Premier Blaine Higgs is taking significant criticism following a comment he made about interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson speaking French “to change the narrative” in the legislature on Thursday.
During the exchange, Melanson was questioning how the government had handled the pandemic since lifting restrictions in the summer.
He asked the premier whether he would support a motion for an independent review of the handling of the pandemic.
In his response, Higgs directly mentioned Melanson’s first language, with seemingly no context, given the prior question was in English.
“It’s no wonder the leader of the opposition shifted gears,” Higgs said. “The only thing he didn’t do, which would be true to form, is make his next question in French, Mr. Speaker, because usually in the change the tone, he switches languages and tries to change the narrative.”
It sparked a loud response from the MLAs sitting in the house.
The Societe de L’Acadie du Nouveau Brunswick is denouncing Higgs’ comments.
It said while speaking French in the legislative assembly is Melanson’s fundamental right, the organization took it as a direct attack on respect and dignity of Melanson and Francophone population of “the entire province.”
“It is for this reason that the SANB challenges French-speaking and bilingually-elected representatives of the assembly, of all political parties, to speak only French until the end of the legislative session,” a statement from the SANB said.
SANB president Alexandre Cédric Doucet said he finds the comments difficult.
“As president of the SANB, I denounce in the strongest possible terms the words of Mr. Higgs,” he said in the press release on Thursday.
Roger Melanson said it is his right to speak in the legislative assembly in the language of his choice.
“I don’t actually know why the premier went where he went,” he said speaking to reporters.
Green MLA Kevin Arsenault, whose first language is in French but is bilingual, also spoke against the comments.
“For the premier, again, to use that as a personal attack on him,” he said. “For him to bring that, and say you’re using that against me … to use the language of my choice when seems fit is the right of every Parliamentarian here.”
He said in some circumstances, he speaks better in French and that is his prerogative but the comments made it seem like, to Higgs, the French language was inferior.
Higgs took questions from journalists on his comments but denied they meant anything.
“It’s usually not to difficult to understand what the question is no matter what the language is with Roger,” he said. “It has nothing to with the language.”
He said it was more about the predictability of what the opposition will be questioning him.
“It doesn’t matter what language.”
People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin said he didn’t think the comment meant much, calling it “off the cuff.”
“They spar back and forth,” he said, acknowledging his party’s history and criticisms on official languages. “I mean, I think it was just a back and forth and trying to make hay out of something that is not there.”