KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – You could practically hear the cheering from the corporate head office of Irving Oil at 10 King Square South in Saint John, New Brunswick.
PC Leader Blaine Higgs, himself an Irving employee for 35 years who had worked his way up to their executive ranks, had just secured a second term as premier, after gambling on a snap election in the middle of a pandemic.
The payoff for Higgs is enormous. What was a minority government, cobbled together with the support of the populist ‘People’s Alliance’ party, is now a majority government, with the PCs winning 27 seats.
For the family-owned empire with a staggering net worth of $7.4 billion, all was right with the world once again.
The premier who had told union members complaining about low wages that they should “consider moving to Alberta” now had his hands firmly on the wheel.
For his part, Green party Leader David Coon held on to his own seat, as did the two other Green candidates who were first elected in 2017 – a tectonic shift in electoral politics in a province that is run by an oil and forestry corporation. Coon had committed to eliminate the use of industrial herbicide on public land, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and to lower the legal voting age to 16 years – three issues New Brunswickers can expect to be dismissed by Higgs and his new Cabinet.
Both the Liberals and Greens, in fact, promised to eliminate the use of the industrial herbicide Glyphosate (a known carcinogen) on public land across the province, a favourite practice of – you guessed it – the Irvings’ forestry empire.
Coons justifiably called for electoral reform to a first-past-the-post system where 39% of the vote gave the PC’s 27 seats, 34.3% gave the Liberals only 17 seats, 15.2% gave the Greens just three seats.
CBC pollster and analyst Eric Grenier suggests there were two reasons Blaine Higgs won a majority: One is the strong support for his handling of the outbreak. The other is a linguistic divide in the province that has only grown wider since he first came to office in 2018.
That linguistic divide was stoked by the People’s Alliance, which was formed heading into the last provincial election, opposing the province’s position on providing key public services in both English and French (NB is Canada’s only officially bilingual province).
The Alliance suffered its own setback of sorts, keeping just two seats and garnering 9.2% of the popular vote, compared to the Greens’ 15.2%. Global News’s Alex Quon has a recap here.
Higgs also made it quite clear that any government of his would not be expanding abortion access in New Brunswick, insisting that the two hospitals in Moncton and one hospital in Bathurst that currently perform abortions (in a province that is 73,000 square kilometers in size) were more than adequate. Advocates for women’s reproductive rights think otherwise.
On the labour relations front, expect things to get even nastier for workers and their unions. In his short time in power to date, Higgs made it quite clear that he prefers the sledgehammer approach to collective bargaining.
Taking a page from the Stephen McNeil government in Nova Scotia, Higgs’s Conservative government passed Bill 17 in December, 2019, which added more restrictions on basic bargaining rights for New Brunswick nursing home workers. Ironically, Higgs had previously threatened to call an election if the legislature did not pass the bill.
While the previous minority government was tempering those desires, the new majority is sure to embolden Higgs to ratchet down workers’ demands at a time when all Canadian provinces are grappling with the new realities of an economic recovery in the midst of a pandemic.
The Irvings, meanwhile, can rest assured he will have their best interests at heart.
For a more in-depth look at the staggering amount of wealth and power owned by the Irving family, I highly recommend this Abbie Moser piece, ‘On the family that owns New Brunswick’. As well, investigative journalist Bruce Livesey, now with the National Observer, has written extensively on the Irving empire.
John McCracken is a retired CUPE Communications Rep. and former Broadcast Journalist who worked for the union for 26 years in three provinces, 10 years in ON, and 16 in NS and NL.
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