CTV Atlantic chief anchor Todd Battis recently sat down with New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs in Fredericton to discuss the debate over French immersion, health care and more in a year-end interview.
New Brunswick recently proposed a new French immersion program that cuts the time elementary school students will spend learning in French.
Starting in September, kindergarten to Grade 1 students will spend half their day in “exploratory learning” in French and the other half being taught in English for subjects such as math, reading and writing.
Higgs says the change needs to be made because not enough children are graduating with the ability to speak French.
“In our situation, where after 53 years, you graduate less than 30 per cent of your kids that are speaking both languages in an officially bilingual province, there’s something not right. There’s something inherently wrong that the system is not meeting the needs of 70 per cent of our Anglophone kids. On the Francophone side, there’s probably 95, 98 per cent graduating fully bilingual.”
Higgs says the 50-50 model is designed to give an equal opportunity to children.
“You’re going to learn your second language in early ages and you can master in the language as you get into Grade 6 and senior years. You can go into more intense French if that’s the case. But you can go more intense sciences as well, or literacy of any kind. So the idea is giving kids a choice. But at the end of the day, having a bilingual province that truly is a bilingual province.”
Higgs says there is not much concern that even fewer than 30 per cent of children will graduate being functionally bilingual in the future.
The new program is based on a model used in Bathurst, N.B., in the late 1990s to early 2000s.
“But it was cancelled at the time… and said, ‘we want to have uniformity over the province.’ It seemed like the data didn’t matter, the actual results didn’t matter, we just wanted uniformity across the province in the educational system, not necessarily looking at the best practice and making that the standard practice,” says Higgs.
While there is concern the French immersion issue will end up causing a greater divide in New Brunswick, Higgs says divides have happened in the past as well.
“In many ways, it seems to be fostered by our opponents, basically, to keep that kind of security of that vote, that sector. And that makes it hard because it becomes a political issue in every case, rather than what’s a rational issue. And it’s pretty hard to argue why we need to make changes in education. And it’s also how we need to make improvements so we work stronger together. We did it during COVID-19. We worked as a team in this entire province during COVID-19.”
Higgs says New Brunswick is in a “period of change” when to comes to health care.
“We have many new professionals coming in to the system that have a different work-life balance than the previous doctors and there’s nothing wrong with that, because in the past, doctors would have four, five, six-thousand patients and worked endless hours. That’s not going to continue like that,” he says.
The premier added that community health-care is going to be “more of a focus” in the province’s future.
“We need to have more access to that, that allows the ERs to be down loaded a bit, because it’s the only place people have to go. I think we’re making gains on that. But you hear though, a lot of the traumatic experiences that are happening. They’ve likely happened before but it’s just not as pronounced now because health care is so much on the radar.”
Higgs says while the average age in New Brunswick is down slightly, from 46 to 45.5, the province still has an older population wave going through the health-care system.
“We need to have more electronic records shared, we need to have more access online and that’s what we’re pushing. And people need to have primary-care at any time, night or day, in some fashion, and then have the ability to get to hospital and be able to get into it when they actually need it.”
Hundreds of New Brunswickers are also on waitlists for nursing home beds.
Higgs admits the province will “never build enough facilities to keep up.”
“We have a lot of hospitals that have people waiting for alternate care and have nowhere to go. And so it’s finding the right community and moving people through the system so they get to the right care model as soon as they can. And I think that we’re making progress on that, but that is a big factor in our hospitals – admissions and discharges – because that means the ERs when they’re filling up, they have no where to go in the hospital.”
SYSTEMIC RACISM REPORT
New Brunswick’s report on systemic racism was released this month. It did not include a call for an Indigenous-led public inquiry — a recommendation that has been repeatedly called for by Indigenous leaders and that was included in a draft version of the report.
Following its release, Chief Allan Polchies Jr. of St. Mary’s First Nation said that the province “heard a loud cry from Indigenous voices two years ago to address systemic racism, and our calls were ignored.”
While Higgs is “very disappointed” to hear comments from people feeling left out by government, he says the New Brunswick-made tax agreement has caused the situation.
“It is the only province in the country that refunds 95 per cent of all provincial taxes paid on a First Nations’ business,” said Higgs, pointing out that all provincial taxes are refunded back to Indigenous communities. “We’re talking a program that was put in place back in the 90s just to have First Nations pay an HST and then it was said ‘we’ll refund it.’ That was fine, but now, it’s worth in the 70-million dollar range and its money not going to health care for all, roads for all, its money not going to all First Nations, it’s money going to a small group.”
He calls the agreement the “root of the dispute.”
“We’ve offered a new economic partnership. We want to see all First Nations communities come to a level, a standard of living, that gives every child, every person there hope. Not unlike anywhere in our province, we want every boat to rise. But that isn’t the case with the current agreements.”
Higgs has been premier of New Brunswick since 2018 and says “there’s always more things to do.”
“There’s also an agenda and I do have a pretty strong agenda, and there are some milestones I’ve wanted to see our province achieve — they’re not all done yet. The economic stability in our province was one of them, that we actually could bring taxes down, we actually could see our province strive economically, we would see people looking at New Brunswick again for the first time and having a population that’s gone up two years from 760,000 to 820,000 — unprecedented. We haven’t had this growth since Confederation. And so we’re seeing more and more people coming home to New Brunswick as apposed to finding a reasons to leave, they now have a reason to come home.”
But will he lead his party into the next provincial election?
“It’s early yet to make that decision,” he said.
With files from The Canadian Press
Read Nore:N.B. Premier Blaine Higgs discusses French immersion, health care as 2022 comes to a close