Trudeau slams N.B. premier Higgs for naming Kris Austin to bilingualism committee

OROMOCTO, N.B. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rebuked New Brunswick's premier Tuesday for naming a minister known for his past criticism of bilingualism to a committee that will review the province's Official Languages Act.

Premier Blaine Higgs, however, responded to Trudeau's disapproval by emphatically defending Kris Austin, the former People's Alliance of New Brunswick leader who is now a minister in Higgs's Progressive Conservative government.

Speaking to reporters in Oromocto, N.B., Trudeau said it "doesn't make sense" that the premier chose Austin to sit on the committee.

"You don't put someone who has spent his entire career attacking official bilingualism and questioning the need to protect French in New Brunswick — or elsewhere — on a panel designed to protect bilingualism in New Brunswick," Trudeau said.

"It doesn't make any sense."

Trudeau said the work his government is doing to promote bilingualism and protect official language minorities "matters to millions of Canadians who are proud we have two official languages in this country — and nowhere is that clearer than right here in New Brunswick — our only officially bilingual province."

The defunct People's Alliance had argued that the position of official languages commissioner should be abolished and the province's francophone health network merged with the English one.

In a news conference with reporters after meeting with Trudeau, Higgs committed to supporting bilingualism and defended Austin.

"I think if you were to interpret what Kris has said in past meetings, or in his past role, (it) wasn't against official bilingualism," Higgs said. "He talked about some of the nuances and the impacts that it has on different people in different communities."

"It's clear where he is at this time. It's very clear what he believes and what his role is … he thinks we will be able to enhance our capabilities in both official languages. I'm not the least bit concerned about where his views are and where he's focused at this time."

Higgs said his government is focused on enhancing the province's "tremendous potential" for bilingualism, which is only "marginally tapped." The premier, however, did not elaborate on what steps would be taken to enhance bilingualism except to say that Education Minister Bill Hogan will meet with teachers and others across the province over the coming weeks.

Trudeau, meanwhile, also censured Higgs's government for giving tax breaks "to the wealthiest" while asking the federal government for more money for health care.

"One of the things, unfortunately, we continue to see is Conservative politicians who think that the best way to grow the economy is failed trickle-down theories — they think the best way to grow the economy is to give tax breaks and advantages to the wealthiest in the hopes that will grow the economy for everyone else," Trudeau said.

"Well, it won't, because it never has."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2022.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press