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New Brunswick Progressive Conservative MLA Robert Gauvin is sworn in as Deputy Premier at the New Brunswick Legislature, in Fredericton, in a Nov. 9, 2018, file photo.James West/The Canadian Press

New Brunswick’s governing Progressive Conservatives saw their deputy premier quit in protest over health-care reforms Friday, leaving the minority government in the precarious position of facing a confidence vote or possibly calling an early election.

Robert Gauvin told constituents in his riding of Shippagan-Lameque-Miscou he will sit as an Independent, dealing a blow to the minority government of Premier Blaine Higgs.

“If I don’t feel the premier is protecting citizens ... I have to do something,” Gauvin said.

Gauvin’s announcement, which drew applause from his supporters, follows the government’s decision this week to close emergency rooms overnight in six community hospitals in the province.

His departure leaves the Tories and Liberals tied with 20 seats in the legislature. The Green party and the People’s Alliance have three each, Gauvin is the lone Independent and two seats are vacant. Both the Greens and Liberals have said they are prepared to defeat the government on a confidence motion.

“It’s unacceptable that the government is treating people like statistics, like chess pieces,” Green Leader David Coon said Friday. “It’s heartless and at the same time undermining rural regions of this province. We’re going to lose nurses and doctors to Nova Scotia and Maine.”

Gauvin is the second Tory MLA to denounce the ER closures, after Bruce Northrup said Thursday he cannot support the move but intends to continue supporting the government in other areas.

Premier Blaine Higgs faced reporters Friday afternoon and said he doesn’t feel good about the position he’s in.

“But my resolve has not changed,” he said. “Doing the right thing sometimes comes at a cost. You either get it done or people don’t accept it.”

Higgs said he would meet with his caucus to decide how to proceed, including the possibility of taking the province to the polls.

“It’s very much a possibility,” he said. “This puts a new situation in what we have. We are feeling very good about the budget that is coming forward. We feel very good about what our citizens will see in primary care and the changes in access to care.”

Donald Wright, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick, said that as a cabinet minister, Gauvin had few options after publicly denouncing the health-care changes. “It was either be fired or resign. He had put the premier in an impossible situation,” Wright said.

“A cabinet minister can disagree at the cabinet table and they can have fierce disagreements at the cabinet table, but the second they leave that cabinet room they must toe the line, because they are the government and speak for the government.”

Wright said Higgs’ style has been to govern as if he had a majority.

Higgs has said his government is convinced it is doing the right thing to ensure the sustainability of the province’s health-care system. The government says resources diverted from the overnight shift will shore up daytime services, enhance mental health services and allow for more long-term chronic care beds.

But Gauvin, who was the only francophone member of the Tory caucus, said people from rural communities across the province urged him to take a stand.

“This reform is an attack on the rural nature of New Brunswick,” he said.

The six communities that will lose their emergency rooms from midnight to 8 a.m., effective March 11, are Sussex, Sackville, Perth-Andover, Ste-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet and Grand Falls.

Wright said New Brunswickers will likely be going to the polls sooner than expected.

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin, whose party had previously committed to supporting the Tories on confidence votes, said he’s not ruling out a vote of non-confidence now.

“I think right now the writing is on the wall, and it’s up to the premier now to make that decision,” Austin said. “Closing emergency rooms has a big impact on people in rural areas. What’s the backup plan?”

The Higgs government is set to bring in a provincial budget on March 10, and Higgs must announce dates for two by-elections by March 11. The earliest the Opposition could call for a specific non-confidence vote on the health reforms would be March 19, while a confidence vote on the budget would be March 20.

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