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‘We are different and that’s OK’: linguistic divide forms backdrop for N.B. election

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WATCH: Language forms the backdrop for just about every topic in New Brunswick, and that's no different when looking at the electoral map of the province. Last election saw historical divides between regions and linguistic roots laid bare. Those same divides could play a role this time around. Silas Brown has more.

As the dust settled after the 2018 provincial election, the electoral map was split between a large swath of Liberal red to the francophone north and Tory blue to the anglophone south. In the middle, dots of purple and green where two third parties ate up a combined six seats.

New Brunswick was divided visibly along linguistic and regional lines and the past two years, which saw the unilingual Blaine Higgs serve as premier, haven’t done much to ease that divide.

“I don’t think we have a language problem in the province, it’s more of a leadership problem,” said Alexandre Cédric Doucet, president of le Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick (SANB).

“Looking at the electoral map under Higgs’ leadership, the Conservatives have become toxic to the francophone community.”

The mistrust of Higgs in many parts of the francophone community is multifaceted.

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Some of it is due to his inability to communicate in their mother tongue. There is also his past involvement with the Confederation of Regions, a party that advocated for the end of official bilingualism and that he ran for leader of in 1989.

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Read more: Northeastern New Brunswickers want more focus from Fredericton when next government takes office

But Higgs’ involvement with another upstart third party perceived as anti-French while in government also plays a role.

The People’s Alliance of New Brunswick has supported the PCs in every confidence vote since forming government in 2018.

According to Alliance leader Kris Austin, the party is not anti-francophone. He says the party is looking to fight for all unilingual New Brunswickers who have been negatively impacted by bilingualism.

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“From the party’s inception, we’ve supported the concept of a bilingual province. The issue is with how it’s implemented,” Austin said in an interview.

“What we push for is a more balanced reasonable approach, especially when it comes to hiring in the civil service.”

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Austin believes that hiring bilingual workers in primarily unilingual parts of the province doesn’t make sense.

Kevin Arseneau, incumbent Green candidate for Kent North and francophone lieutenant for his party, says the Greens are more interested in taking what he calls a positive approach to language issues.

He says the party wants to increase the number of anglophones who can speak French, rather than decrease the bilingual requirements for government positions.

“How can we help anglophones learn the language,” Arseneau said.

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“Looking at different win-win situations and saying to the francophones, rights are not going down, but let’s bring everyone up.”

Read more: All our New Brunswick election coverage

When it comes to building a better relationship between the north and south politically, Arseneau said the key is to begin with recognition — and celebration — of the differences that define the regions and cultural groups.

“We are different and that’s OK. I grew up reading completely different books, listening to completely different music, watching completely different TV shows,” he said.

“Traditional parties have always tried to have that discourse: ‘We’re all the same.’ And I think that’s maybe part of the problem, is not recognizing that we’re all different and that’s OK and that’s what’s pretty awesome about New Brunswick.”

The linguistic political divide is a historical one in New Brunswick.

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Roger Ouellette, a political scientist at l’Universite de Moncton, says the Liberal Party in New Brunswick was formed around the francophone and Irish Catholic portions of the province.

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The Progressive Conservatives, in turn, were seen to represent the primarily anglophone and Protestant areas.

Both Arseneau and Austin say the Liberals have routinely exploited the language divide for electoral gain and positioning themselves as the party of choice for francophones has been part of the strategy in 2020.

The day after the election was called, Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers introduced Robert Gauvin as the party’s candidate for Shediac Bay-Dieppe.

Gauvin served as deputy premier in Higgs’ PC government and quit the party over a now-cancelled plan to close six rural emergency rooms overnight.

Read more: PCs, Liberals set tone for campaigns as New Brunswick election gets underway

“Robert took a courageous stand against Blaine Higgs’ government’s drastic and divisive decision to close rural emergency hospitals,” Vickers said at the time.

“It’s this kind of commitment and the concern for the rights of francophones and rural New Brunswickers that exemplifies the Liberal Party of New Brunswick.”

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When asked if he believes the PCs are the party of the anglophones, Higgs was quick to disagree.

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“I feel the PC party is the party of New Brunswick. Look at our candidates to the north — I think that says it all,” he said at a campaign stop on Friday.

“Election after election, the Liberal party has taken the northern vote for granted. And what I’ve seen throughout my travels in the north is the average citizen living anywhere in this province wants to see New Brunswick rise up together. They want to see us combine our efforts to be as good as we can possibly be in every region.”

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Roger Oullette, a political scientist with l’Université de Moncton, says that while Higgs may have a path to a majority government without the support of the north, it’s possible he can make some inroads.

“At this point right now, candidates can say, ‘Well, our party has a good chance to form the next government. I think it’s important for the riding to be on board and around the table,'” Oullette said in an interview.

“For the people in the riding, ‘Well, if we vote for Higgs and our candidate is elected, maybe we’ll be around the cabinet table.'”

Oullette says ridings like Victoria-La Vallée, Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston, Tracadie-Sheila or Shippagan-Lameque-Miscou may all be swayed by the chance to have an MLA sit at the cabinet table.

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The Greens are also trying to position themselves as an alternative to the Liberals up north. Arseneau says the party has been focused on trying to convince longtime Liberal voters to give the party a shot.

“We’re focused on trying to build those bridges, to find win-win solutions, to listening to everyone to hear what are the challenges and how can we bring everyone up to the next level,” he said.