Fredericton – The Common Front for Social Justice New Brunswick is pushing the Higgs government to rethink its priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.
The call for greater support for people living in poverty comes on the heal of Premier Higgs’ State of the Province address on February 10, which was sponsored by Siemens AG, a German manufacturing firm.
Premier Higgs’s address encouraged New Brunswickers to ‘stay focused’ on its priorities, with heavy emphasis on fiscal austerity—a priority he has had since he was finance minister under Premier David Alward from 2010 to 2014.
According to Abram Lutes, the provincial coordinator of the Common Front, the pandemic calls for a new approach.
“The Premier’s address and budget priorities sound more like a business pitch than commitments to New Brunswickers. Poverty has gotten worse during this pandemic as a result of unemployment and lost incomes, something the Premier seems to think isn’t worth addressing,” said Lutes.
Premier Higgs outlined government priorities for the provincial budget. He said the province was focused on private-sector investment and maintaining the province’s credit rating.
Lutes said that eliminating poverty and social services should take priority.
“The richest people in our country have made billions of dollars during the pandemic,” Lutes said. “But many workers and people on fixed incomes have been set back. We need action from government to redress the economic impact of the pandemic.”
The Common Front’s budget recommendations, submitted the day after Higgs’ address, called for public investment to support and destigmatize people living in poverty. The Common Front also wants a raise in the provincial minimum wage to $15/hour, and investment in building and maintaining social housing.
“As we pointed out in our budget submission, grocery-store workers, gas station workers, and other essential workers make minimum wage, which is well below the poverty line,” said Gabrielle Ross-Marquette, the labour co-chair of the Common Front.
“The best way to support these essential workers is to ensure that they can afford to live with dignity,” said Ross-Marquette.
The Common Front’s recommendations address a state of the province quite different from the one painted by Higgs during his address.
Last year, the Human Development Council released a report on child poverty that showed more than 1 in 5 children in New Brunswick lived below the poverty line, a figure that would have been nearly 1 in 3 if not for the federal Child Tax Benefit introduced in 2016.
The Common Front has also regularly drawn the government’s attention to food insecurity in New Brunswick. Several studies from the mid-2010s showed that food insecurity in Saint John and Moncton were among the worst in Canada. Food bank usage was already on the rise before the pandemic, but local food banks have noted a surge since the pandemic.
During the election campaign in August, the Progressive Conservatives announced a ‘food security action plan’ focused entirely on initiatives to grow local. They also boasted of ‘promoting’ local seafood products from New Brunswick’s seafood canning industry. The province has some of the largest canning facilities in the world. No measures were aimed at reducing hunger or supporting families on low-income.
Opposition politicians were also critical of Premier Higgs’s focus on balancing the budget despite the pandemic. Roger Melanson of the Liberals and David Coon of the Greens said the province needed to focus on other priorities. Coon said Higgs’s address was a “slap in the face” to small business owners, struggling to survive during the pandemic.
According to the Common Front, part of the problem for people in poverty is the widespread prejudice against the poor, deeply entrenched in the province’s political culture.
“There are still stigmas and prejudices against people in poverty, even as poverty gets worse during this pandemic,” said Johanne Petitpas, community co-chair of the Common Front. “There are lots of policies that prevent people from getting out of poverty that the government could fix in this budget.”
For instance, 50.5 per cent of children of single-parent families (the vast majority of whom are headed by women) live below the poverty line, according to the Human Development report card on child poverty. Measures to address this would need to focus on assisting single women whose childcare responsibilities may limit their ability to access education and employment.
The report also noted the high percentage of Indigenous children living in poverty, and the 71 per cent of children who immigrated to New Brunswick between 2011 and 2016 (the last year for which census data available).
The Higgs government’s commitment to women has also been openly questioned by civil society groups. Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Chalmers Regional Hospital, Dr. Christa Mullaly, wrote in an open letter to then Health Minister Ted Flemming last September that the province should stop restricting access to abortion services.
“It is inexplicable that vasectomy, a reproductive surgical procedure performed on men, is funded by medicare when performed in or out of hospital, but abortion is not,” she wrote.
New Brunswick police have also come under fire for racialized policing practices that endanger the lives of new Canadians and Indigenous people. Just the week before Higgs’s State of the Province address, a CBC report noted that Fredericton’s police service had neglected to press charges or follow up on hate-crime related offenses on the city’s Northside.
The Higgs government has refused calls from Indigenous groups and civil society groups like Black Lives Matter Fredericton for an inquiry into systemic racism.
The Common Front recommends increasing the minimum wage and expanding supports for people on low incomes, including new Canadians and single parents.
“The government has an historic opportunity to [increase taxes on the wealthiest New Brunswickers] and invest in the kind of policies that will immediately start to eliminate poverty and benefit thousands of people,” said Lutes.
Matthew Hayes is the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University and a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.