The other quiet revolution
The Establishment is worried, the have-nots are restless, and the government is shaking up a province that will never be the same again. Quebec? No, it’s happening now in Louis Robichaud’s New Brunswick
SAINT JOHN, NEW BRUNSWICK, is proud of its school system — as good as any in Canada, local citizens say, and they can cite facts to prove the boast. Saint John students win an average $100,000 a year in scholarships all over Canada, the U.S. and Britain, the minister of education told me. One girl from Saint John High School, he added, went to Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia as a freshman and was put forward to junior year, in some courses, in her second term. New Brunswickers don't go so far as to say this student is typical, but they’d insist she is not unique.
Cities such as Moncton and Fredericton are equally proud with, they say. equally good reason. So are towns such as Sackville, the site of Mount Allison -University, and Oromocto, the ex-village that serves the military base Camp Gagetown. A New Brunswick committee recently traveled to many parts of Canada and the U.S. to inspect new school buildings, came back with the word that the best they saw anywhere was in Oromocto.
That is one extreme in New Brunswick. The other extreme is a place such as McKendrick in Restigouche County on the north shore, a hamlet of 523 souls (1961 census) about seven miles from the small city of Campbellton.
McKendrick has a two-room school in which, until January of this year, 178 pupils were being taught in grades one to eight. Now the 57 older ones, grades five to eight, are being taken by bus to schools in and around Campbellton, so the total for the two junior classes in McKendrick is only 121.
McKendrick has never been able to employ a qualified teacher. Both the women who are struggling to teach the Three Rs and the catechism to their 121 charges are what is known in New Brunswick as “local license” teachers. There arc 608 of these among the 6,800 now employed in New Brunswick schools — less than 10 percent of the total. But in the 20-odd one-room schools of Restigouche County, 82 percent of the teachers are "local license.”
True, not all are without qualifications. Some are even university graduates who have merely neglected the teacher-training courses that would give them an advanced certificate. Others, less educated, are nevertheless qualified by experience to be fairly competent. But the rest, a large proportion (though nobody knows exactly how large), are the stuff of which horror stories are made.
In one rural schoolroom the inspector found the teacher instructing her class in fractions. She told them how to add one half and one third. The answer, she said, was two fifths.
“How did you get that answer?” the inspector asked.
“Simple.” said the teacher. “You add the figures on the top line — one and one, to make
two. Then you add the figures on the bottom line, three and two — you get five. So the answer is two over five, two fifths.”
The dazed inspector undertook, there and then, to show her the right way to add one half to one third. The teacher was indignant.
"I've always taught it my way.” she said, “and I'm certainly not going to change now.”
New Brunswick's Minister of Education. Wendell Meldrum. confirmed that this story is true and added another to match: A girl in another rural school failed grade eight in June. In September she was licensed by the local authority to teach all eight grades.
To bridge the gap between these two extremes is the purpose of the massive reorganization, called the Program For Equal Opportunity, that was put through the New' Brunswick Legislature last year by Premier Louis Robichaud's government and went into effect January 1. It is a revolution. No matter who wins the general election that's expected this year, and that must come by next April at the latest. New' Brunswick will never be the same again.
The Program For Equal Opportunity is complex in detail — it involved no fewer than 130 bills in the legislature, of which about a dozen were
major — but in principle it is simple enough. It does two things, in the main: First, it imposes a uniform assessment ( 100 percent of market value) on all real estate in the province, and a uniform provincial tax thereon, now 1 lá percent. (Incidentally, it does away with such nuisance taxes as a poll tax. and a personal-property tax that farmers had to pay on every piece of farm machinery or head of cattle, and fishermen on every net.) Second, it places authority for education, justice and social welfare in the hands of the provincial government. Fifteen county councils are abolished, and 422 local school boards are replaced by 34 new boards with sharply reduced powers.
In the legislature and in the press, the new program was fought with a bitterness exceeding anything in human memory. K. C. Irving, the multi-millionaire who owns almost everything of importance in New Brunswick, took the unusual step of attacking it personally and openly — he appeared on the floor of the legislature, before the law amendments committee, to denounce the proposed Assessment Act. Thereupon his newspapers (he owns four of the five dailies in the province) fell upon the government’s project with unaccustomed fury. / continued on page 77
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“Dictatorship,” say critics. “Robbing Peter to pay Pierre”
The fifth newspaper, the Fredericton Gleaner, was already denouncing it in the strident tones for which Editor Michael Wardell is famous.
"Dictatorship” was the usual cry— abolition of the county councils was “destroying the foundations of democracy” (though in fact few people ever bothered to vote for county councillors, and those few had to meet a propeity qualification or pay a poll tax in most cases). Premier Robichaud was “another Hitler.” Personal freedom in New Brunswick was about to disappear.
Seldom uttered in public, but often in private, is a much more potent charge: the so-called Equal Opportunity Program is merely a scheme for robbing the English-Canadian majority to subsidize the French Acadians. “Robbing Peter to pay Pierre,” a popular cliche calls it.
This notion is much further from the truth than most people, in or out of New Brunswick, seem to think. It’s true that all the rich areas are English-speaking, but not that all the English-speaking are rich. Charlotte County on the Maine border, 98 percent English-speaking, is probably in as much financial difficulty as any in the province. King’s County in the Kennchccasis Valley, which includes the rich Saint John suburb of Rothesay and which probably has the highest concentration of United Empire Loyalists in Canada, has no fewer than 46 one-room rural schools, more than any other county.
