FRANCOPRESSE – The political scene in New Brunswick has been plunged into a deep linguistic divide since the 2014 election and it seems unlikely that the poll to be held on September 14 will change anything in the country’s only officially bilingual province.
Marc Poirier – Francopresse
This divide emerged when the Progressive Conservative government of David Alward sought a second term in 2014. The Anglophone prime minister, who had become quite fluent in French to answer journalists’ questions, was facing a newcomer to the Liberal Party (PL): Brian Gallant, young man, early thirties, born to an English-speaking Dutch mother and an Acadian father.
Coming to power in 2010 by electing seven French-speaking MPs and winning nine of the 19 constituencies with a French-speaking majority, David Alward found himself the day after the 2014 election with only one French-speaking MP among the 21 elected members of his party.
However, in the eyes of observers, the Alward government had been rather favorable to Acadian demands, for example having successfully completed, in 2013, a revision of the second version (the first had been adopted in 1969 by the Liberal government of Louis J. Robichaud) from the Official Languages Act from New Brunswick, adopted ten years earlier by another Progressive Conservative government.
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Blaine Higgs, Chief Unilingual
But he was a moderately bilingual anglophone who faced the very bilingual Brian Gallant. “That seems to explain a lot,” says Michel Doucet, professor of retirement law and expert in language rights.
“When they see a chief with an Acadian name, Acadians probably feel more concerned, closer to that person than to an anglophone chief.”
Four years later, in 2018, Brian Gallant’s Liberals face the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party (PPC); Blaine Higgs, finance minister in the Alward government, is unilingual Anglophone, a first for a leader of the two main parties that have been exchanging power for 30 years in the province.
In addition, Blaine Higgs was a member of the late Confederation of Regions (COR) Party, dedicated to eliminating official bilingualism in New Brunswick, and had even attempted to become its leader. It was in the late 1980s; the new PPC chief says he has since changed his views on bilingualism.
But the image was strong and the Acadian electorate did not trust him: for a second consecutive election, only one francophone member was elected among the Progressive Conservatives.
This MP, Robert Gauvin, won in Lamèque-Shippagan-Miscou, one of the two most French-speaking ridings in the province. Voters there nonetheless regularly voted Progressive Conservative, especially for her father, Jean Gauvin, who represented her in the 1980s and 1990s.
A novice in politics and a career actor, Robert Gauvin, appointed to the Cabinet as well as to the post of Deputy Prime Minister, had the difficult task of being the sole representative of an entire community within the government.
Prime Minister Blaine Higgs therefore appears before the electorate without any Acadian MP, as he had done two years ago, the only French-speaking MP at the time to have left politics.
A historical record favorable to Acadians
However, the Progressive Conservative Party has often succeeded in making inroads among francophones in the past. And they are usually given the highest marks for the gains made by the Acadian community since the Liberal era. Louis J. Robichaud – in the 1960s – the first Acadian elected premier of New Brunswick.
“Historically, in terms of language rights, it is always or overwhelmingly the Progressive Conservatives who have taken concrete actions,” said Alexandre Doucet, president of the Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick (SANB).
“When you look at the Liberals, most of the time, their caucus is made up mainly of Francophones, but in concrete actions, they take the vote of Francophones for granted.”
Richard Hatfield’s success with Acadians
It’s unilingual anglophone Richard Hatfield who really succeeded in breaking through the language wall for PPC.
In 1970, Hatfield faced Louis J. Robichaud, who had just spent ten sometimes difficult years in power and had no francophone MP in his caucus.
Hatfield then put an end to Robichaud’s reign by electing three French-speaking MPs, including Jean-Maurice Simard, whom he appointed Minister of Finance. Two other deputies will be elected during the mandate in liberal castles. Jean-Maurice Simard was Hatfield’s francophone lieutenant during his 17-year reign and was at the heart of the party’s political success among the Acadians.
During the 1974 and 1978 elections, the Progressive Conservatives’ lead in the Acadian electorate was modest, with five and four Francophone MPs respectively.
It was in 1982 that the real breakthrough took place: after having – often against certain elements of his party – eliminated bilingual schools, established duality at the Ministry of Education, created French-language school boards, adopted a law recognizing the equality of Francophone and Anglophone communities and enshrining the principles of bilingualism of the province in the new Canadian Constitution, Richard Hatfield reaped the fruits of his accomplishments and had ten Acadian and Francophone MPs elected, one more than the liberals. Never seen.
Five years later, however, the Progressive Conservatives are being swept off the map by new Liberal leader Frank McKenna. It will take 12 years and a long reconstruction for a perfectly bilingual young leader, Bernard Lord, to manage to bring the party back to power by filling up with French-speaking MPs. A record number of 14 Progressive Conservative Acadians MPs are elected, double the number of Liberals.
In the next two elections, the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals will share the number of Acadian members almost equally.
The Acadian vote is not won in advance
This electoral record of the last 50 years shows, according to political scientist Roger Ouellette, that the French-speaking electorate is not frozen. “The Acadian vote is not necessarily captive; he can go to the Conservatives, but it depends on the leader, it depends on the proposals that are made at that time. ”
Alexandre Doucet, of the SANB, underlines that it is precisely with this handicap that the French-speaking progressive-conservative candidates must compose at present. “By not giving them anything concrete to get French votes,” he said, “it is as if he [Blaine Higgs] sent them into the battlefield with their bare hands, against other candidates who have guns. “
The linguistic record of Blaine Higgs during his short two-year mandate is indeed not very good. A minority government, his government remained in power thanks to the support of the Alliance des gens du Nouveau-Brunswick, a party that opposes certain language rights.
At the start of the campaign, Blaine Higgs did not rule out the possibility of review the method of assessing language skills for public service jobs, a long-standing demand from the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick.
“All of this makes him unfriendly to the French-speaking vote,” argues linguistic expert Michel Doucet. And he probably did the math that maybe he doesn’t need the French-speaking vote to be re-elected. If he can get the seats from the People’s Alliance and a few other seats on the anglophone side, he can govern the province without the Acadians. If there are one or two elected on the Acadian side, that will be the icing on the sundae! ”
But that will not solve the basic problem of the PPC, according to Roger Ouellette.
“At some point, the Conservatives will have to ask themselves the following question: do we really want to be a provincial party, do we really want to be a party where both linguistic communities can feel comfortable? If the answer is yes, well they will have to find a leader who is presentable to Francophones and have policies in which Francophones recognize themselves. ”