Can anything save New Brunswick?

The province’s economy is in free fall, it has more deaths than births and an ugly language war to rival Quebec’s
An elderly man walks through Saint John, N.B’s empty downtown on Sunday morning, March 6, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese )
An elderly man walks through Saint John, N.B's empty downtown on Sunday morning, March 6, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese )
An elderly man walks through Saint John, N.B’s empty downtown on Sunday morning, March 6, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese )

Katherine McDonnell, aged 104, moved to the Mount Saint Joseph Nursing Home in Miramichi, N.B., four months ago. She was born in Rogersville, a mostly francophone town 50 km south of where she sits now, and lived most her life in nearby Nelson, in a home overlooking the river. She’d still be there were it not for an accident. “I fell on the floor and never walked again,” she says, chuckling in her wheelchair. She and her husband, John Dolan, had three children; a great-grandmother several times over, she has outlived John by a quarter-century and counting.

Along with her demeanour, McDonnell’s age has made her something of a legend in Miramichi—and for good reason. She is among the oldest people in the province, and her memories stretch back to when New Brunswick was an economic powerhouse driven in no small part by what was cut down, dug up and fished out of Miramichi.

Today, Miramichi is a microcosm of New Brunswick’s myriad social and demographic challenges. The closure of most of its mines, lumber and pulp and paper mills, along with the air force base in 1996, spurred an out-migration of its younger residents. The average age of the residents of the region of Campbellton–Miramichi, encompassing roughly a third of the province, is 49.4—the second-highest amongst Atlantic Canada’s 15 economic regions, according to Statistics Canada.

One of the few growth industries in the area is the housing and caring for those, like McDonnell, who have stayed behind. Last May, the government announced Miramichi would be the site for a 240-bed nursing home, which will add to the 4,500 existing nursing home beds in the province. The home, which will be the largest of its kind in the province, “will achieve our goals of creating jobs, growing our economy and supporting families,” Premier Brian Gallant said at the time. He said roughly the same thing a few days earlier about a government investment in a shipyard. Wood, metals and fish used to be New Brunswick’s economic staples; now, more and more, it is old age.

Present-day New Brunswick is testament to the well-worn adage that the story of Atlantic Canada is one of leaving for other places. Nearly 21,000 New Brunswickers—about the population of Dieppe, the province’s fourth-largest city—have left the province since 2005. Though Maritimers often yearn to come home, increasingly more New Brunswickers won’t do so in this lifetime. 2014 marked the first time in its history that there were more deaths than births in the province, a dubious honour shared by Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Nova Scotia.

It doesn’t help that New Brunswick is more drive-through than fly-over; thanks to successive governments and their vote-friendly promises of building roads, it is now possible to drive from the border of Quebec to Nova Scotia on a single tank of gas. The current Liberal government briefly considered installing tolls on its borders; a cynic would say it was to capitalize from the steady outflow of its residents. (The government eventually reneged on the idea.)

Discarded tires and tow boats are seen as the Irving Pulp & Paper mill billows steam in Saint John, N.B. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)
Discarded tires and tow boats are seen as the Irving Pulp & Paper mill billows steam in Saint John, N.B. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Those who stay are faced with these hardening economic and demographic realities, along with a burgeoning language war and a political culture steeped in linguistic tribalism arguably rivalling even that of Quebec. As a result, governing New Brunswick often means pitting north against south, French against English and urban against rural, amidst a stumbling economy and crippling debt, projected to hit $13.5 billion at the end of the fiscal year. (Other provinces like Quebec and Ontario may carry more debt per capita, but they’re better positioned to manage that debt.)

Meanwhile, Brian Gallant’s Liberal government has cut the number of days for debate in the legislature to historic lows, and limited media access to the premier and his caucus. (Despite repeated attempts, Maclean’s was unable to secure an interview with Gallant for this article.)

“You’d think small would be simple, but New Brunswick is the classic example of how that really isn’t true,” says Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “For a little province like this, we just can’t get our act together.”

Twenty years ago, New Brunswick was in enviable financial shape. Former premier Frank McKenna’s government produced successive surplus budgets and made a significant dent in the province’s debt. “A lot was done to restructure the province during the McKenna years,” says federal auditor-general Michael Ferguson, who held the same position in New Brunswick from 2005 to 2010.

