The 2020 New Brunswick provincial election results, where the Liberals won most of the francophone northeast and the Progressive Conservative won most of the anglophone southwest.
On September 14, 2020, the first general election held during the pandemic took place in New Brunswick. Blaine Higgs’ Progressive Conservative government tried to seek a second term to strengthen its fragile minority government. While his bet paid off, the results created a significant linguistic divide in the only officially bilingual province.
Two years ago, New Brunswickers were sent to polls to vote on that year’s provincial election. Despite winning the popular vote, Brian Gallant’s governing Liberals won one seat less than the Progressive Conservative Party, which was under the leadership of Blaine Higgs, the former executive of Irving Oil. Higgs raised eyebrows among Francophone voters due to his inability to speak French fluently and his past involvement with the now-defunct anti-bilingual party, the Confederation of Regions. These issues cost the support of the Progressive Conservatives in Northern and Eastern New Brunswick, which are predominantly French-speaking.
The 2018 New Brunswick election is also remembered as the first election in almost a century that resulted in a minority government. Green Party Leader David Coon, who has represented Fredericton South since 2014, saw two new Green MLAs added to his caucus. The right-wing populist party, the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB), won their first three seats in New Brunswick history. The presence of these two smaller parties is a significant change for a province that traditionally voted for the Liberals and Conservatives.
In late 2018, the People’s Alliance announced that it would support the PC minority government. However, it wasn’t going to be a smooth transition for the Higgs government. On September 10, 2019, long-time Progressive Conservative member Greg Thompson passed away, bringing down the government’s size to 21. Deputy Premier Robert Gauvin, the sole Acadian member of the Progressive Conservative Party, resigned from cabinet and caucus to protest the now-cancelled health service cuts in rural New Brunswick. Gauvin has since joined the Liberals.
As we know, the pandemic changed our daily lives across Canada. It was no exception Quebec’s next-door neighbours. However, unlike Quebec, New Brunswick’s COVID-19 daily cases remain low as the situation appears to be under control. As of the time of writing this article, New Brunswick has only had 194 cases and two COVID-related deaths in total. These low numbers and this display of effective management concerning the crisis boosted Premier Higgs’s popularity.
Seeing an opportunity to strengthen his government, Higgs called on a snap election for Monday, September 14, 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, after negotiations to postpone the election until 2022 failed.
Election and Results
After a rushed yet smooth election campaign of just 28 days, Blaine Higgs and his Progressive Conservatives got the results they were hoping for: a majority government. The PCs won the popular vote and grew their seat count to 27, which is above the threshold of 25 needed for a majority government. Unsurprisingly, this came as a disappointment for the Liberals, as their caucus was reduced to just 17 members. Party leader Kevin Vickers lost in his own election bid, in Miramichi, to incumbent MLA Michelle Conroy. The Green Party, who improved their vote share across New Brunswick, managed to retain all three of its MLAs, but did not gain any new members, and the PANB dropped from three members to just two. However, the biggest consequence of this election was the linguistic unity and representation in the only officially bilingual province.
As previously mentioned, Blaine Higgs’ lack of fluency in French and past association to a party that once promoted the removal of bilingualism in New Brunswick made him an unpopular figure in French-speaking New Brunswick. Despite making gains in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John, the party has again elected just one francophone member: Daniel Allain of Moncton East. On the other side, the Liberals have a similar situation.
Out of the 17 ridings won by the Liberals on Monday, only two anglophones were elected; Lisa Harris of Miramichi Bay-Neguac, and Rob McKee of Moncton East. Liberal MLA Stephen Horsman of Fredericton North came in third, behind the Progressive Conservative and Green candidates. Horsman was just one of the 15 Liberal candidates who finished third or lower. This is in stark contrast to what was happening in the North, where the Liberals gained more support than in 2018 and improved their margins of victory. It was also similar to the situation happening with the Progressive Conservatives, who strengthened their support in the predominantly English-speaking Southwestern New Brunswick.
“It was said that there was a north-south vision, we saw it very clearly,” remarked the political scientist Roger Ouellette in a Radio-Canada interview. “The Liberals have won all the seats in the francophone north, except of course that of Kent North, which is held by the Greens with Kevin Arseneau. Then, in the English-speaking south of New Brunswick, the southwest, it was a [Progressive Conservative] tidal wave.”
The linguistic divide has been denounced by many. The president of the Acadian Society of New Brunswick, Alexandre Cédric Doucet, expressed concerns that the new PC majority government might alienate the Acadian community. Former Premier Brian Gallant also denounced the divide. “It was also difficult to see the linguistic demarcation on the electoral map,” Gallant said.
Federal Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and New Brunswick MP, Dominic Leblanc noted that this linguistic divide had never occurred during the years of past Progressive Conservative governments of Richard Hatfield, Bernard Lord and David Alward.
Members on both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative sides both expressed concerns over the linguistic divide. “The province is more divided than ever: English, French, the north, the south,” said Donald Arseneault, the Liberal’s campaign manager. PC Party president Claude Williams was disappointed that “Francophones did not want to be part of a Progressive Conservative government.” Both Arseneault and Williams shared willingness to work on provincial unity, especially with Francophones.
For his part, Premier Blaine Higgs briefly touched on the divide in his victory by promising to be more inclusive and collaborative to “help all regions to succeed.” Only time will tell if New Brunswick’s Francophone and Anglophone population will reconcile politically.
By Jacques Wang