French Immersion, health care top issues

With this being the first edition of The Argosy for 2023, it seemed appropriate to take a look at the year ahead for New Brunswick’s premier Blaine Higgs. Some major issues facing the Higgs government include what some may characterize as a crisis in the province’s health care system and the implementation of controversial reforms to New Brunswick’s French Immersion program.  

Announced at the end of last year, the proposed new program would reduce French instruction from 90% to 50% for elementary school students in French Immersion. All other students (those who are not in French Immersion) will also spend 50% of their day learning in French, which the Higgs government believes will lead to more students graduating with the ability to speak both languages. To be introduced in September 2023, the proposed change in programming has drawn ire from parents and educators across the province, many of whom feel the shift away from French Immersion will harm New Brunswick’s status as the only bilingual province in Canada. Initially intended for implementation in 2024, critics also point to a lack of training, resources, and time to adequately transition away from the existing French Immersion program.  

After a long career with Irving Oil, Higgs was first elected premier in the 2018 election with a minority government and was re-elected with a majority government in 2020. Higgs has clearly made the province finances his top priority, with the most recent data showing New Brunswick has a $774 million surplus. Higgs has been lauded by groups like the conservative think tank The Fraser Institute for his prudent fiscal policy, work to balance the budget, and spending restraint. Due to his spending restraint, Higgs’s government has had a budget surplus since his first year as premier. A significant source of the surplus was initially due to funds from the federal government transferred to the provinces for pandemic-related expenditures, which Higgs instead used to create a surplus. This fiscal prudence has come at the expense of much needed investment in housing, education, and most prominently, health care.   

New Brunswick currently has the highest death rate from COVID-19 and the highest rate of COVID cases in the country. The healthcare system in the province is under an unprecedented strain, with staffing shortages and the strain of the pandemic exacerbating existing issues. Conditions in hospitals across the province are dire, with significant wait times and overcrowding a feature in emergency rooms from Sackville to Saint John. However, this is not unique to New Brunswick alone, with the death of a young mother after waiting seven hours in the ER at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre in Amherst highlighting the crisis in hospitals across the region. In fact, the issue with healthcare is far from limited to Atlantic Canada, with hospitals across the country on the brink. This year, Higgs and his fellow premiers will be continuing to negotiate with Justin Trudeau and the federal government regarding much-needed healthcare reform. 

In some related positive news, Horizon Health Network has added five new registered nurses to the Sackville emergency department, with discussions around potentially restoring 24-hour ER coverage at the hospital. Since June 2021, the Sackville ER has only been open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and often is closed on weekends and holidays due to staffing shortages.  

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