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Second in a three-part series about Premier Blaine Higgs, the Irvings and the politics of New Brunswick.
Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs sits atop a political fissure in New Brunswick — one he helped open, back in another life.
With more than 30 per cent of its population francophone, New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province. But as a young man, Higgs didn’t care for the province’s Official Languages Act, which guarantees bilingual public services. In 1989, he ran for the leadership of the Confederation of Regions Party (CoR), a right-wing anti-francophone party that wanted to scrap the law. Higgs placed second.
For a time, CoR threatened to upset the traditional alternation in power of two parties in New Brunswick — Conservative and Liberal, the latter with a lock on most of the francophone vote. In the 1991 election, CoR bested the Conservatives, winning eight seats to their three (the Liberals won 46). However, the internally-divided party soon disappeared.
In 2010, Higgs joined the Progressive Conservative party, having changed his mind about the Official Languages Act. In fact, his four daughters had enrolled in French immersion.
In the interim, Higgs had logged a 33-year career with Irving Oil, one arm of an Irving empire many observers see as the real seat of power in New Brunswick.
Higgs won the suburban Saint John seat of Quispamsis in the Tories’ election victory that year, and was appointed finance minister in David Alward’s government. A fiscal hawk, he was soon asking New Brunswickers “to consider what's needed versus what's wanted.”
Much to his chagrin, he failed to balance the budget once over the next four years.
Still, Higgs was popular.
“People loved him,” one CBC journalist based in the province said. “He seemed genuinely shocked at how government could spend money on crazy stuff...he was just straightforward, even criticizing his own party sometimes.”
But, like its predecessors, the Alward government was eager to help the Irvings. One of the causes Higgs embraced was the $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline, which Irving Oil began lobbying for. The pipeline, proposed by TransCanada Corp., was designed to ship 1.1 million barrels of bitumen a day from Alberta’s oilsands to Saint John to be refined and exported.
It was to be the longest pipeline — more than 4,600 kilometres — in North America.
“Blaine did a lot of work while he was finance minister, behind the scenes, really hustling (for) Energy East,” said former Irving Oil president Mike Ashar.
On another front, the Alward government folded under pressure from J.D. Irving Ltd., the sister company of Irving Oil, agreeing in 2014 to alter a forestry agreement to make it more beneficial to the company’s interests. The amount of Crown land put aside for conservation was chopped down due to pressure from the company.
Yet it was another issue in which the Irvings had an interest — hydraulic fracking for gas — many observers saw as deciding the Tories' fate at the polls that year.
Protests against fracking had turned violent at a small First Nations community in 2013. With Liberal leader Brian Gallant promising a moratorium on fracking, Alward was defeated. (Higgs retained his seat of Quispamsis, outside Saint John.)
In 2016, Higgs ran for party leader, despite being an unpopular choice within the PC caucus: many party members were afraid his inability to speak French would harm the party’s prospects. Higgs won the leadership on the third ballot — only two members of his current caucus supported him.
Since '06, no party has held office more than one term
But if New Brunswickers continued to alternate Liberal and Conservative governments, the old order was still unsettled: since 2006, no government has retained power for more than one term.
As Rick Doucett, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners, observes: “People are frustrated with the traditional parties going in and managing the status quo — when only a select few benefit from the status quo.”
This came to bear in the 2018 election. Higgs won 22 seats while Gallant won 21. Gallant tried to hold on to power — his party had, after all, won the popular vote, 38 per cent to 32 per cent. Scenarios put upstart parties in the kingmaker role.
Green Leader David Coon, who became the party's first MLA in 2014, was joined by two colleagues. But while the Greens got three seats with about 12 per cent of the vote, so did the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB), a right-wing populist successor to CoR founded in 2010.
The scenario of a Liberal-Green coalition did not come to pass and the Liberals made it clear they would not get into bed with the People’s Alliance due to its stance on francophone issues. Finally, Gallant conceded to Higgs, who made a deal with PANB for legislative support.
(As for the NDP, its vote collapsed to five per cent, with the party's leader from 2011 to 2016, Dominic Cardy, running successfully for the Tories and subsequently finding a seat in Higgs's cabinet.)
Gallant soon stepped down as Liberal leader. With scant interest being expressed in the job, the party persuaded Kevin Vickers to run, and he was acclaimed in April.
New Liberal leader is a political neophyte
Born in Miramichi in northern New Brunswick, Vickers spent 29 years with the RCMP and is a former ambassador to Ireland.
He’s most famous for his stint as sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons. In 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau rushed into the Centre Block carrying a rifle, having shot and killed a soldier at the capital's nearby National War Memorial. Vickers and another guard confronted Zehaf-Bibeau, shooting him fatally.
