Dividing to win: Is it working for Higgs?
By Chris Wanamaker - Premier Blaine Higgs has learned how to divide New Brunswick in order to win elections. It may be one secret of his political success to date, but cracks are beginning to show, according to NB NDP Leader Alex White and former NB NDP candidate Josh Floyd.
White explained the strategy using the example of trans youth: “Higgs appeals to the broadest swath of people with a very innocuous viewpoint,” he said. “He doesn’t say things like trans kids are bad, that they shouldn’t exist, or that LGBTQ people are the enemy. What he says is that parents should be involved in their children’s lives and if the children are making a big change in their personal lives at school, the parents should be informed.”
According to White, that sounds on the surface like a reasonable thing to say.
“If you ask a random parent they’re going to agree with it. But what’s coming out of this is the risk of outing kids.”
Parents who are not accepting of gay or trans rights could be incredibly hostile to their children’s wish to change their pronouns, says White, and Higgs ignores this reality.
Some parents are starting to see through the strategy, however, and opposition to proposed changes to Bill 713 has been vocal.
The changes require parental consent for students to change their gender pronouns in school. They also allow for social workers and psychologists to use students’ names and pronouns but not teachers.
In September, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a court action to overturn changes that related to parental consent.
Earlier this year, six members of the 29-member Conservative caucus expressed deep concern about the proposed changes to the bill, including four cabinet members. Since then, two ministers resigned while others have been removed from caucus.
In September, New Brunswick Youth Advocate Kelly Lamrock concluded that the newest changes to the policy that prevent teachers using students’ names and pronouns violated students’ constitutional rights.
The New Brunswick Federation of Labour and the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers have issued strong statements against proposed changes to the bill.
However, an Angus Reid poll released on August 29 suggests that a plurality of parents, 43 per cent, agreed that parents must be informed and give consent if a child wants to change how they identify.
For White, such results show how Higgs’ strategy of dividing the population can work politically for him. He notices Higgs uses this same strategy with issues that involve other minority groups, LGBTQ+ population, indigenous people and, especially, the French.
“It has been easy and common for the Conservative party to divide along language lines,” said White,“because to get some of the better jobs especially in rural areas of the province, one needs to be bilingual. People who speak just English or French, can be told that people who speak the other one will get the job.”
However, the strategy does not always work. A failure to divide came this last year with the government’s attempt to change the way the French language is taught by eliminating the French immersion program. Earlier this year, the government had to scrap its plan to end the program because of public pressure.
White sees this as ironic, when the Conservatives’ stance on parental consent is considered in relation to proposed changes to Bill 713.
“The entire reason the proposed change failed is because they didn’t involve the parents. But they don’t actually care about parent or parental involvement in education. They figured it would have been carried because of the linguistic divide. They would have banked on 60 to 70 percent of the province agreeing. But when they got push-back from people in Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton. the attempt was entirely defeated.”
NB NDP member Josh Floyd attended a public consultation about the issue in Saint John. “They tried to get people to do what they called a word café; people at tables were to submit questions in writing. They had to be vetted in order to speak up. They wanted one person to speak for the whole table. People started to say no... Some in the crowd started heckling. They had to shut down the meeting multiple times. They eventually gave into the crowd and opened up the mics for people to speak. The meeting went overtime by hours. 30 people went up to the mic. Not one person was supportive of the policy.”
Floyd says the discussion turned into one about bilingualism and broader issues related to education such as working conditions for teachers.
Both White and Floyd notice that attacks against members of minority groups have increased in recent years, both online and elsewhere. Floyd attributes this in part to the emergence of the right wing People’s Alliance party whose major platform initiative was to oppose bilingualism.
White calls the divisions “artificial.” As he puts it, “an Anglophone person doesn’t just wake up and hate Francophones. People don’t just wake up and say I only know two, but I’m pretty tired of trans folk. That’s not how that happens. It is not a natural division. It is something that is stoked and manipulated.
White’s musings fit with what we know about how capitalism creates classes of citizens and how citizens divided will be less likely to organize, rise up and demand more for themselves.
The province has been called a “captured state” by some, with a handful of wealthy families, especially the Irvings, owning or controlling billions of dollars. Higgs himself worked as a senior executive for Irving Oil, and roughly one our of eight New Brunswickers work for the Irvings. Yet nearly 14 percent of the population lives in poverty. New Brunswick families also report the lowest median net worth in Canada.
Keeping the population divided works for Higgs, the Irvings and the other members of the ruling class. If Higgs came right out and said “a vote for me is a vote for the ruling class,” he would never win an election.
Image: Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters Thursday he's waiting for the province's 'legal folks' to evaluate the labour adjudicator's 34-page decision. (CBC)