Higgs won't say if he'd fire minister over 'non-negotiable' language stance

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters it was “fair and reasonable” for Daniel Allain to issue a public statement on Thursday but would not rule out dumping him from cabinet if he breaks ranks when it’s time to vote on possible changes to the Official Languages Act. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters it was “fair and reasonable” for Daniel Allain to issue a public statement on Thursday but would not rule out dumping him from cabinet if he breaks ranks when it’s time to vote on possible changes to the Official Languages Act. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

Premier Blaine Higgs refused to say Friday what he'll do if his senior francophone cabinet minister votes against changes to language laws that contradict the minister's "non-negotiable" positions.

Higgs told reporters it was "fair and reasonable" for Daniel Allain to issue a public statement on Thursday, but would not rule out dumping him from cabinet if he breaks ranks when it's time to vote on possible changes to the Official Languages Act.

"You're going down this hypothetical road again," the premier told reporters. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Allain's statement said he would oppose the elimination of the commissioner of official languages position as well as any merger of the two regional health authorities or the creation of a single board for both of them.

He also said he was against a merger of the language-based school bus systems in the province's seven anglophone and francophone school districts.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Allain said he issued the statement to lay out "the limits of what would be acceptable, and what would be non-negotiable" to him.

If the Progressive Conservative government proposed those changes, Allain told CBC News, he would not resign as local government minister but would "vote against it in caucus, cabinet and the legislative assembly."

Higgs said he was happy Allain is "not one to walk away and quit" but would not say if he'd fire him.

In the Canadian cabinet system, a minister who publicly breaks from a government decision normally resigns or is fired.

"That's not for me to decide," Allain said Thursday. "I serve at the pleasure of the premier."

Higgs would not say what he would do.

He said he hoped the working group would craft a government response that would be broadly acceptable, avoiding the need for Allain to break ranks.

"I don't think there's going to be an issue there," he said.

Higgs has ruled out a merger of the two language-based health authorities, Horizon and Vitalité, but not a single board to govern both organizations.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Francophone groups believe that would take away what has been established as a right to govern their own health care institutions.

Health Minister Bruce Fitch would not rule out a single board overseeing the two authorities.

"We haven't made any decisions on that," he said.

"There's a number of options out there. I'm sure everybody has a different opinion on what it should be. That's not a discussion for today."

Fitch defended Allain's right to express his views on official languages. Two other PC cabinet ministers, Dorothy Shephard and Mike Holland, refused to comment on Allain's statement.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Liberal MLA Isabelle Thériault said she welcomed Allain's statement but "he didn't go far.

"It's good, and I recognize that he stood up. It was a bit late to do it, but I recognize that."

She acknowledged that Allain was in a difficult position in the PC caucus "but he chose that government and he chose that leader."

Pressure on language issue

Allain, the MLA for Moncton East first elected in 2020, has been the focus of pressure from Acadian groups to take a stand on a review of the Official Languages Act.

That pressure intensified after Higgs revealed that cabinet minister Kris Austin is, like Allain, part of a working group crafting the government's position.

Austin is a former leader of the People's Alliance who has been critical of some aspects of official bilingualism.

As recently as this month he said he still favoured eliminating the commissioner and merging the two health authorities.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

While Higgs defended Allain's decision to speak out and encouraged an open discussion, he added that some statements are "a little bit more difficult than others.

"All we're trying to do is be better, and it's unfortunate when any discussion of change turns into a resistance to change."

Green MLA Kevin Arseneau said he wasn't convinced Allain's heart was in his statement.

"Daniel doesn't understand language rights that kind of way," he said.

"I think he feels he's doing a good job protecting francophone rights right now. But I don't feel that it's his thing. He's doing it because he has to. I'm not sure he likes that."