’s Liberals lost to Blaine Higgs’ PCs after an inconclusive election.
Facing many challenges
New Brunswick’s economy was never strong and is dependent on federal transfers for a good chunk of its revenues. Successive governments have needed to deal with a weak economy, sluggish growth, and poor public finances. GDP growth has been lower than 1% every year since 2007, except in 2010 and 2017. In 2019, New Brunswick’s economy grew by just 0.98%. New Brunswick’s unemployment rate was 8% in 2019 (down from 10% in 2013), compared to 5.7% in Canada.
In the 2016 Census, New Brunswick was the only province whose population decreased from 2011 (-0.5%). Since 2016, however, the province’s population has increased thanks to immigration and even net positive inter-provincial migration. New Brunswick’s population stood at 776,800 in 2019. But with youth unemployment still at 13%, many young people still seek opportunities in more dynamic provinces. As a result, New Brunswick has one of the oldest populations in Canada – 21% are over the age of 65.
New Brunswick had budgetary deficits between 2008-9 and 2017-8. The Alward PC government adopted austerity measures in spite of its electoral promises. However, it was unable to balance the budget by 2014 because of weak economic growth. Gallant’s Liberals continued with cost-cutting measures, raised taxes on the rich, and increased the sales tax by 2%. But like their federal colleagues, the Liberals also increased spending on education, healthcare, seniors, and job creation. This meant more debt and a delayed return to fiscal balance. By 2018, the province was still posting a $189 million deficit.
The 2018 Election
Going into the 2018 election, the governing Liberals pointed to positive economic numbers, as well as investments in infrastructure, education, and healthcare. They promised a host of left-wing reforms if they won another term.
The Progressive Conservatives were led by Blaine Higgs, David Alward’s finance minister from 2010 to 2014. Higgs is a unilingual English-speaker who was involved with the CoR in the 1980s. At that time, he opposed New Brunswick’s Official Languages Act. He also complained about Francophones who could speak the ‘common language’ (English) but refused to do so. He now claims that he appreciates the benefits of bilingualism, and, in 2014, promised that he would learn French.
The PCs attacked the “reckless spending” of the Liberals. They promised to eliminate the deficit within 2 years without cuts to health or education. The Tories didn’t make any ambitious and expensive promises, with Higgs saying that elections shouldn’t be vote-buying exercises.
In 2014, the Green Party, led by former environmental organizer David Coon, won 6.6% and Coon’s riding of Fredericton South. Coon was the second Green to win a seat in a Canadian provincial legislature. Having a foothold in the legislature allowed the Greens to establish themselves as the province’s leading centre-left alternative. The New Democrats (NDP) in the province are weak and unstable. Their platform included setting a cap on industrial carbon pollution, among other left-wing priorities.
2018 Election Results: Deadlocked
The 2018 election ended with no clear winner. For the first time since the 1920 election, no party won an absolute majority. The PCs won 22 seats, while the Liberals won 21 seats. The Greens won three seats, with Coons being joined by two new MLAs from Kent North and Memramcook-Tantramar. The PANB surged and won three seats, including Kris Austin in Fredericton-Grand Lake. However, the governing Liberals won the popular vote by a sizable margin. They won 37.8% of the vote against 31.9% for the PCs.
The Liberal vote was inefficiently distributed across the province. They won by large margins in the Francophone seats in the north but did poorly in the south. On the other hand, the Conservatives performed awfully in most Francophone seats, electing just one Francophone MLA.
Although Higgs claimed victory, Gallant did not resign and as the incumbent attempted to seek the confidence of the legislature. The PANB and the Greens held the balance of power, and both major parties would need their support. The PANB said it would work with any party but that it wouldn’t sacrifice its values. The Greens said they could work with the Liberals or Conservatives.
A few days after the election, Austin agreed to support a PC government on a “bill-by-bill” basis for 18 months. The PANB’s support gave Higgs enough support to form a government. The Greens, courted by the Liberals, announced that they wouldn’t side with any party.
On November 1, Gallant’s Liberal government was defeated in a vote of no confidence (25 to 23). Higgs was sworn in as Premier on November 9.
Blaine Higgs’s Government
Higgs’s new government moved quickly to balance the budget and reduce the debt. In December 2018, it introduced a capital budget that slashed more than $200 million from planned infrastructure spending. In March 2019, the PCs tabled a balanced budget – although the province already had a surplus 2017-19. The budget made cuts to some programs, but otherwise made few sweeping changes to government spending. More notably, the budget projected that the net debt would be reduced for the first time in 13 years.
