New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs delivered his state of the province speech Thursday, singing the praises of his government’s achievements and making a passing mention to the changes made to the policy on gender identity in school, as he prepares for an election this year.
The Progressive Conservative premier told a crowd in Fredericton that governing was “not easy work, and we don’t always agree on complex issues,” but his party could come together when needed.
Higgs said a population boom in the province has brought with it problems that have been hard to manage.
A March 2022 news release from the government said New Brunswick’s population had topped 800,000. The province is experiencing the highest rate of population growth since 1976, it added.
“While it can be exciting to see so much development and interest in our province, it’s also been difficult managing that growth with the impact this is having on housing, health care and schools,” Higgs said.
But he also has a plan for the future, he said to scattered applause.
His vision for the future includes closing the gap on basic reading and math scores, creating programs to address addiction and homelessness, and stabilizing health care, he said.
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He introduced a MyHealthNB app in his speech. The app allows people to see test results and vaccination records.
“Soon we’ll add dashboards for ER wait times, as well as diagnostic imaging,” he said.
Toward the end of his speech, Higgs made a passing mention of the volatility he has faced over the past year. One of the reasons for the tumult has been the changes made to Policy 713.
Among the “tough issues” that he was prepared to tackle, he said one of them was “parents’ rights.”
Higgs said last month that parental rights are “very important” to him.
The main change to Policy 713 is students under 16 must get their parents’ consent before teachers can use their preferred first names or pronouns at school — a reversal of the previous practice.
But his stance on the province’s gender policy and his leadership style saw two of his ministers — labour minister Trevor Holder and Dorothy Shephard in social development — resign from cabinet in June.
Six Tory members of the legislature voted with the Opposition, calling for a review of the changes made to Policy 713 by the province’s child and youth advocate.
To sort the volatility and quell dissent, Higgs speculated about an election starting around June and dropped it only after his throne speech in October.
However, Higgs’ troubles began as far back as October 2022 after his education minister at the time, Dominic Cardy, resigned from cabinet.
Some members of the Progressive Conservative party called for him to step down as leader but dropped the call in August after months of unsuccessful attempts to trigger a leadership review.
Higgs said his party has a firm grip on the tough issues.
“We’re not shying away,” he said.
“New Brunswickers can be confident that we will continue to confront areas of weakness, listen to people and develop clear plans, and take action.”
He closed his speech by saying he wants to keep the momentum going in New Brunswick and ensure the province’s continued growth.
“Whether it’s me or somebody else, we need to stay focused on the opportunities we have in this province.”
But he said he doesn’t have anyone else in mind as his successor, when talking to reporters after the speech and asked about his comment.
“If I’m here in government, then it will be me who will keep it going with my colleagues,” he said. “If I’m not here in government, then I’m hoping the next government will keep it going.”
Liberal Leader Susan Holt said Higgs was “painting a rosy picture of New Brunswick when New Brunswickers aren’t smelling the roses.”
The speech, she said, had the feel of something that’s delivered from an election platform.
“Although the applause in the room certainly didn’t seem to match an election vibe.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024.
© 2024 The Canadian Press