Progressive Conservative MLA Kris Austin faces heavy criticism over his appointment to committee on the Official Languages Act

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On October 13, Premier Blaine Higgs appointed the former People’s Alliance of New Brunswick leader, Kris Austin, to a committee in charge of reviewing the province’s Official Languages Act after crossing the floor in the Legislative Assembly in the Spring.

Justin Trudeau in Oromocto, N.B. (Pat Richard/CBC).

President Justin Trudeau criticized Higgs, who visited Oromocto, N.B., on Tuesday, November 8. Trudeau spoke to reporters stating that the selection by Higgs “doesn’t make sense.” 

Many people, including the Prime Minister, are skeptical of this choice, given Austin has been very vocal about critiquing bilingualism. Trudeau also stated to reporters: “You don’t put someone who has spent his entire career attacking official bilingualism and questioning the need to protect French in New Brunswick — or elsewhere — on a panel designed to protect bilingualism in New Brunswick.” 

In fact, according to Trudeau, it goes against the work the federal government is doing as they work to promote bilingualism and protect official language minorities. 

Many others, including N.B.’s New Democratic Party (NDP), align with Trudeau’s sentiments and have called for the conservative government to remove Kris Austin from the committee. 

NDP party leader Alex White says: “To choose an individual like Kris Austin to sit on a committee responding to the Official Languages legislation is, sadly, clearly in line with the Higgs government’s agenda.” 

Kris Austin [left] and Réjean Savoie [right] (Jacques Poitras/CBC).

The Higgs government has consistently put off the review of the Official Languages Act as N.B.’s language commissioner, Shirley McLean, confronted the lack of action in June.

Her remarks were met with a promise by the Higgs government that they would respond in June. However, come the arrival of the press release, it stated that it would be addressed in the Fall. Appointing Kris Austin to provide input into this kind of legislation demonstrates Higgs’ overall agenda, according to the NDP.

The divide between anglophones and francophones seems to be the mission of the conservative government as White notes, “add this issue to the recent cuts to French immersion, and you can see how the Conservative government is ideologically driven to divide New Brunswickers along linguistic lines. It flies in the face of recommendations the government received, as well as public support.” 

Acadians across the province are expressing their concerns over the issue with Moncton’s Federal Liberal Minister of Official Languages, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, calling the nomination an insult.

Federal Minister of Official Languages, Ginette Petitpas Taylor (Adrian Wild/The Canadian Press).

Kris Austin released comments on the criticism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Austin said, “there are lots of things to be concerned about if you’re the prime minister in this country. What committee Kris Austin sits on should be so far down the list it shouldn’t even be on his radar.”

Additionally, he notes that he will be equitable in the process of reviewing the Official Languages Act explaining:

“I’ve always said I support the rights of both Francophone and Anglophones to receive service in their language of choice. I want to see it implemented in a fair and equitable manner so that every New Brunswicker can prosper, and nobody is left out of the process. I don’t think that’s a radical point of view. I think that’s a point of view most New Brunswickers share and that’s one I’ll continue to hold to.”

Public support statistics show that 81% of individuals living in N.B. support official bilingualism, and over 90% say that language education in schools is vital and that adults should also be able to acquire language training for free. 

Ashley is a fifth-year student in the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education concurrent program. Now in her final year, she hopes to further studies with the goal of promoting international advocacy for educational rights. In her spare time, she enjoys listening to her vinyl records, watching films, and hiking.