Fast forward to 2015, when economist Richard Saillant published Over A Cliff?, a compendium of New Brunswick’s various economic and social ailments. As the title suggests, the picture isn’t pretty. Saillant invokes the possibility of outright bankruptcy for the province, which has posted five straight budget deficits. An aging population, out-migration, diminished economic opportunities and at times profligate governments put New Brunswick in the dubious company of Greece, Portugal and Italy, only with more trees and less Old World charm.

“I’d say that New Brunswick, and Atlantic Canada more generally, have missed the urbanization boat,” Saillant says. “While there are individual successes in the Maritimes, world-first innovation is disproportionately concentrated in large urban areas.”

About half of New Brunswick’s population lives in rural areas, more than double the number in neighbouring Quebec, according to Statistics Canada. For the government, it means services are more expensive, particularly in the areas of health and education, which together make up 60 per cent of the provincial budget. It also means fewer higher-paying jobs and more reliance on an extraction economy and the federal government. Federal cash transfers make up about 36 per cent of the province’s budget, the second-highest percentage in the country, behind Prince Edward Island.

It also means rural areas have outsized political clout. Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton, the province’s three largest urban centres representing a total of about 188,000 people, have a combined 16 seats. The remaining 33 are mostly rural ridings, which tend to jealously guard their services and institutions even as their populations diminish.

The result, according to former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock, is a continuation of New Brunswick’s unsustainable status quo. “We’ve targeted our policies on just getting re-elected and so we prop up failing industries and we bail out failing companies. Atlantic Yarns went under and lost an $80-million loan. The government I was a part of lent $70 million to [Miramichi-based] Atcon, a failing construction company that went under a year later. The Marriott call centre closed. It turns out they were subsidized to the tune of $20,000 a job and just left when the subsidies ran out. And the list goes on. We have generally been about keeping the majority of people comfortable rather than attracting new people.”

New Brunswick’s electoral map reveals another latter-day truth about the province. Following the 2014 elections, with a few exceptions, it is divided between Liberal red in the north part of the province and Progressive Conservative blue in the south. Not coincidentally, this is the rough divide between New Brunswick’s French and English populations. There are 10 sitting anglophone MLAs amongst the Liberals government’s 27 members. The Progressive Conservatives have exactly one francophone MLA in their ranks.

As the country’s sole officially bilingual province, New Brunswick is often held up as the closest thing to that hoary Canadian ideal of compromise and compassion, with the two solitudes living in harmony on the same chunk of rock. Certainly, operating in both French and English has had economic benefits. In the mid-1990s, attracted by the bilingual workforce and government subsidies, call centres and office-support operations began to set up in the province. Today, these industries employ roughly 15,000 people, according to a 2015 government report. It also says bilingualism has helped foster business with Quebec, to the tune of $3.9 billion in yearly export revenues between 2007 and 2011.

But New Brunswick has also seemingly imported some of Quebec’s language woes, complete with sign laws, absurdist legal battles and doomsday-style rhetoric from linguistic camps. The most recent kerfuffle involves the busing of school children.

Last spring, New Brunswick NDP Leader Dominic Cardy suggested French and English students should be allowed to take buses together, if only to save on costs. (French and English schools are operated separately from each other, but in a few cases, one bus was able to serve both schools). Education Minister Serge Rousselle expressed his anger at such a thing, and was further angered when he learned that a handful of francophone students in Richibucto (pop. 1,965) were being bused to school on English rolling stock. In a statement to the National Post, Rousselle promised to rid his department of what he called an “administrative anomaly.” The issue of whether being bused in one’s mother tongue is a Charter right is currently before New Brunswick Court of Appeal.

A blank advertising board is seen off the Trans Canada Highway near Sussex, N.B. on Saturday, March 5, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)
Nothing to see: A blank advertising board off the Trans Canada Highway near Sussex, N.B. on March 5, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

In actual fact, busing children according to the language they speak doesn’t appear to be more expensive. According to its 2015-16 budget, the province spends about $57 million a year to bus nearly 98,000 students, or roughly $580 a student. In contrast, Nova Scotia spends about $910 a student.

For English-language advocates, the issue is less about cost than what they see as favouritism of French New Brunswickers. According to Statistics Canada, 71 per cent of French New Brunswickers are bilingual, while only about 15 per cent of the province’s English can speak French. “More than 70 per cent of the province is disqualified from a majority of government positions, and a growing number of private sector positions,” says Sharon Buchanan, the president of the Anglophone Rights Association of New Brunswick (ARANB).