The government’s 2020 budget, tabled just before the pandemic, projected a surplus of $92.4 million. However, following the pandemic, a fiscal update from May now projects a nearly $300 million deficit.
The government fought a year-long legal battle with unionized nursing home workers over their right to strike. In December 2019, a bill conditionally allowed nursing home workers to strike. Unions opposed a controversial clause in the bill which requires labor arbitrators to consider the government’s “ability to pay” in salary disputes. A new collective agreement providing for 9.75% salary increases over 6 years was agreed to in July 2020.
The PCs opposed the federal carbon tax, which was imposed on New Brunswick in April 2019 by the federal government. They joined other conservative provincial governments – Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – in challenging the constitutionality of the law. However, Higgs dropped his opposition after Liberals won a majority of federal seats in the province last fall. New Brunswick has since moved towards adopting its own provincial carbon tax, which was approved by Ottawa.
In February 2020, the government announced that six ERs would close at night. This decision sparked angry protests in affected communities. Robert Gauvin, the deputy premier (and the only Francophone Tory MLA), resigned and sat as an independent. Another Conservative MLA also publicly opposed the plans. A week later, Higgs backtracked and canceled the ER closures, pending local consultations.
Higgs and Francophones
Higgs has had a shaky relationship with Francophones. In early 2019, New Brunswick pulled out of hosting the 2021 Francophonie Games in Moncton-Dieppe after costs balooned. Some said the provincial government planned to scuttle the games all along.
Shortly after taking office, the government announced that it would relax bilingual hiring requirements for ambulance paramedics in some regions – an issue championed by the PANB. A month later, the government reversed its position, declaring that each ambulance should have a bilingual employee. In May 2019, a court ruled that relaxed bilingual requirements for paramedics would violate the Official Languages Act.
In October 2019, Higgs rejected several of the recommendations in the Commissioner of Official Languages’s annual report. The premier rejected the creation of an official languages secretariat, which would improve compliance with the law. The PANB opposes the existence of the commissioner and threatened to withdraw support if Higgs implemented any of the recommendations.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
Gauvin’s resignation and the death of a PC MLA in September 2019 reduced the Conservative seat total to 20. However, the COVID-19 pandemic ended talk of a snap election. Like other jurisdictions, New Brunswick was quick to close schools and non-essential businesses.
New Brunswick has weathered the pandemic rather well. The province has recorded 200 cases and two deaths, avoiding large outbreaks. New Brunswick and the three other Atlantic provinces lifted travel restrictions among themselves, forming the “Atlantic bubble”. So far, New Brunswick has avoided the “second wave” now faced by all other provinces outside Atlantic Canada.
The unemployment rate hit 13.2% in April 2020 but has since fallen back to 9.4%. The province’s COVID-19 recession is less severe than in other provinces.
By the summer, with COVID-19 cases staying low, Higgs began hinting at the possibility of a snap election. In early August, Higgs made an offer to opposition parties to avoid an election until 2022 or the end of the pandemic. The Liberals pulled out of negotiations, saying that it would hand too much power to Higgs. On August 17, Higgs called an election, trying to cash in on the popularity of his COVID-19 response. The PCs enjoyed a sizable lead in the polls over the Liberals.
The 2020 Election
The PCs in search of a majority
Premier Blaine Higgs sought to focus voters’ attention on his widely-praised pandemic response. He reminded voters that the province had a low infection rate and was leading the country in economic recovery. Higgs argued that a PC majority government would offer stability to lead the recovery. However, he made few significant promises and the party released their platform only four days before the vote. Many of their electoral commitments had already been announced in the 2020 budget.
The PC campaign focused on economic recovery, offering help to businesses to automate and compete in a digital world. The Tories didn’t offer any timeframe as to balancing the budget again but said they wouldn’t raise taxes. After the plan to close six rural ERs, Higgs said that he wouldn’t close any ERs.
The Liberals were led by Kevin Vickers, who had no prior political experience. Vickers, a retired RCMP officer, is the former Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons and the former ambassador to Ireland. Vickers was widely hailed as a hero for his role in the October 2014 shootings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. After serving as ambassador, Vickers was acclaimed as the new leader of the NB Liberals in March 2019.
The Liberals cast doubts about the recovery, saying that the government had invested less than any other province in the economy.
However, their platform differed little from that of the PCs and made few ambitious promises. They pledged to balance the budget no later than 2023 and denied PC claims that they would raise taxes. Hitting back at the PCs, the Liberals said they wouldn’t balance the budget on the back of the vulnerable.
Vickers tried to stake out his differences with Higgs on certain issues. He promised to launch an inquiry into systemic racism in law enforcement and the judiciary, something the PCs refused. Calls for an independent inquiry have increased after the high-profile deaths of three indigenous persons. The Greens and NDP also support an inquiry.
