Former premier Brian Gallant announced plans to resign as New Brunswick Liberal leader Thursday, as well as a new mission: to tour Canada’s only officially bilingual province in a bid to repair the linguistic divide.
As he asked the party to begin the process of finding his replacement, Gallant told reporters he’ll take the opportunity to seek more unity on language issues – something he said he didn’t do enough of as premier.
“There are people who have concerns about what they perceive and may have happened to them because of bilingualism. There are people who obviously want to see their rights defended,” he said.
“So I think that we can find common ground, and I think the more people know the facts the better informed they will be to have this discussion that we are clearly going to have as a province.”
Gallant became leader in 2012, and premier in 2014 at the age of 32, but came up short in September’s provincial election.
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The vote revealed a clear divide in the political map, with Liberal support mainly to the francophone north and Tory support to the anglophone south.
“This has been one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make,” Gallant said Thursday as he announced his resignation at a news conference in the rotunda of the provincial legislature.
His minority government was toppled two weeks ago in a confidence vote on the Liberals’ throne speech, and Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs and his minority government were sworn-in last week.
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Gallant said he plans to remain as Opposition leader until the party chooses his replacement, and will stay on as MLA for his riding of Shediac Bay-Dieppe.
“In these uncharted waters of a minority government I will stay at the helm of the party to provide some stability while the party chooses its next leader for the next election,” he said.
The Liberal party’s board of directors will meet Dec. 1 to discuss next steps towards organizing a leadership convention.
“I do think it is crucial for the future of our province that there be a strong Liberal party, the strongest as possible. To have a strong Liberal party I think a leadership race will help reinvigorate some new ideas into the discussion,” Gallant said.
Standings in the 49-seat legislature are 22 Tories, 21 Liberals, three Green party members and three People’s Alliance MLAs.
Michel Carrier, the interim commissioner of official languages, said while the province has linguistic issues, there’s no great divide as some people suggest.
“I don’t think that we’re that far apart. We hear a lot of people criticizing it. Many people who are not vocal don’t feel the same way. Unfortunately people who feel strongly about the situation become more vocal and then it’s reported in the media and we feel there is a big divide,” he said.
Carrier said he does have concerns with the election of three People’s Alliance members.
“The issue of bilingualism was a big part of their campaign, and one issue was they wanted to get rid of this position that I’m sitting in right now, for whatever reason, I don’t understand,” he said.
“You have to ask yourself questions as to what are their intentions. It has created some concerns.”
People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said Thursday his party supports bilingualism but doesn’t always support the way it is implemented.
Austin said he’s not optimistic that Gallant’s tour would produce any positive results.
“If he thinks he’s got the magic wand to fix that, he’s had four years to do it and failed miserably. So if somehow he can fix it now by having a provincial tour, I wish him the best of luck,” Austin said.
Green Leader David Coon said he was surprised that Gallant is staying on as Opposition leader – noting that in many cases an interim leader is chosen instead.
He said Gallant and Higgs don’t like each other, and having them both as leaders in the legislature won’t lead to the collaborative atmosphere that the public wants.
“It’s because deep wounds that exist between those two men that I’m finding it hard to imagine how that results in a co-operative atmosphere in the legislative assembly,” Coon said.