What Canadians should know about New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs

Though he lacks Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s showmanship, New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs has a hard-line conservative record to make right-wing ideologues giddy.

Unlike some of its previous initiatives, the New Brunswick government’s Policy 713 — an education directive on sexual orientation and gender identity — has put Higgs on the national radar.

Using the language of “parental rights,” the policy now requires parental consent for any name and pronoun changes for students under 16. It also removes language protecting gender identity in sports.

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New Brunswick’s LGBTQ+ safe schools debate makes false opponents of parents and teachers

In response to the changes, six members of the 29-member Conservative caucus voiced their frustrations, including four cabinet members. Since then, two ministers have resigned while others have been shuffled out of caucus.

Grievance conservatism

But this parental rights advocacy is only the latest in a series of right-wing policies in New Brunswick.

Despite relatively low popular vote support in the past two provincial elections, Higgs has unapologetically governed from the right since 2018.

Some of his actions are conventional. Higgs lowered taxes for top income earners, ran surpluses and minimized increases to education and health care. He has a contentious relationship with labour and has criticized workers for a weak work ethic.

However, Higgs has gone further than his Conservative counterparts in the region. In doing so, he has burned many bridges.

His relationship with the health-care sector is fraught. Emergency rooms have overflowed at times with residents dying in waiting rooms.

When it was reported a woman was unable to get access to a rape kit, Higgs blamed the nurses for “showing a lack of compassion.” He has also limited abortion access within the province.

Higgs has an equally contentious relationship with Indigenous Peoples. In 2021, New Brunswick directed government employees to halt territorial acknowledgements because the province is involved in a series of legal actions and land claims initiated by First Nations.

Read more:
New Brunswick ban on land acknowledgements is a death blow to nation-to-nation relationships

The province also tore up tax-sharing agreements with the Wolastoqey Nation, which Higgs argued were “unfair.”

Higgs, left, and New Brunswick Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn, right, speak with Chief Alan Polchies Jr. of St. Mary’s First Nation after raising flags as part of National Indigenous Peoples Day in Fredericton, N.B., in June 2021.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

Proudly unilingual

Higgs’s relationship with New Brunswick’s Acadian francophone population may be his worst. He once ran for the leadership of the Confederation of Regions party — an anglophone-rights party.

Higgs does not speak French and has made little effort to learn it, and has depicted himself as a “target” for being unilingual.

Higgs started his premiership in 2018 by loosening bilingual hiring requirements for paramedic positions, paving the way for unilingual workers in designated anglophone areas.

Recently, the government attempted to “innovate” French immersion by establishing one program with reduced French content. Conservatives argued that French immersion was two-tiered and disadvantaged English Prime students who receive mostly English instruction.

After tremendous pushback from parents and teachers, which Higgs referred to as “a shouting session,” the government walked back its plans.

The policy nonetheless led to the resignation of Education Minister Dominic Cardy. In a widely circulated letter, Cardy called out Higgs for his “micromanagement.”

Some argue Higgs moved to the centre during the province’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But his early support for vaccinations and lockdown measures didn’t reflect his subsequent efforts. New Brunswick re-opened early and stopped reporting weekly case numbers.

A sandy-haired man in a suit stands behind a podium.
Dominic Cardy, New Brunswick’s education minister at the time, releases the province’s back to school plan in August 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He later resigned over tensions with Higgs.

Will Higgs win again?

With reports of a leadership review and tensions within his party, an early election is possible.

Though some pollsters report Higgs is either tied with the New Brunswick Liberals or trailing them, he still has a pathway to victory.

Higgs won in 2018 and 2020 by capitalizing on New Brunswick’s linguistic divide. Losing francophone ridings by massive pluralities doesn’t matter because he carried the more plentiful, mostly anglophone ridings.

Academics have observed New Brunswick’s political behaviour tends to follow a diagonal line drawn from Moncton to Grand Falls. Historically, Liberal-Conservative divisions have matched this alignment.

A map shows voting tendencies in New Brunswick.
New Brunswick 2020 election results with dividing line. Modified map originally from Elections NB.
Elections New Brunswick

This began to change in the 1970s, but has re-emerged as a political strategy. Higgs knows the game and has won twice by playing it.

Higgs practises grievance politics that is as divisive as it is successful. His calculations involve mobilizing a coalition big enough to win but small enough to remain ideologically pure.

He does this through picking issues that, while unpopular broadly, motivate voters within his coalition. Policy 713 is an example: the frustrated voters who cast ballots solely as a form of protest to this issue are few and far between, and unlikely to vote Conservative anyway.

This game is not Higgs’s invention — it’s the new Canadian conservatism. Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Alberta’s Danielle Smith use the same strategy. Both have platforms that voice suspicions of government, evident during their campaigns for “freedom” during COVID-19 protocols.

Yet Higgs is a more serious threat. He pursues a hard-right agenda without scrutiny. He has imposed his agenda on a centrist province with barely any national media attention.

To his credit, Higgs does not hide who he is. He is open with media and speaks his mind. Canadians — not just New Brunswickers — would be wise to listen.

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