The top francophone cabinet minister in Premier Blaine Higgs's government has drawn a line in the sand on what changes he's willing to accept on official bilingualism.
Daniel Allain says in a written statement that he wants to see the office of the commissioner of official languages remain intact and wants two separate health authorities to remain in place with separate boards of directors and CEOs.
His Progressive Conservative cabinet colleague Kris Austin has questioned the usefulness of those institutions in recent weeks.
Allain said in his statement that he felt he had to lay out "the limits of what would be acceptable, and what would be non-negotiable" on language rights.
The local government minister, first elected in 2020, is one of two francophone MLAs in the Progressive Conservative caucus and cabinet.
Asked in an interview to define what he meant by "non-negotiable," Allain said he would not resign if those institutions are changed but would "vote against it in caucus, cabinet and the legislative assembly."
A minister who votes against a government bill normally does not remain in cabinet.
"That's not for me to decide," Allain said. "I serve at the pleasure of the premier."
Higgs has said there's no plan to eliminate the language commissioner's role or merge the two health authorities.
Allain said he was caught by surprise when Radio-Canada revealed last week that the government had sought a legal opinion earlier this year on eliminating the dual school bus systems in the seven anglophone and francophone school districts.
"It would have been interesting if I'd had some type of knowledge of that," he said. "I learned of it from Twitter, just like you guys."
In his statement, he said a single bilingual busing system would violate constitutional language rights and "would be a major setback for francophones."
Allain also acknowledges in the statement that while he supports changes to French immersion to address the problem of streaming, "it is not clear we are operating with the best information available.
"There is disagreement about the validity of the data the government is using to justify its plans," he wrote. "This conflict needs to be explored further and resolved."
Allain added that there is "a public perception that the government is rushing this plan," and he urged "all parties" to hold consultations as soon as the province presents its plan to replace immersion.
Allain said in the interview that Premier Blaine Higgs was aware in advance that he was putting out the statement.
"I had indicated to him that I was going to do some positioning. … He acknowledged it and he said, 'We have something to work with here.' I was glad I had the ability to share with my colleagues how I felt."
He said the province was not on "a good path" in recent weeks with a series of language controversies.
Francophones were alarmed over the inclusion of Austin on a working group looking at revisions to the Official Languages Act.
Austin, the former People's Alliance leader who became a PC MLA in March and joined the Higgs cabinet in October, has spoken openly in recent weeks about his view that the two health authorities should be merged and the language commissioner's position eliminated.
He argued those view don't contradict his support for official bilingualism in general or his adherence to the PC party's aims and principles, which include support for linguistic equality.
Allain is part of the same working group, and he has been under pressure from francophone organizations to take a stronger position opposing Austin.
Acadian Society of New Brunswick president Alexandre Cédric Doucet called Allain's statement "excellent. … It's the public statement we needed."
The minister said he respects the fact Austin is part of the working group. He said many New Brunswickers voted for the former Alliance leader, and the government needs to listen to his point of view.
"That's the big tent approach of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick," he said. "We value peoples' ideas … and as a government it's our responsibility to move forward."