When I met with Vickers at the Liberal Party offices in Fredericton, the 62-year-old said he became leader because he felt something was “happening to my dear old New Brunswick” with the rise of the People’s Alliance.
“I think one of the things that struck me the most...was an elderly French lady who said, ‘What have we done so wrong that makes the English so mad at us?’”
Vickers has no previous political experience and avoids saying anything controversial. When asked about the challenge the Irvings' dominance poses for the province, he responded: “All I can say is obviously, they're a huge source of employment for New Brunswickers across the province.”
As for the party that holds the balance of power, PANB, it is — apart from its expression of rural anglophone resentment toward bilingualism — an enigma.
It was born amid opposition to the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec (a Liberal idea that was not consummated) and initially focused on pushing for free votes in the legislature.
The party has developed a platform that borrows from the right and left: it's opposed to corporate welfare and spraying forests with the controversial herbicide glyphosate, but it's also against carbon taxes.
Regarding its hot-button issue, PANB is opposed to what it calls “duality,” whereby government services must be offered in both French and English across the province. And PANB wants to scrap the office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
“You have paramedics in this province that for too long, if they were not bilingual, did not receive permanent full-time work,” party leader Kris Austin told me when I met him.
People's Alliance leader frustrated with Higgs
Austin, 40, is a Baptist minister. His alliance with Higgs, however, is looking increasingly like a Faustian bargain. The day I met him, the CBC had run a story listing the issues important to PANB that it folded on for fear of rupturing their agreement with the Tories.
“(The CBC) made it sound like we voted on every bill that the government put forward,” fumed Austin. “That's not true.”
Austin is in a difficult position: he’s not eager to pull his support from Higgs and risk a new election, likely leaving PANB on the sidelines. And yet Higgs is acting like he has a majority.
"My concern is we're not seeing significant enough changes on any files in this province, whether it's tax reform, corporate welfare, language issues, forestry — you name it,” Austin said.
When I asked Austin whether his party is fanning the flames of anti-francophone bigotry, he retorted: “It's ridiculous. The only ones that have been fanning the flames of language tensions in this province are Liberal and Conservative governments that have done things that make no sense. You know, having separate hospital systems here in New Brunswick. We would do well to keep one hospital system afloat. But instead, we're paying for two.”
Amid the francophone population, PANB is viewed with alarm. Alain Deneault, a sociologist at the Université de Moncton, says, “(PANB) is driven by hate against francophones because their only focus is to cut public spending related to the French community. But it's one third of the population and this one third of the population pays taxes and deserves public services.”
Moreover, during last year’s campaign, some of the People's Alliance candidates attracted attention for all the wrong reasons: one said in 2017 on Facebook that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “stands in gay parades while the Bible is pushed aside,” while another posted conspiracy theories about 9/11, a coverup of life on Mars and Atlantis (also: Israel controls ISIS).
Another PANB board member asked on Facebook whether the Liberals were “hoping to get rid of more English” when they decided to provide medicare coverage for Mifegymiso, the so-called “abortion pill.”
With the Liberals led by a political cipher and the PANB both confused and constrained, this could be David Coon's moment to show Green mettle, especially if an election is called next year, as many expect.
In the most recent polls, the Green Party has surged to 18 per cent support in the polls, with Coon's popularity rocketing to 21 per cent.
Coon had a misstep earlier this month when he announced at a press conference that 14 former NDP candidates were switching to the Greens. This turned out to be an exaggerated number, with Coon admitting he should have checked more closely before going public.
Higgs, meanwhile, may be seeing his honeymoon beginning to ebb: while the PCs still have the highest support among voters, with 36 per cent, it's down from 42 per cent from this past May. The Liberals are beginning to climb in the polls, while the PANB's deal with Higgs is clearly looking like a bad one: its support has fallen to six per cent.
For the time being, though, Higgs — the Man from Irving — can do as he pleases.
Over the course of this investigation, National Observer provided written questions to Higgs' office and to J. D. Irving. Higgs' office did not respond. The company did not provide answers, but company spokesperson Mary Keith provided a written comment: "Thank you for your email and the invitation to participate in what, based on your questions, appears to be a pre-determined narrative driven more by Mr. Livesey’s personal opinion of our company versus a full accounting of the facts. This unfortunately is consistent with our prior experience with Mr. Livesey. Past provision of detailed replies has repeatedly resulted in Mr. Livesey failing to report all of the facts in the interest of a balanced, comprehensive report to readers. History tells us Mr. Livesey’s editorials are focused more on personal bias than fair, responsible journalism."
Part Three of this series can be read here: "Blaine Higgs populism undermined by his hardline stance towards labour"