Robert Gauvin has resigned as deputy premier in the Progressive Conservative government and will sit as an independent MLA.
Gauvin made the announcement in Shippagan on Friday morning in front of a large crowd of supporters, who gave him a long standing ovation.
He said he was quitting over recently announced health reforms, including the nighttime closure of six hospital emergency rooms. One of them is in the Enfant-Jésus Hospital in nearby Caraquet, where Gauvin was born.
"This reform is an attack on rural New Brunswick," he said, describing calls he received from people in other affected communities, including Sackville and Sussex.
One caller from Sussex "told me, 'Mr. Gauvin, please don't let us down. Please don't let us down. You'll need to do something more to make sure this doesn't happen.'"
At an afternoon news conference Premier Blaine Higgs said he had no intention of retreating from the reforms, which will affect emergency departments in Sussex, Sackville, Perth-Andover, Sainte-Anne-de-Kent, Caraquet and Grand Falls.
"Our government's resolve remains strong," he said. "We will continue to make decisions in the best interests of the province."
He urged New Brunswickers to look at the details of the reforms, which the province says will allow for the shifting of resources to daytime services, including doctors and nurse practitioners who will be able to see more patients and reduce wait times.
"I understand the concerns. I know change is not easy," Higgs said. But "the system will improve. Your health care will improve."
Gauvin is a first-term MLA for the riding of Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou and had been the only francophone member of the provincial cabinet and of the PC caucus.
"Every government needs an Acadian voice," Gauvin said just before the 2018 election campaign. "We're here and we have to be heard."
Government put into question
His departure puts in question the survival of the minority government of Blaine Higgs.
Assuming Speaker Daniel Guitard, a Liberal, steps down and rejoins his party's caucus, the combined strength of the Liberals, Greens and Gauvin would be 24 seats.
The PCs and the People's Alliance, who support the government in confidence votes, would have only 22, assuming a new speaker is selected from their ranks. Higgs said his party would put someone forward for the post if necessary.
'All decisions are on the table'
The Liberals have vowed to introduce a non-confidence motion to bring down the PC government and force an election.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said in a statement that he has not yet spoken to Guitard about resigning as speaker.
"In terms of strategy moving forward there are a lot of moving parts, so stay tuned."
Higgs said he hasn't decided whether to call an election himself before the legislature resumes next month or wait and see if he is defeated in the house.
"All decisions are on the table," he said, including folding two unscheduled byelections into a general election.
But he said with emotions running high, he'd like to "give this a little time to settle" and will talk to his caucus about whether to trigger a campaign.
Still, he acknowledged there's no clear path to getting his budget passed next month.
"It's going to be tense, isn't it?" he joked as several cabinet ministers and his wife Marcia looked on.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin, whose party has supported the PCs on all confidence votes since it took power, said Friday he may now withdraw that support.
"My biggest concern from day one has been 'What do these folks [in the six communities] have as a backup?' We've got a paramedic situation that's still not stabilized."
"I've been hearing over the last few days from citizens, I've been hearing from paramedics, I've been hearing from others, and it's certainly galvanizing us towards not supporting these changes."
The legislature resumes sitting March 10.
But Austin said he would not be surprised if Higgs calls an election before then.
"I'm kind of wondering if we'll even get there, frankly. At this point I think the writing's on the wall, and it's up to the premier now to make that decision."
Even so, he would not say how his MLAs will vote on the budget or on the non-confidence motion.
Bullied by people within the party
Gauvin told reporters after his announcement in Shippagan that he hasn't decided whether to vote against the PC budget on March 10, but he said an election would be one way to stop the reforms.
He said he felt "bullied" in recent days by people within the PC party who tried to pressure him.
"They said, 'Robert, the people in your area elected you to work on behalf of Shippagan. Why are you working for Caraquet?' … We have to stop navel gazing. Thirty-five percent of the people in my riding use that hospital."
Higgs said he did not know who from the party would have said that to Gauvin and wasn't aware of it until asked about it at the news conference.
Gauvin was one of two PC MLAs who publicly opposed the health reforms. Bruce Northrup, whose Sussex-Fundy-St. Martin's riding has another affected hospital, said Thursday he "cannot support" the changes.
Northrup said he plans to remain a PC member and support the government's overall agenda but has left the door open to voting for the Liberal motion or against the budget.
"If there is a confidence vote that comes up, when and if, then I will have to make a decision then," he said Thursday on CBC's As It Happens. If the government falls, he said, "I'll have a clear conscience."
Green Leader David Coon said Friday that his party will support a non-confidence motion in the house.
He also said he'd welcome Gauvin as a Green Party candidate in the next election.
"I think he'd be a great candidate, absolutely," he said, adding he was impressed by Gauvin's courage and believed Gauvin's father would be proud of him.