The Liberals, as well as the Greens and the NDP, promised to cover abortions performed at a Fredericton clinic. The province does not cover out-of-hospital abortions, something which the federal government says violates the Canada Health Act.
Kevin Vickers, who didn’t have a seat in the legislature, ran in Miramichi (his hometown), a PANB riding. The other star Liberal candidate was Robert Gauvin, the Francophone Tory defector.
The Greens “New Vision”
The Green Party presented itself as an alternative to the old parties, offering “real change” with a new vision.
With the pandemic, the Greens focused on rebuilding good government and public services. They promised to increase funding for the Chief Medical Officer, move to a not-for-profit model for future nursing home developments, increase wages for nursing home workers, establish community clinics, decentralize hospital and clinic management, eliminate prescription drug premiums for low-income families, implement a universal childcare system and to increase funding for universities so they can reduce tuition fees.
The Greens wish to transition the electricity system to 100% renewable energies by 2035 and immediately ban the extraction of “climate-changing fossil fuels” including shale gas. In power, the PCs carved out a local exemption to the shale gas moratorium.
As part of their vision for a green economy, the party wants to replace imported good with locally-sourced products, greatly expand public transportation, take public forest management away from private corporations and ban clearcutting and the spraying of herbicides (i.e. glyphosate) on public forests. The Liberals, PANB, and NDP also support banning glyphosate spraying on Crown forests.
The Greens also promised to increase the minimum wage to $15, launch a guaranteed liveable income, increase social assistance rates, require pay equity in the private sector by 2025 and guarantee paid sick leave, vacation and paid overtime for all workers under the Employment Standards Act.
The People’s Alliance’s Case for Relevance
The People’s Alliance tried to make a case for its relevance in this election, after having backed the Tories. Their polling numbers had slumped since 2018.
One of their arguments was that minority governments work, claiming that they had held the government accountable. They pointed to accomplishments like averting ER closures and stopping mandated bilingualism in nursing homes.
The PANB said that “language fairness” is still their “top priority”, reiterating their view that duality in healthcare has to be eliminated and the money reinvested, and that changes are required in the linguistic proficiencies required for many jobs. The party also claims that French immersion in schools is a “failure”.
In a CBC interview, Kris Austin said that his party’s positions wouldn’t put Francophones at risk. Instead, he claims, it’s an issue of how bilingualism is implemented. He argued that adequate services would be offered even with lower French requirements for some civil service jobs.
Some Alliance supporters, however, are reported to be frustrated over the little the party has been able to achieve. Some more radical supporters were angry that the PANB hadn’t introduced their petitions to repeal official bilingualism in the legislature. Austin said that these petitions went far beyond the “common sense” policies the party supports. Nevertheless, the Alliance hasn’t been able to push for many changes to official bilingualism in the province.
The party didn’t even offer a new platform this election, instead reusing their 2018 platform. They highlighted issues like ending corporate welfare, tax reform, focusing on small business growth and banning glyphosate spraying on Crown lands.
The Absent NDP
The provincial New Democrats have never enjoyed much support. It has never held more than two seats in its entire history (the second came in a by-election win in 1984). The NDP has been struggling ever since Elizabeth Weir – leader between 1988 and 2005 and four-term MLA – resigned in 2005. With no stable base and few loyal voters, different leaders have been able to take the small party in rather different ideological directions – never with much success.
The party has gone through eight permanent and interim leaders since 2005. Roger Duguay, a former Catholic priest, moved the party to the centre in the 2010 election and won 10% (the party’s best result in nearly 20 years) but no seats. His successor, Dominic Cardy, an admirer of Tony Blair, moved the party even more to the centre. He adopted “right-wing language” like lower taxes, fiscal responsibility, and lean government. In doing so, he alienated many of the party’s traditional supporters in organized labour and environmental groups. Still, Cardy’s NDP won 13% in 2014 – the party’s best showing – although it still failed to win any seats. After feuding with labour unions and facing even greater criticism, Cardy resigned as party leader in 2017. Some months later, Cardy joined the PCs. Elected to the legislature as a Conservative in 2018, Cardy has been Minister of Education in the PC cabinet.
The party has now shifted back to the left. Jennifer McKenzie, the party’s leader in the 2018 election, emphasized traditional social democratic planks. However, the party’s support fell to just 5% in the last election.
Since then, the NDP has been struggling to stay afloat. A leadership convention scheduled for 2019 needed to be cancelled, and a leadership election scheduled for 2020 was rescheduled to next year because of the pandemic. Therefore, the NDP went into the election led by an interim leader, 23-year old hotel employee Mackenzie Thomason. The NDP only ran candidates in 33 ridings. Many of their candidates were young.
