Acadian groups unite to call for Austin's removal from working group

Acadian Society of New Brunswick president Alexandre Cédric Doucet said the society's confidence in the Higgs government is
Acadian Society of New Brunswick president Alexandre Cédric Doucet said the society's confidence in the Higgs government is

A coalition of 21 Acadian and francophone groups is demanding that Premier Blaine Higgs remove cabinet minister Kris Austin from an internal working group examining the Official Languages Act.

The organizations also want the working group, made up entirely of Progressive Conservative politicians meeting in secret, replaced with an all-party legislative committee that deliberates in public.

"The confidence that Acadian civil society has in the Higgs government is hanging by a thread," said Acadian Society of New Brunswick president Alexandre Cédric Doucet  at a news conference Tuesday morning.

The groups taking part included unions, arts and business groups, and associations representing francophone teachers, senior citizens, women, youth and others.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

They say Austin, a former leader of the People's Alliance, should not be on the working group given his statements opposing some of the ways official bilingualism has been implemented.

"Francophone rights are at risk," said Geneviève Latour, president of a francophone feminist group who spoke at the news conference.

"What happens with a victim of sexual violence who wants to give a statement to police and can't do it in her language? Or a senior who is at the hospital for a procedure who can't communicate because of a lack of bilingual capacity in the institution?"

As recently as last week, Austin reiterated his belief that the province can't afford two regional health authorities administered in English and French and doesn't need a commissioner of official languages to investigate complaints about bilingual service.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Higgs has repeatedly defended choosing Austin as one of 10 PC MLAs on the working group, saying he wants diverse perspectives.

He also says Austin's inclusion will lessen the chance of a new protest party being formed over language issues.

In the legislature Tuesday, the premier again pushed back at the criticism.

"It's unfortunate the opposition is taking exception to having such a meaningful discussion in our province," he said in response to Liberal questions about language rights.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

He said critics should not speculate "on what might be, what could be" in possible revisions to the language act.

"All these speculations provides good fodder for everyday discussion but in the end they're not pertinent to what at the end of the day is going to be our recommendation," Higgs said.

The Official Languages Act requires a review every ten years, and last December an independent commission issued a report with recommendations for bringing it up to date.

The government has yet to respond to those recommendations. The working group is crafting the response, which Higgs has promised to deliver before Christmas.

In Question Period, Higgs challenged the opposition Liberals to identify any rollback of language rights since he became premier in 2018.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

"I would like to hear about anyone who's been restricted because of our actions in this government," he said. "I'm not aware of anyone.…There's a lot of hype that's been created here."

Doucet would not say what the 21 groups will do if Higgs sticks with Austin on the working group, though he said they are making both short-term and long-term plans for more action.

He also said most anglophone New Brunswickers support official bilingualism and called on them to speak out on the issue.