Budget 2019 – An open letter to Premier Blaine Higgs
Next week, on March 19th, your minority government will table its first budget after more than five months in power. As you well know, the tabling of a government’s first budget represents one of its first real tests, as it is expected to tackle our province’s many challenges all while trying to balance our ambitions with our fiscal reality. This is no small task for any government, much less a minority government that should, in principal, take into consideration the priorities of multiple parties and stakeholders. In such a context, hard decisions must be made, and rarely is such a budget received with universal acclaim.
On November 9th 2018, you were sworn in as Premier, elected on a promise to restore fiscal balance to our province by correcting excessive deficits and cutting public expenditures. As the president of la Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick (SANB), the official political representative of the Acadian and francophone peoples of New Brunswick, I believe it is your duty as Premier to deliver on this promise, as was democratically mandated to you by the people of New Brunswick. Furthermore, I personally believe in the importance of the work your government has set out to accomplish, as the vitality of our Acadian and Francophone, as well as English-speaking and indigenous communities, is intimately linked to our province’s economic and social well-being.
That being said, in times of fiscal restraint, it is important to keep in mind the needs and ambitions of our communities in order to prioritize the areas that warrant prioritization, all while seeking to minimize the negative impacts brought about by cutting in different government services. It goes without saying that tightening the government’s belt is never easy, and that many considerations must come into play. With this in mind, I would like to address certain priorities of the Acadian and Francophone population of the province, in order to help you make informed decisions in preparation for the tabling of this coming budget.
The cornerstone of any provincial budget is its plan to bring about economic prosperity for the citizens of our province. Although we face multiple challenges due to external as well as internal pressures, we believe that it is essential that our government put forth a plan that aims to bolster our economy, not only within our urban centres, but in all parts of the province.
We live in a province with one of the lowest urbanisation rates within our federation. This poses a unique set of challenges that will take long-term vision to rectify. If the global tendency is towards greater urbanisation, New Brunswick, as a rural province, must put forth a multipronged strategy to help frame this urbanisation so as to not leave our northern and central communities out to dry. This is why we suggest that the government put forth a long-term economic strategy aimed at striking a balance between developing our rural communities as well as our urban centres.
Although this could be achieved through a variety of different frameworks, one which we believe merits renewed attention is the overhauling of our structures of governance at the local level. More than ten years have passed since the publication of Finn report on the future of local governance in New Brunswick and little progress has been made towards attaining the goals set out in this report. Since its publication, the SANB has always supported greater municipalisation as a first step towards economic development at the regional level.
Secondly, as someone with a vast experience within the energy sector, you are particularly well situated to understand the impact of this sector on our regional economy. Resource extraction has always been a vital part of our economy in New Brunswick, and I believe that we can all be proud of our local companies that have succeeded in making their mark on the national as well as international stage within this sector.
That being said, the energy sector is currently in full evolution. This is true both at the national and global level. To address growing global concerns related to climate change, it is essential that New Brunswick take greater strides to ensure the diversification of our energy production, especially considering our position as a coastal province. Although this will entail its fair share of growing pains, we believe that there are many economic opportunities that will present themselves as we transition towards a low-carbon economy, notably in the field of renewable energy production.
On February 21st, 2019, the SANB was alarmed to find an opinion piece written by the Atlantic Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and published in the pages of the Telegraph-Journal calling for the fusion of the Vitalité and Horizon Health Networks into a single provincial health authority. We believe that this would be a monumental mistake with immense social and political repercussions.
During the last provincial election, the Conservative Party indicated during meetings with Égalité Santé en français, as well as members of our organisation, that you would be maintaining both health networks if elected. Now that your party has succeeded in forming a stable government, we expect that you hold true to this promise by insuring that both the Horizon and Vitality health networks maintain their independence in the budget to come.
The ultimate goal of our healthcare system must be to meet the needs of our different communities. We cannot stress enough the importance of having healthcare institutions in which we can see reflected the ambitions of the Francophone population of this province. Combining both networks into a single bilingual network would represent an immense step backwards for the Francophone community in its goal of attaining equality in terms of healthcare services.
Our ageing population is rapidly becoming one of the greatest challenges we will have to face as a province in the years to come. This challenge is multifaceted and will require the implementation of innovative policies in sectors ranging from immigration to family planning, from entrepreneurship to land development and management.
Although the list of potential angles of attack are too numerous to address in the context of this letter, our organisation would like to stress the importance of addressing our demographic decline in this upcoming budget. Further, it is becoming increasingly clear that we must increase the number of immigrants ready to call New Brunswick home, and that we must do so in a way that respects our specificity as a bilingual province. We believe that it is of paramount importance that all applicable governmental decisions be analysed using a demographics lens, to help ensure that we reverse our population’s accelerating decline.
Investing in French immersion:
On the question of access to French immersion in New Brunswick, the SANB asks that our government publicly state its commitment to promoting early French immersion in all of the province’s anglophone school districts.
The entry point for French immersion has been a point of contention for successive governments in New Brunswick. However, multiple reports, including one commissioned by a previous Conservative government, show that exposing a child to a second language at the earliest age possible is the best way to insure its acquisition.
The SANB would like to congratulate the government for tackling this important issue, which is critical for our province. French immersion, and education in general, is too important to our development to be considered a partisan issue. Despite difficulties relating to labour shortages, it is essential that we find concrete solutions that prioritize second language acquisition above other political considerations.
The SANB would like to use this occasion to ask that the government commit to maintaining early immersion in our province. We would also like to offer our collaboration on this file. The Ministry of Education and Early Childhood Development has the duty to developpe and implement innovative policies and curricula aimed at fostering bilingualism, regardless of the student’s maternal language.
As it stands, only 17% of the New Brunswickers who have English as a first language have succeeded in becoming bilingual, whereas this statistic rises to 75% amongst Francophones. This is not because Francophones are innately better at acquiring a second language, but rather because successive governments have failed to make French immersion a true priority. In this budget, you have to chance to fix this problem, to the benefit of all New Brunswickers.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act:
As you are well aware, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. This act, which lead to the recognition of New Brunswick as the only bilingual province in Canada, has undeniably shaped our province in ways too numerous to count.
This momentous occasion offers us a rare opportunity not only to reflect on the last 50 years, but also to consider what could be accomplished in the 50 years to come. On this note, I believe that the time has come to propose bold initiatives aimed at promoting both official languages within our province; initiatives that respect not only the spirit of the Official Languages Act, but also the Act Recognizing the Equality of Both Official Language Communities in New Brunswick.
Although much progress has been made, when we consider the statistics presented above, we can only conclude that we have failed in instituting the ideal of having a truly bilingual citizenship in our province. Let’s aim to change that. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, we ask that the government consider launching a series of bold initiatives aimed at creating a 100% bilingual citizenship by the 100th anniversary the of the Act. Some might scoff at the boldness of this idea. However, we fundamentally believe that promoting the acquisition of a second or even third language will only help our province on its journey towards greater prosperity.
Over the last 50 years, our bilingualism has helped us distinguish ourselves not only within Canada, but also across the globe. Let’s renew this commitment to greater understanding between our official languages communities by daring to be bold and by aiming as high as we possibly can.
New Brunswick is a great place to live, and despite our numerous challenges, I believe that with the right blend of idealism and pragmatism, will be able to ensure that it remains so for generations to come.