Higgs says he's hopeful about election wins in francophone north

Premier Blaine Higgs is renewing his push to make electoral gains for his party in northern francophone ridings this fall — the third straight campaign in which he's claimed to be upbeat about his prospects there.

Higgs says he's hopeful that some quality candidates, including a well-known northern mayor, will finally give him a long-awaited breakthrough in the region in the Oct. 21 provincial election.

Normand Pelletier, the mayor of the new town of Heron Bay and the former mayor of Dalhousie, plans to run for the PCs.

Higgs is also bullish on two Madawaska candidates, including Michel Morin, a Haut-Madawaska municipal councillor, and Roger Quimper, a retired business executive,

WATCH |'Growth is everywhere': Higgs on francophone north:

"These are really pillars within society that are running for us because they see the opportunities in this province and they want to be part of it," Higgs told Radio-Canada in an interview.

But Higgs talked up so-called star candidates in northern and francophone ridings in 2018 and 2020, with meagre results.

Robert Gauvin won Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou in 2018 but eventually quit cabinet and the PC Party to become a Liberal.

In 2020, Daniel Allain was elected in Moncton East as the only francophone PC MLA but is not running again this year.

Réjean Savoie won Miramichi Bay-Neguac in a 2022 byelection and recently made provincial funding announcements in Edmundston and Saint-Quentin.

The opposition Liberals say they're not taking anything for granted but they believe Higgs's northern and francophone candidates will have a steep hill to climb.

Retired business executive Roger Quimper is a PC candidate in the Oct. 21 election.
Retired business executive Roger Quimper, seen here in this file photo, is a PC candidate in the Oct. 21 election. (Radio-Canada)

"Whoever's going to run under the Higgs banner, I wish them luck," said Bathurst West-Beresford MLA René Legacy. "It's going to be a challenge.

"People haven't exactly forgotten that we haven't seen Higgs up north for the last four years."

Legacy recently released statistics showing only seven per cent of funding for projects through the Regional Development Corporation.

The government argues it based its decisions on the applications it received, but the Liberals say many worthy proposals from the north were ignored.

"Sometimes it feels like, for lack of a better word, it's a lack of interest," Legacy said.

Higgs said his government has assessed projects on their merits and has been equitable with its funding.

"Around the province, you can go francophone-anglophone," he said, citing $3.5 million for upgrades at the Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick in Bathurst and a new nursing home in Champdoré, a francophone community north of Moncton.

"We have looked around the province and worked with the entire province to support it. Growth is everywhere."

'We're not buying votes'

The premier insists those recent announcements are based on merit, not the looming election, and that his government does not favour some regions over others.

"We're not buying votes," he said. "We want to be seen, as I believe we've demonstrated, as a party for the province, not for any one particular group.

"And I know in the past, political pursuits may have been much different than my philosophy, but if I'm not treating anyone fairly, I wanna know about it."

In almost the same breath, however, Higgs declared himself open to being influenced by more francophone and northern MLAs in his government.

"It would be great to have more representatives from the north so that we can have their voices at the table and understand the needs."

'A seat at the table'

In an interview, Morin avoided explaining how he would defend Higgs's record with voters in Madawaska Les Lacs-Edmundston but said he'll argue the riding needs a voice within government.

"It is important that we have a seat at the table," he said.

As mayor of Dalhousie, Pelletier urged Higgs's government to act boldly by amalgamating municipalities to overcome obstacles to regional co-operation — a position that echoed the premier's.

Pelletier did not respond to an email request for an interview about his candidacy.

Legacy says Pelletier is "a good guy" but the exodus of senior PC ministers and MLAs from Higgs's government over the last year should give him pause.

"If you think you can bend your will on Blaine Higgs, good luck. I would tell Norm to look at the history. There's been a lot of strong ministers who've had to back away."

Normand Pelletier, the mayor of the new town of Heron Bay and the former mayor of Dalhousie, plans to run for the PCs.
Normand Pelletier, the mayor of the new town of Heron Bay and the former mayor of Dalhousie, plans to run for the PCs. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

While Higgs claims to be hopeful about high-profile PC francophones and northerners this time, he also acknowledges it's not worth devoting maximum effort to some ridings where there's no prospect of victory — such as three won by Liberals in byelections last year.

"If you're planning the next election and you're saying, 'How do I form government?' [and] if you hadn't won a seat in 80 years and the demographic was still the very same as it was or similar, would that be a target?" he said.

In the last poll of New Brunswickers' voting intentions by Narrative Research, taken in May, 39 per cent of respondents in the north said they planned to vote Liberal compared to 24 per cent for the PCs.

Four years ago Higgs dismissed his poor showing in the north and among francophones, saying they didn't have a history of voting PC and a "lampshade" could be elected as a Liberal in those regions.

In fact, the PC Party won many francophone and northern seats under the leadership of premiers Richard Hatfield, Bernard Lord and David Alward.

Higgs told Radio-Canada he could make the same "lampshade" remark about his own party's wins in some southern New Brunswick ridings.

"Some go back and forth. But I could argue that point in many ridings in the province, whether it be a French lampshade or an English lampshade. We could argue they exist."