About a year ago, I wrote a piece for the NB Media Co-op in which I lamented the PC government’s disastrous policy decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is ongoing.
The strain which has shuddered through the health care sector, compounded by both government inaction, and the refusal to acknowledge observable realities endured on a daily basis by the public and healthcare workers, has resulted in a kind of mass trauma.
We are, as a society, in a state of shock. In Canada, we have long viewed the public health care system as something that gave our state legitimacy, and that set us apart from other jurisdictions such as the United States. Many of us are just coping. Some of us are in denial. All of us are simply going through the motions of “the new normal.”
The choice by elected officials to ignore all warnings regarding the fragility of the system, and on the part of provincial premiers, to collude to leverage this crisis into a bargaining position against the federal government in order to secure increased transfer payments has been utterly demoralizing.
Rather than attempt to repair the broken public trust through admission of responsibility for bad decisions, politicians have turned to paid lackeys and spin doctors to simply refute or alter the perceptions of their administrations.
The Executive Council Office in Blaine Higgs’ government paid National Public Relations, the largest PR firm in Canada, over $3.2 million in 2022 alone. One of National Public Relations’ areas of expertise is ‘Crisis and Issues Management.’ There is no shortage of work in this area in New Brunswick, and clearly business is booming.
The pandemic is simply one of the most apparent examples of state failure that has contributed, directly and indirectly, to a loss of confidence in the institutions of democracy that our officials claim make us a beacon, an example to follow, for the rest of the world.
New Brunswick under the government of Blaine Higgs has gradually become an empire of silent suffering. The Premier has walled himself off from the majority of those who must deal with the reality of his brutal policies of austerity. He has set no positive examples for those who wish to see improved relations between anglophones and francophones, between Indigenous communities and those who have settled on the lands that – not that long ago – were taken by force and bad faith schemes.
The deafening silence of the government with regard to the most pressing material issues facing New Brunswickers on a daily basis can be visualized through a twist on an old thought experiment: “If a government representative could not be made available for an interview, does the government exist?”
Of course, to the Premier, and his cadre of loyalists who toe the line, a barely perceptible government is the ideal situation.
So what is Blaine Higgs’ compelling vision for the future? Perhaps his upcoming State of the Province speech will enlighten us. Perhaps he will turn a new leaf and put a halt to the rampant public subsidy of private profits at the expense of human life and dignity. Or perhaps he will simply repeat and reinforce his mantra, that “the role of government is to create the conditions for private business to thrive.”
Indeed, if you are a landlord, a grocery chain owner, the operator of a private long-term care facility, or a billionaire oligarch whose vast influence permeates every level of government, you are thriving. The rest of us are just surviving. Some of us, in the context of the pandemic, such as immunocompromised people, and overwhelmingly, elderly women, are not surviving at all.
If the Premier has illusions about leaving his role with some form of memorable legacy in place, he should dispel them immediately. There are few who inhabit his world – where a man who claims he is a victim of discrimination because he is an anglophone (while occupying the highest office in the land), who demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding about basic rule of law issues, and refuses to accept factual data that run counter to his agenda, is some sort of straight-shooting misunderstood maverick who is fighting against the odds.
Once the Premier leaves office, no doubt he will rely on the age-old fallback of all politicians before him and respond to retrospective critiques of his performance with the trusty adage, “it was a challenging time and we did the best we could.” Like a well-worn scroll passed down from generation to generation, these simple words have helped paper over numerous mountains of public policy failures and callous abuses and misuses of government power as everyday people suffered and died.
A memorable legacy, this is not.
There is no going back to the world as it was, if you believe that world was better. We are, all of us, here together in the present moment. What is necessary, what is vital, for us to progress beyond this moment as an organized society with any semblance of respect for a common goal, is capitulation on the part of those in government who have unquestionably broken a social contract that was, arguably, intact before the events of the last three years.
We are entering increasingly difficult territory. The challenges we face, the ongoing pandemic simply being one, require a sustained collective effort to overcome. If those who occupy the institutions that hold the most power in setting policy cannot recognize their own culpability in damaging the things that give provincial governments – and the Canadian state itself – legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens, we have crossed the Rubicon and it will be nearly impossible to return.
Pursuing a narrow agenda, failing to anticipate how aiming for short-term goals has long-term consequences, rejecting transparency, viewing the public as an interloper that must be kept at arm’s length and managed rather than as equal human beings deserving of dignity and honesty. With these actions, the Premier, and those who share his mindset, have undermined the very system that they now claim is threatened by outside forces.
The people of New Brunswick deserve the opportunity to exercise their fundamental democratic right, to choose a new path and leave the Higgs government behind – as a sobering reminder for any future Premier that there can be no solution to our shared problems by adhering to rigid, uncompromising and antiquated individualist dogma that upholds the status quo.
New Brunswickers have been trapped in an endless cycle of accepting the unacceptable.
It’s time to get free.
Ryan Hillier is a writer and settler living on the banks of the Petkootkweăk.