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Thanks to Blaine Higgs’ strong management, New Brunswick’s debt is at historically low levels and the province is now positioned to cut taxes in a historic way.

As Higgs seeks another mandate this year, now is the time for him to maintain his signature fiscal prudence and couple it with a tax relief agenda that would put New Brunswick on the map as one of the lowest-taxed destinations in Canada.

Just five short years ago, New Brunswick’s debt was spiralling out of control and the idea of tax relief seemed like a distant dream.

The year before Higgs was elected, former premier Brian Gallant increased New Brunswick’s net debt by more than $1 billion as his government ran the province’s tenth straight deficit. Money spent on interest charges alone exceeded New Brunswick’s post-secondary education budget.

Today, New Brunswick leads the nation when it comes to sound financial management. Between 2018 and 2023, Higgs led the only government in Canada that posted a surplus every year, including throughout the pandemic.

As Higgs enters his sixth year in charge of the Legislative Assembly, New Brunswick is poised to run its sixth consecutive surplus. Higgs also managed to lower New Brunswick’s debt by more than $2 billion.

New Brunswick’s debt-to-GDP ratio has declined from more than 40 per cent (when Higgs took office) to roughly 25 per cent today, one of the lowest levels in Canada.

And consider this: as most provinces and the feds have seen their debt interest payments soar due to higher interest rates, New Brunswick’s interest charges have gone down. Since Higgs has repaid so much debt, New Brunswick will spend $70 million less this year on debt interest charges than it did the year before Higgs took office.

After years of careful management, it’s now time for Higgs to deliver on historic tax relief for New Brunswickers. He should do so by slashing the sales tax.

At a time when taxpayers are confronting higher prices virtually everywhere and living costs remain high, lowering the HST would allow New Brunswickers to save money on almost everything, from gas to clothing to home heating.

A report recently released by the Fraser Institute suggests that New Brunswick could afford to start lowering the sales tax this year and eliminate it altogether over the next decade so long as politicians in Fredericton maintain Higgs’ cautious approach to government spending.

A fully implemented phase out of New Brunswick’s 10 per cent sales tax would save the average New Brunswick family $4,100 a year.

Higgs could make a start by cutting the HST by two percentage points this year in his 2024 budget. That move alone would save the average New Brunswick family $820 a year.

This October, New Brunswickers are scheduled to go to the polls. Higgs has built a strong record over the past five years. He’s slashed the province’s debt and introduced modest income tax cuts. But if Higgs wants to truly make his mark on the province, he must deliver significant tax relief.

New Brunswick families are dealing with many of the same struggles taxpayers across Canada are facing. More than 50 per cent of families say they’re $200 away from not being able to pay their bills. Nearly 1.1 million Canadians are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

Families could benefit immensely from a sales tax cut that would put hundreds of dollars back in their pockets. Thanks to Higgs’ careful management over the past five years, New Brunswick is positioned to deliver exactly that.

The time for Higgs to pull the trigger on tax relief is now.

Jay Goldberg is the Interim Atlantic Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada. (I’m often amazed by the number of Canadians who don’t know this, or assume it’s Quebec.) Support for the Official Languages Act is quite high among New Brunswick residents, too. 

Shirley MacLean, the provincial commissioner of official languages, noted in an Oct. 2021 survey of 800 adults released last April that 81 percent of New Brunswickers favoured having French and English as official languages. Francophone approval was at 95 percent, while anglophones were at 73 percent.    

MacLean’s study also revealed that over 90 percent of respondents felt it was important to have second-language training in the schools – and adults should receive it for free. Hence, the relevance of the French immersion program taught in provincial schools takes on a whole new meaning.

That’s the theory, anyway.

In practice, New Brunswick’s French immersion program has been problematic in certain ways. While there has been heavy emphasis placed on teaching French in the schools since the Official Languages Act was passed in 1969, the amount of French spoken throughout the province doesn’t appear to reflect this. New Brunswick education minister Bill Hogan pointed out in a press conference last month that less than half of high school graduates who identify as anglophones speak French at a “conversational level.”   

Considering the amount of support for official bilingualism in New Brunswick, that’s a rather surprising statistic.

Hence, the New Brunswick government led by Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs announced some significant changes last year to its long-standing French immersion program. Starting this September, students in kindergarten and Grade 1 will spend half of each school day in “exploratory learning” in French. The other half will be subjects taught in English, including reading, writing and math. Courses such as science and social studies could still be learned in French, however.

“Through the model,” Hogan said, “students will be able to immerse themselves in French from a young age, interacting with their peers, and exploring their surroundings and environment in French.” The goal is to make this group, and those that follow, more conversational in French and still maintain the 50-50 model in primary school. “While the road map is still likely to change,” he said, “we believe they should be able to continue 50-50 English-French learning through to Grade 5 with the end goal to be able to continue to explore opportunities for more advanced French learning in high school years, based on their goals and interests and what they want to accomplish.” 

Sounds pretty logical, when you think about it.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s plan has its critics. Léo-James Lévesque, an education professor at St. Thomas University and former French education supervisor, told CBC in a Dec. 24, 2022 interview it would be “a mistake” that reduced choice and worsened education outcomes. “You’re creating situations where you are going to be learning some aspects of the language, but you will not be learning the language per se.”

Lévesque suggested that previous models similar to the PC government’s plan had a “negative impact on the learning of the students. Teachers will have 50 per cent less of the time to teach the curriculum…even if they try, they will not have sufficient time.” He also believes the new plan “takes away the choice of anyone to become bilingual in the Anglophone school system.”

Is this an accurate assessment?

While I’m strongly opposed to official bilingualism as a mandated government policy, I’m fully supportive of parents having the freedom to choose French immersion schools for their children. In my view, the government’s plan to reform the provincial French immersion program won’t lead to the radical changes its opponents are suggesting.

The PCs are calling for a more balanced approach in teaching French and English in New Brunswick schools. Students will therefore learn both official languages in an equitable fashion, and become more comfortable in using them in different social settings. By placing a greater emphasis on conversational French, it will enable anglophone students to use their second language more confidently when speaking with family, friends, neighbours and others.

It won’t limit parental or societal choice when it comes to bilingualism, either. 

Anglophone parents can still support and encourage their children to learn both official languages at home and school. Reforms to the education curriculum with respect to French immersion won’t change the provincial stance when it comes to supporting the Official Languages Act. And if francophones and anglophones really believe in education choice, they would reject official bilingualism and let parents make their own choices with respect to educating their children in either English, French or both languages. 

Hogan’s strategy isn’t anti-French by any stretch of the imagination. It certainly isn’t equivalent to a “wrecking ball,” as former education minister Dominic Cardy wrote in his Oct. 13, 2022 resignation letter to Higgs. Rather, it will open the door to more anglophone students having the confidence to use French in a conversational manner. 

The New Brunswick government’s plan to reform French immersion seeks to rectify a historical weakness in Canada’s only bilingual province. Francophone and anglophone rights will still be protected, and things will hopefully improve for students now and in the future.

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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