In a CBC interview, Thomason said that moving back and forth between the centre and centre-left hadn’t worked for the party and that the NDP needs to cement itself as the party of the left. The party campaigned on left-wing issues like raising the minimum wage, creating 24,000 childcare spaces, universal pharmacare, raising taxes on large corporations, eliminating tuition fees at community colleges and introducing a carbon reduction program. During the campaign, Thomason attended a ‘defund the police’ event.
The 2020 Election Results
The PCs, as expected, won their gamble and were returned to power with a majority government. Higgs’s Tories won 39.3% of the vote and got 27 seats out of 49, a net gain of five from the 2018 election. Their popular vote tally increased by about 7.5%. The Liberals slumped to 34.4% (down about 3.5%) and 17 seats, a net loss of four seats.
The Greens increased their vote by over 3 points to 15.2% and held their three seats. The People’s Alliance resisted somewhat better than expected, holding two of their three seats as their vote fell to 9.2%, down 3.4% from the last election. The NDP collapsed to just 1.7%, their worst result since 1967.
The PCs had led every opinion poll over the campaign, save for one which showed them tied.
Overall, turnout in Canada’s first election amidst the pandemic dipped only slightly to 66.1%. In 2018, turnout was 67%.
Winners and losers
Blaine Higgs successfully rode the popularity of his pandemic response to a majority government, which will give him the stability he had been craving. He also benefited from the weakness of the Liberals and their novice leader, Kevin Vickers. The election was a personal defeat for Vickers: he was badly defeated in his own riding, Miramichi, losing to PANB incumbent Michelle Conroy by 16.5%.
The PCs gained the ridings of Moncton East, Moncton South, Saint John Harbour, Fredericton North and Carleton-Victoria from the Liberals, and regained Fredericton-York from the Alliance. The Liberals gained the seat of Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, Robert Gauvin’s seat as a Tory in 2018.
The Greens had another successful election, increasing their support to a record-high 15.2% and having their three incumbents re-elected. The Greens made further inroads in the province’s three major urban areas (Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John), while also performing well in some Francophone seats in the north and southeast.
Somewhat disappointingly for them, however, their increase in support did not translate into any new seats. The Greens placed second in 12 seats, although they only came within ten points of the winner in one. The Greens finished 9.7% behind the victorious PC candidate in Fredericton North, the other urban seat in the capital and their main target. In Moncton Centre, the Greens came within 11.5% of the Liberal incumbent.
The People’s Alliance may be happy with their performance, after some had predicted that the party could be wiped out entirely.
While they likely lost some of their voters to the Conservatives and lost one of their seats (Fredericton-York) to the PCs, they retained two seats. Kris Austin was easily re-elected with a reduced majority in Fredericton-Grand Lake, the seat which he had gained from the Tories in 2018. He won 46.4% against 30.6% for the PCs. In Miramichi, where Michelle Conroy had defeated a Liberal incumbent by 12 points in 2018, she was re-elected against Vickers with a 16.5% majority. She likely benefited from strategic voting by some Conservatives, as PC support remained low in the riding (19.3%).
The Alliance finished second behind the PCs in 6 ridings. They only came relatively close in Saint Croix, where they finished 13 points behind the Tories with 32% of the vote. However, they likely benefited from the Liberal candidate being unendorsed by the party for a homophobic tweet. However, in Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin, where they lost by just 35 votes last time, they were trounced by the Tories in a 20-point rout.
A Linguistically Polarized Election
While the PCs won a majority, the 2020 election was one of the most linguistically polarized elections in decades. As mentioned, the 2018 election was already linguistically polarized. This year as even more divided along linguistic lines.
The Conservatives did not win any seat where Francophones make up a plurality/majority of the population. They elected just one Francophone MLA – Daniel Allain, who gained the seat of Moncton East from the Liberals. That riding is 54% Anglophone, 41% Francophone. The PCs were entirely shut out of northern New Brunswick.
On the other hand, the Liberals did extremely poorly in the Anglophone regions, particularly rural southern New Brunswick. In several Anglophone ridings, the Liberals placed third or even fourth. In only 14 of the 27 seats won by the Tories did the Liberals finish in second behind them; the Greens finished second in 7 PC-won seats, the PANB finished second in 6 PC-won seats. But even in those seats where the Liberals were second to the Tories, they were often a very distant second.
