Look no further for evidence of a language divide in New Brunswick politics than the differing views emerging among Progressive Conservatives about whether that divide even exists.
In Tracadie-Sheila Monday night, defeated PC candidate Diane Carey said that francophones "were just afraid about the leader," Premier Blaine Higgs.
In Fredericton Tuesday morning, victorious Tory Jill Green disagreed. "I think part of the language divide was manufactured and it's not as real as people think it is," she said.
Party president Claude Williams, a francophone, called the split "unfortunate," while Higgs himself said it's "not so much a language problem as it is a political problem."
And newly elected PC MLA Daniel Allain said while there may be a "divide," there isn't an "issue."
The numbers don't lie: in Tracadie-Sheila, a riding held by the PCs from 1994 to 2014, Carey won 23.2 per cent of the vote compared to 69.5 per cent for Liberal winner Keith Chiasson.
Higgs was a liability among voters, Chiasson said. "He didn't represent who they were and what their priorities were."
In Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston, another area long held by the PCs, the party got 25.6 per cent of the vote while the Liberals won 66.5 per cent.
Higgs says north 'doesn't accept me'
This sweeping francophone rejection of Higgs constitutes the one major asterisk on his remarkable electoral triumph on Monday — the first time a New Brunswick government has been re-elected in 17 years.
He has only one francophone in his new expanded caucus, Moncton East MLA-elect Daniel Allain. He's without any representation from the francophone north.
"It wasn't a failure of me accepting the northern part of the province," Higgs said Tuesday on CBC Radio's As It Happens. "I guess it was a case where the northern part of the province doesn't accept me."
The premier has francophone advisors, but they're not visible and accountable the way ministers and MLAs are.
"The connection with the francophones is not good," said University of Moncton political scientist Roger Ouellette.
He attributed it to Higgs's involvement as a young man with the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions party and his winning of the 2016 PC leadership race with scant francophone support — and an inability to converse in French himself.
Then throw in his two-year co-operation agreement in the legislature with the People's Alliance, which Higgs relied on to prop up his minority government and which opposes aspects of official bilingualism.
"If we put everything together, the perception from the north is not good for him," Ouellette said.
Chiasson added there's a need for "making everybody feel welcome in the province, that they have a place at the table, that they have say, that they can be who they are."
Political, not language split, Higgs says
Higgs himself doesn't see it that way.
"It wasn't a language split," he said on CBC's Information Morning Fredericton Tuesday morning. "It seems more of a political split that has been there for some time and has been taken advantage of."
He was referring to northern ridings that he said have been Liberal "for a long time." Brunswick News quoted Higgs saying that "you could run a lampshade" in those ridings "and you'd get a Liberal."
While that was true for most of the twentieth century, over the last four decades PC premiers Richard Hatfield, Bernard Lord and David Alward all managed to varying degrees to capture many ridings in the francophone north.
Higgs acknowledged that on As It Happens but said those previous premiers had won the ridings with expensive commitments he was unwilling to make.
"You can see different models in terms of how it works. I presented a model for an entire province," he said.
He added that some people in some areas of the province were looking for costly commitments during the campaign but they should be "prepared to look at new ideas, be part of a new process and be part of a bigger goal."
Higgs spoke some French Monday night in his victory speech but did not address francophones as a community about their concerns.
Instead he spoke of geography, promising to be "inclusive and collaborative" with the north and the south.
"He has no ambition for the cultural side, for the Francophonie," Ouellette said. "It's not his cup of tea."
No language issue, says Allain
Allain is defending his leader, saying "there are a lot of things that divide us in New Brunswick at times," including language, but "I don't think there's a language issue.
"There's platforms elaborated by different parties and people had the chance to vote on that. There is some 'ethnic vote' sometimes that happens … and the premier has given us his direction, that he wants to lead and make sure he's inclusive and collaborative."
Allain also brushed off the premier's lack of direct reference to francophones in his victory speech. "The premier addressed New Brunswickers. First and foremost we are New Brunswickers."
Higgs said Tuesday he would focus on economic issues in the north, promising to work with local chambers of commerce to create job growth.
"Let's look at a long-term sustainable path forward that brings people back to the region," he said.
Ouellette said the premier seems to regard any gestures beyond that as "political" but said that means more than just the crass use of taxpayer dollars.
"Politicians should do politics," he said. "Not small politics [like] buying votes. Doing politics is trying to reach the entire population of this province.
"If you want to be a real leader, it's important to lead the province, and this province has two language communities. … it's really important that all these people have their voice and their concerns around the table."
'Fear' over relationship with francophones
Williams acknowledged Monday there was talk during the campaign of "some fear about the premier not listening to the francophone community.
"We've got to break that because that is not true. With a majority he will prove to New Brunswick that he is there for the whole province."
Ouellette said Allain will play a key role.
Unlike Robert Gauvin, who was a political neophyte when he was thrust into the role of French lieutenant two years ago, Allain "has been around for the last 20 years" as an advisor to Lord and Alward.
That should allow him to work more effectively within the PC government and cabinet for more francophone outreach, Ouellette said.
"He's well-connected. He knows the party, so he may have a strong voice around the table."
Ouellette also expects Higgs, who is 66 years old, will serve just one term and then retire, allowing the party to choose a new leader better able to empathize with francophones.
He said the party should consider using a weighted voting system in its next leadership race, like the federal Conservatives and the provincial Liberals.
Assigning equal voting strength to each riding will make it more important for leadership candidates to connect with all parts of the province, he said.