New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs jostled to take control of his cabinet last week with the departure of two more ministers, while discord within his own party about his leadership style and social conservatism continues to mount – with members taking the first step to oust him.
The revolt was spurred by the Progressive Conservative government’s changes in May to rules around gender identity in the classroom, which now ban teachers from using the preferred pronouns of students under 16 without their parents’ consent.
New Brunswick’s child and youth advocate has criticized the update to policy 713, which is designed to protect LGBTQ students in schools, as “shoddy” and “inadvertently discriminatory.” National human-rights organizations and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, have called out the Higgs government for targeting a vulnerable group of children who are trans and non-binary.
The turmoil ratcheted up this past week, as Mr. Higgs threw out two cabinet members: Daniel Allain, the minister of local government, and Jeff Carr, the transportation minister. Meanwhile, a growing tally of former PC party presidents submitted letters calling for a leadership review in response to his government’s changes to policy 713.
But Mr. Higgs remains adamant that his government needs to protect parents’ rights to consent before a child under the age of 16 can decide their own gender pronouns at school. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he defended his leadership style – which critics have alleged is autocratic – and social-conservative values, calling for a sense of calm over what he says are bullying tactics by those who want to see him ousted.
“I feel this issue has caused a lot of angst, and I’m asking for calm for us to find our way through this,” he said.
The firings of Mr. Allain and Mr. Carr from the premier’s cabinet added to the departures of two others who quit before last Tuesday’s shuffle: Dorothy Shephard, the social development minister, and Trevor Holder, the labour minister. All four former ministers had voted with the Liberal Opposition in favour of a motion in June to push back on the government’s changes to policy 713.
Mr. Higgs has said he had no choice but to rid his cabinet of dissenters.
“Where you have cabinet ministers that stand in the legislature and vote against the government – that is a major issue,” he said. “It basically signals there needs to be change to move forward.”
Mr. Higgs, whose roots are in the former New Brunswick Confederation of Regions Party, might be the most conservative leader the province has had in 60 years, according to Mount Allison University political science professor Geoff Martin. Mr. Higgs has pushed the PC party further to the right with his government’s scaling back of LGBTQ rights in schools and refusal to fund medical abortions outside hospitals, Dr. Martin said, undermining the party’s historic centrist Tory element and marginalizing that group, who are now pushing back in revolt.
Also at play is a shift to social conservatism and challenging “so-called woke policy,” which Dr. Martin said is part of a broader political atmosphere across Canada and the U.S.
“This isn’t perhaps just about the premier’s values. This is also a political strategy,” he said. “I think he’s making a calculation that social conservatism is a way to get re-elected.”
But whether Mr. Higgs will continue as the PC leader is up in the air. Twenty-six riding presidents of the PC party submitted dissenting letters, which is more than enough to trigger a leadership review at the next provincial council meeting in September, said Marc Savoie, president of the PC riding association in Moncton East. A two-thirds majority of the council is needed to officially launch the review. If Mr. Higgs loses, Mr. Savoie added, he can still throw his hat in the ring to be party leader.
Dr. Martin said it’s likely he will hang on because there are still many people who are loyal to the premier.
“There’s no doubt that there’s discontent in the party, but I can see it settling down,” he said. Still, he believes there is also a fight happening for the soul of the party and what it stands: Will it be ultraconservative or a bigger tent, as it has historically been?
Mr. Higgs has also faced criticism among his ranks for the elimination of elected representatives from regional health authorities and the anglophone education system, his attempt to cut French immersion, and his closure of six rural hospital emergency rooms, as well as his condescension and neglect of francophone and Indigenous communities, Mr. Savoie said. The changes to the gender policy were the last straw, he added.
“It’s the prime example of how he is ruling the party in relation to the people,” he said. “He listens to the people who say what he wants them to say. And that’s how he bases his decisions.”
In a statement to The Globe, Mr. Higgs said he’s not surprised to hear that the paperwork against his leadership has been filed, as the group leading the charge for a review has been vocal about their opposition to his changes to gender-identity rules.
“I stand by the changes we made, and I stand by the parents who continue to voice their concerns about this policy,” the Premier said.
New Brunswick’s political battle over gender-identity rights brought the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to Fredericton last week, as director of equality Harini Sivalingam called out the government for stripping the rights of transgender youth and threatened a lawsuit.
“The changes to policy 713 violate the rights and dignities of trans and non-binary children. They are unlawful and unconstitutional and should not stand,” Ms. Sivalingam said.
Mr. Trudeau waded into the issue last month, saying “trans kids need to feel safe, not targeted by politicians,” and that “trans kids in New Brunswick are being told they don’t have the right to be their true selves, that they need to ask permission.”
The prime minister’s comments prompted federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to tell reporters last week that Mr. Trudeau should butt out of decisions that rest with parents and the province.
Johise Namwira, the press secretary for Marci Ien, the federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, said in a statement last week that Ottawa remains deeply concerned with New Brunswick’s review of policy 713 and the impact that it could have on the well-being of trans and queer youth.
Federal Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities Dominic LeBlanc also weighed in, saying he thought the changes to the policy were a mistake.
With a report from Ian Bailey and Canadian Press