The Liberals lost their last standing rural Anglophone seat, Carleton-Victoria. Liberal incumbent Andrew Harvey was defeated by the Conservatives by a 5.3% margin – still an impressive performance for a Liberal in rural Anglophone NB. He did well in Perth-Andover, whose hospital ER was among the six slated for closure by the PCs in March.
Elsewhere, however, it was largely a bloodbath for the Liberals. The riding of Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West provides a striking example. Much of the area had Liberal MLAs since 1978 until 2018. This year, the PCs held the seat with 66.5% against just 10.2% for the Liberals; the Liberal vote collapsed by 20 points from 2018 (and 52% from 2014!).
Only two of the 17 Liberal seats have an Anglophone majority – Moncton Centre (which is still 42% Francophone) and Miramichi Bay-Neguac (34% Francophone). In the latter seat, the Liberals won thanks to their massive margins in the Acadian communities of Neguac and Alnwick.
The Greens are the only party whose support straddles the linguistic borders: they did well in both Francophone and Anglophone regions. They placed second behind the Liberals in five seats, including Moncton Centre (which includes the Université de Moncton). Green incumbent Kevin Arseneau was re-elected with an increased majority in Kent North despite a strong Liberal candidate.
Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou offers the most striking example of the linguistic polarization this year. In 2018, it was the only Francophone seat won by the Tories (with Gauvin, who was elected this year as a Liberal in Shediac Bay-Dieppe). The Liberals regained it this year, taking an astounding 83.8% of the vote against just 8.8% for the Conservatives!
Of course, this is the most extreme example. In some Francophone seats (Shediac Bay-Dieppe, Kent South, Bathurst West-Beresford, etc.), the PCs did make some gains.
In a post-election interview, Higgs didn’t give much thought to the linguistic divide, insisting that it was a political split rather than a language split. He claimed that many northern New Brunswick ridings are long-time Liberal strongholds. While it’s true that the Francophone north has, more often than not, voted predominantly Liberal, the linguistic split hasn’t been this clear since the late 1960s.
PC leaders like Richard Hatfield, Bernard Lord and David Alward all won a number of Francophone seats. In 1982, Hatfield’s PCs made a strong push for the Acadian vote and won a larger majority thanks to their significant inroads in the north and other Francophone areas. Bernard Lord, who won two majorities in 1999 and 2003, was born in Quebec to a Francophone mother, raised in a bilingual household and attended the Université de Moncton. Under his leadership, the PCs won many Francophone seats.
Madawaska County in northwestern New Brunswick, which has a separate regional identity to the other Francophone areas, has often voted Conservative. In the 1995 election, when the PCs were led by local politician Bernard Valcourt, three of their six seats were won in the Madawaska! The Liberals won both Madawaska seats in 2014. They held them both this year with landslide margins, taking 66.5% in Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston and 74.5% in Edmundston-Madawaska Centre.
It’s already been said why Francophones were already skeptical of the Higgs PCs in 2018. Since then, he hasn’t done much to change that. He formed government with support of the PANB, a move widely decried by many Francophones including several Tories. While his government did increase the budget of the official languages commissioner, he rejected most of its recommendations. The PC platform didn’t pay much attention to linguistic issues, besides a pledge to increase the number of Francophone immigrants. During the campaign, Higgs didn’t rule out the PANB’s idea to modify linguistic requirements for civil service jobs. In sum, Higgs appears largely uninterested by linguistic and cultural issues.
The Liberals and the Greens paid a bit more attention to linguistic issues. For example, both parties promised to create a standing committee on official languages in the legislature.
Blaine Higgs got the majority he was looking for, but he’ll need to deal with a province which is divided along clear regional and linguistic lines. From his comments on election night, it doesn’t appear as if bridging the linguistic divide in New Brunswick will be a top priority – granted, there are other, more pressing, concerns right now. His victory speech didn’t address Francophones as a community, instead speaking of geography (north and south). In his new cabinet, his only Francophone MLA, Daniel Allain, will be minister of local government. Glen Savoie – whose father was Francophone and is fully bilingual – remains minister responsible for La Francophonie.
On the other side of the divide, the Liberals have their work cut out for them if they want to return to government in four years. They need to regain their appeal with Anglophone voters in Fredericton, Saint John and even some parts of rural southern New Brunswick. That may be hard to do when most of their remaining MLAs are Francophones from Acadian ridings.
In the end, however, Higgs got his majority in spite of an historically bad performance among Francophone voters. He called a snap election amid plaudits for his management of the pandemic, and it paid off.
British Columbia’s Premier John Horgan will be trying to do the same, as he too has called for an early election to win a majority and get rid of his three-year old confidence and supply deal with the Greens. So far, it seems like he will win his gamble too.