There are other insidious effects of French in New Brunswick, Buchanan says. The city of Dieppe has issued fines to businesses that neglected to put French first in their bilingual signage, and an attempt was made to change the name of Moncton’s Robinson Court to honour Acadian poet Gérald Leblanc.

Buchanan, 47, herself a unilingual English manager at a call centre, says her kids can’t get work beyond Tim Hortons because they don’t speak French well enough. She says she’s been threatened. “One of our members was spit on while passing out ARA flyers in front of Wal-Mart in Moncton,” she says.

Language issues aren’t particularly new in the province. There was once a fledgling separatist Acadian party, Parti Acadien, which had similar goals and socialist sensibilities as the Parti Québécois in Quebec. There was also the Confederation of Regions Party, an anti-bilingualism party that sent several elected members to the legislature in 1991 before the party self-imploded four years later.

“I think [tension over language] is at a level not seen since the 1980s,” says Christian Michaud, a constitutional lawyer who has worked for the New Brunswick government on language cases in the past. Part of the blame falls on the francophone minority, he says. “We put too much weight on the court system. As francophones, we’ve evolved through the courts, and we’ve won. But we’ve lost touch with the population. We seem to think the way to get things moving is to attack it in the public sphere.”

At the same time, “everything in government happens in English. There needs to be more francophone spaces within government.”

Michaud sips his cortado and looks out at downtown Moncton. It’s a bustling place, with the traffic jams to prove it. Moncton is the fastest-growing region in Atlantic Canada, thanks in large part to the francophone migration from the north. For English rights groups, it’s another sore point. Moncton is booming largely because it is bilingual, and therefore home to many of the call-centre and public sector jobs. “Yeah, nobody is happy here,” Michaud says, laughing. He’s joking, of course.

For the last decade, New Brunswick has had two successive one-term governments—an anomaly in a province known for political dynasties. Premier Louis J. Robichaud served for 10 years. His successor, Richard Hatfield, was in power for nearly 17. McKenna also served for 10 years; he came to power in 1987, when his Liberal government won every seat in the legislature.

Players take part in Saturday night bingo at Union Bingo in Saint John, N.B. on Saturday, March 5, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)
Players take part in Saturday night bingo at Union Bingo in Saint John, N.B. on Saturday, March 5, 2016. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

Former minister Kelly Lamrock says the recent, quick-change governments are a result of poor leadership. “We’ve had a lot of premiers who don’t meet the basic test of, ‘If you are not scripted by your advisers, can you explain why you’ve decided what you’ve decided?’ As a result we’re getting them out of any situation where they might be unscripted,” Lamrock says.

Coincidence or not, the Gallant government has reduced the number of days in which he and his caucus would be forced to face such scrutiny. In February, the government shut down the legislature, which will allow the provincial budget to move through committee without daily opposition questions. Media access to the premier, meanwhile, “is becoming increasingly scarce,” says New Brunswick press gallery president Adam Huras. Limiting access is old hat, if only because it’s so successful—just ask Stephen Harper. The downside, as Lamrock sees it, is a general erosion of the regard for the political class, exactly when New Brunswick needs strong political leadership.

“We’ve got some incredibly creative people doing some very good things. But there’s a sense that politics isn’t where you make a difference. You make a film, you start a small business. You don’t go to the legislature,” Lamrock says.

Greg Hemmings has done both, 115 km south of the legislature in Fredericton. In 2007, Hemmings set up his film production studio in Saint John. The gritty counterpoint to Fredericton’s staid bureaucracy, Saint John’s mix of cheap rent and industrial decrepitude has sparked an East Coast artistic mini-renaissance—like Detroit, albeit with a heartier social safety net.

Hemmings House, the film studio, has produced documentaries about computer coders in Estonia and youth orchestras in Venezuela, among others, from its offices in the city’s uptown district. He is relentlessly bullish about the city. “I dare say, it’s thriving,” Hemmings says. He feels about the same about New Brunswick in general. “There’s a scrappy entrepreneurialism here,” says the usually bearded and always smiling 39-year-old. Today, Hemmings House employs 10 people. “In 2002, Enterprise Saint John [a government-funded entrepreneurial initiative] gave me a loan, an apprenticeship and then an award. It was like a hot knife through butter to get interest in what I was doing.”

Hemmings’s optimism for his home province is heart-warming. Given the state of New Brunswick, hopefully it’s contagious as well.