‘You don’t want to alienate your electorate’: Political risk in N.B. immersion changes growing

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Political risk in New Brunswick immersion changes growing
WATCH: New Brunswick Education Minister Bill Hogan has been greeted with criticism and concern from parents following consultation sessions over the province's controversial French immersion reform plan. That opposition will make it challenging to move forward, particularly given the demographics of who is being angered. Silas Brown explains. – Jan 27, 2023

Over the last two weeks, parents and educators have packed hotel ballrooms in the province’s southern cities, voicing their anger over proposed changes to French second-language learning.

Public consultation sessions in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton have seen dozens of parents publicly denounce the province’s plan.

According to Donald Wright, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, Premier Blaine Higgs and Education Minister Bill Hogan should be cautious in the face of that fear.

Click to play video: 'Hundreds attend public consultation on new French immersion program in New Brunswick'
Hundreds attend public consultation on new French immersion program in New Brunswick

“You don’t want to anger parents and you don’t want to anger parents over their children’s education,” he said. “Parents can mobilize. Middle-class parents who have a vested interest in French immersion understand how government works, how communications work, how the law works.”

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“You don’t want to alienate your electorate.”

The new program is called the Innovating Immersion Program and will be mandatory for all incoming students in the anglophone system, replacing French immersion. The proposal would see children in Grade 1 and kindergarten spend half their day in English and the other half in French, with the goal that all students graduate with at least a conversational level of French.

Parents have raised concerns over the impact the program could have on early literacy, on students with learning or other disabilities and whether students will still be able to achieve the same level of French competency as they would have in immersion.

The amount of attention garnered by the issue risks alienating a key voting block, according to political scientist JP Lewis.

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“This policy position may have gained their attention and maybe gained their opposition and in some cases might change their vote at the next election,” he said. “It can be cynical to look at decisions that a government is making and just thinking solely on how would that move vote intentions, but it’s easy to say here that the same folks that are showing up at these consultations are the same type of folks that parties see as active voters in ridings that might be close.

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“That might be concerning for the Conservative government.”

In the 2020 election, Higgs’ majority government win was propelled by gains in the Fredericton and Moncton regions. The urban and suburban middle-class voters that are most impacted by the changes could have an impact when the province goes to the polls in 2024.

Wright said the experience of former education minister Kelly Lamrock, who tried to move the immersion intake level to Grade 6 before pushing it to Grade 3 and finally leaving it at Grade 1, is an instructive example of what can happen when you try to fight parents over education.

“You don’t pick a fight with middle-class parents, who have access to social capital, understand how the systems work, because they will push back and, in this case, they will win,” he said.

But Lewis said the largest danger for Higgs’ pursuit to reform French second-language education may come from inside his own party.

“The key breaking point could be if it’s galvanizing any opposition within the Progressive Conservative caucus and Progressive Conservative cabinet,” he said.

“That’s where I think the breaking point will be if there is one and that’s where I would imagine the government would possibly think about backtracking.”

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So far Fundy-the-Isles-Saint John West MLA Andrea Anderson Mason has been the only caucus member to question the proposal, raising concerns over the impact it could have on the new literacy curriculum that is beginning to roll out provincewide.

“Pump the brakes. We are just getting this new literacy program in place,” she told reporters last week.

“So to now interrupt it to say we’re going to spend half the day in French and half the day in English, I am concerned that they haven’t taken enough time to address that issue.”

Higgs’ insistence that the new program begin in September of 2023 was also a key point in the disagreement that led former education minister Dominic Cardy to resign from cabinet in October 2022, when he accused the premier of trying to take a “wrecking ball” to French immersion.

Over the last two weeks, Hogan and deputy education minister John McLaughlin have begun to reassure parents that the new program is just a proposal and can be adjusted or abandoned following consultations.

“There’s still lots of time if we were to choose to do Grade 1 French immersion next year. Like, it’s only January. So there’s tons of time should we choose that path,” he told reporters on Tuesday night in Saint John.

Parents won’t know if the province will move ahead with the program or something different until consultations wrap up in early February.


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