'My opinion has changed': Higgs addresses COR past in bid to win French support
PC leader says his perspective on language rights has changed over the last 30 years
Thirty years ago, Blaine Higgs probably never pictured himself doing what he was doing last Tuesday night: standing at attention among a crowd of Acadians as they sang their national hymn, Ave Maris Stella, in a village hall outside Caraquet.
The provincial Progressive Conservative leader likely also never imagined he'd deliver a 10-minute speech to Acadians, entirely in French.
But that was the scene in Bertrand on the night of Aug. 14 as PCs gathered to officially nominate their candidate for the riding of Caraquet in next month's provincial election.
The table is part of the election strategy that Higgs hopes will let him engineer a PC majority that includes MLAs from francophone New Brunswick.
Two star candidates
"Every government needs an Acadian voice," says Robert Gauvin, the party's candidate in Lameque-Shippagan-Miscou. "We're here and we have to be heard."
The other is Kevin Haché, a bilingual lawyer and the mayor of Caraquet.
The two men face different challenges. Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou has gone PC more often than not in recent decades, and the party lost it by just 44 votes in the last election.
Caraquet, meanwhile, is a Liberal stronghold that almost never elects Conservatives. In 2014, the Liberal candidate there almost tripled the PC vote.
Some voters convinced
But both Gauvin and Haché share the same challenge in this election: convincing voters to look past Higgs's involvement 30 years ago with the Confederation of Regions (COR) party, a movement that campaigned on repealing official bilingualism.
Last week in Bertrand, Higgs confronted the issue directly.
"Over the last 30 years, I've discovered our province," he said in French. "I've learned that when we look outside our own party and our own community, we learn things. I've learned that people can have different experiences."
"I have a different perspective on things today. … I believe that all New Brunswickers, French and English, have the opportunity to speak their own language and to learn another one. My opinion has changed over the last 30 years."
Continuing in French, Higgs added: "Our province is a better place because we've had the courage to be an officially bilingual province and to find a goal that's common to two great cultures … Francophones, listen to me carefully: I will not leave you behind."
The partisan crowd lapped it up, giving Higgs — who spoke no French when he won the PC leadership two years ago —credit for making the effort.
"Tonight he certainly did his best to show people that he's trying really hard," said Riba Girouard-Riordon, who ran for the federal Conservatives in the last national election. "Even though it was not perfect, I understood his speech."
That's what francophones used to say about Richard Hatfield: as tortured as his French could be at times, his stubborn determination to speak the language won them over.
Haché refused to answer questions from CBC News about why the town of Caraquet, with him as mayor, went to court to stop Radio-Canada from obtaining travel and expense claims from AcadieNor, an economic development corporation set up by the municipality.
Those records showed a series of pricey travel and meal claims.
Work for community
Meanwhile, former PC candidate Philippe Chiasson talked up Higgs by noting he was the finance minister in the Alward government when the initial agreement for the New Brunswick Naval Centre was signed.
When the financing fell through and the province had to take over the yard in 2016, the PC opposition blamed the Liberals.
But on other local issues, such as employment insurance and the fate of the Caraquet hospital, Higgs sounded the right notes about listening to local communities and working to help them.
And on language politics, his comments are a sign to voters he has left his COR views behind, Haché said.
"He told me personally he doesn't want to change anything and he wants to fight for our rights," he said. "If I had any doubt in my soul that he was not going to respect me as a francophone, or me as an Acadian, I would never have ran for him."
Sit at table
Gauvin has a particular perspective on the issue: in 1994, his father, as a PC MLA, fought to block former COR candidates and MLAs from being welcomed back into the Tory party.
"I agree with what my dad did back then," Gauvin said. "But he also told me, 'Robert, one day it might be your turn.' He told me, 'If you want to change things and make sure our rights are respected, you have to be sitting at the table.'"
Tomorrow I'll look at PC efforts to recruit star candidates, and win seats, in the Acadian Peninsula. <a href="https://t.co/AuN5jXmYfH">pic.twitter.com/AuN5jXmYfH</a>—@poitrasCBC
Gauvin says he was skeptical of Higgs at first, "like everybody else who was Acadian," but was reassured when he learned the PC leader's four daughters went through French immersion and that he supported the construction of a francophone school in his riding of Quispamsis.
Liberal candidates in the region are making Higgs an issue, but not on the language front.
"He doesn't have any programs for economic development," Roussell said. "He wants to do cuts. He doesn't want to put any money in programs. [The star candidates] will have to work with Mr. Higgs if he is ever elected, and that guy is only there to do cuts."
But a recent editorial in L'Acadie Nouvelle, the Caraquet-based French-language daily newspaper, gave Higgs credit for recruiting good candidates, including former MLAs Jeannot Volpé and Claude Landry, who can vouch for him in francophone regions.
"The worst scenario would be to wake up Sept. 25, the morning after the election, with a Higgs government that includes not a single francophone MLA," wrote editorialist François Gravel.
That's been a refrain of PC candidates in the past: if there's going to be a Conservative government, better to have a voice in it than to be excluded from it.
Previous PC leaders Richard Hatfield, Bernard Lord and David Alward won majority governments with strong francophone contingents.
But in the last election the PCs were reduced to a single francophone MLA, Madeleine Dubé, who is not running in this campaign.
In what's expected to be a close election, the ability of Higgs and his candidates to win over voters in francophone ridings could determine whether he completes his conversion from his COR days — and leads a government with MLAs from both language groups.