Restigouche County is admittedly the worst, but not because it is 60 percent French-speaking. About 20 years ago the county council made a terrible mistake: it voted not to enter a “county unit scheme” that had just been introduced, whereby school taxes and school costs were consolidated on an all-county basis. The 37 school districts of Restigouche remained independent, each raising its own taxes to pay for its own schools. Some voted not to have schools at all. Restigouche is said to have the highest illiteracy rate in New Brunswick, and probably in all Canada. Some estimates put it as high as 30 percent of the adult population.
Other predominantly French-speaking counties such as Gloucester and Kent are not that badly off, but all are poor. Gloucester County went bankrupt a year or two ago, and had to be administered by a provincial official. And yet, by a paradox all too easy to understand, tax rates in these poorest areas were the highest in New Brunswick. Kent paid 5.26 percent on real property and Gloucester 4.06 percent, compared to 1.98 percent in the prosperous city of Moncton.
These anomalies had been known for years in a vague sort of way, but nothing was done about them until five years ago. On March 8, 1962, the Robichaud government appointed Edward G. Byrne, QC, chairman of a five - man Royal Commission on Finance and Municipal Taxation. The Byrne Commission worked for a year and a half, then submitted a 330-page report that gave more precise information than was available before,
and recommended drastic changes.
“To raise each $30 of revenue per capita to cover school costs or police and fire protection, one town needed to impose a tax on real property of only 49 cents while another required $3.43 per $100 of market value,” the Byrne Report said. But that was not the worst.
“The most inequitable aspect of municipal taxation is the distribution of taxes within municipalities. It is bad enough when the weight of tax in one town is two or three times the weight in another. But surely it is even more unfair when, within the same town, one man pays four times as much as another although the two
are supposed to pay precisely the same tax according to the statutes. This is exactly what is happening now in most of the cities, towns and counties” of New Brunswick.
As illustration, the report cited one municipality (it did not say which one) where the assessment of one property was only two percent of market value, and another was 128 percent. In a second, the most underassessed property was 17 percent of market value, the most over-assessed,
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After the fury, a strange silence
180 percent. In a third, the range was from 49 to 300 percent.
To wipe out these inequities, the Byrne Commission recommended what has since been done: a uniform, provincewide assessment of real property and a uniform, provincewide tax upon it to pay for education. The Byrne Commission also recommended something else that has not been adopted: appointment of nonpolitical commissions to administer schools, hospitals and social welfare.
Although the Byrne Report doesn't say so, the purpose of this latter recommendation was twofold: to get the school and welfare administrations “out of politics,” and to bypass the New Brunswick civil service. The opinion is widespread in the province that both political parties are hopelessly corrupt, and that the provincial civil service is incompetent because it is largely composed of political appointees in the first place. What foundation may exist for either belief,
1 don't know, but I do know both are widely held. It is hardly surprising that the Robichaud government rejected or ignored both these popular prejudices, and took unto itself the authority that the Byrne Report would have given to three commissions.
This action was not taken in haste, though. Reaction to the Byrne Report had been favorable, and most people expected some legislation based upon it in February 1965. Instead, the gov-
ernment produced a White Paper outlining its intended policy. Again the reaction seemed favorable. Not until the new Assessment Act was brought in, toward the end of 1965, did opposition become manifest — but when it did, it rose to gale force almost immediately.
The government gave ground on some points. Many of its 130 bills had been hastily drafted and needed clarifying amendment. Also, there was one major concession of principle. The Byrne Report had recommended summary abolition of the many “tax agreements” whereby industries were exempted from local taxation, or subject to merely nominal assessment. It was this provision that roused K. C. Irving and other industrialists to fury. The government amended the hill to provide that existing agreements should remain in force until they expire, but that no new ones should be made hereafter.
With that exception, though, the Equal Opportunity Program went into effect on January 1. Now the opposition to it has become strangely muted.
Conservatives got their first shock at a provincial by-election in September. Daniel Riley, Minister of Lands and Mines and an MLA for Saint John, suddenly resigned from the cabinet and the legislature. Many people guessed he was opposed to the new program (though Riley himself
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Van Horne won, but Robichaud’s plan emerged unscathed
denies this, says his reasons for resigning were wholly personal). Jubilant Tories nominated a strong candidate and looked forward to a smashing victory over Dr. Stephen Weyman, the former mayor of Saint John, who was the Liberal nominee.
Weyman won. True, it was by less than 60 votes, but he won. The Con-
servatives were shaken — if they couldn't beat the Robichaud program even in rich Saint John, what could they hope for in the poorer areas? The leader of the Opposition, an unassuming farmer named Cyril Sherwood, resigned his post. At the provincial-leadership convention the party chose Charles Van Horne, the ebul-
lient former MP who had quarreled with John Diefenbaker, quarreled even more bitterly with Conservative exPremier Hugh John Flemming, sent a telegram of congratulation to Louis Robichaud on his victory in 1960, and now complained only that the Equal Opportunity Program didn’t go far enough.
Thus Van Horne’s victory in the Restigouche by-election in February was not, specifically, a rejection of the Equal Opportunity Program. It was a rebuff for the Robichaud government all right — the premier and most of his cabinet were in the riding continuously for the final week of the campaign, doing all they could for the Liberal candidate, school superintendent Alexandre Savoie. But the Equal Opportunity Program itself was not an issue.
Van Horne in his campaign did repeat the routine charges of “destruction of local government,” but it took only one question in an interview to reveal that Charlie Van Horne's conception of “local government” is something New Brunswick has never had at any time. He thinks of local councils spending money on such things as rural sewage and garbagedisposal systems, generally bringing urban comforts to the countryside.
Where would these new councils get this money?
“At least $75 million more than we’re getting now.”
Other Opposition spokesmen, who previously had attacked the Equal Opportunity Program in principle, have now shifted to stronger ground and are attacking its administration and, still more effectively, its cost.
The Robichaud government has been less than frank, for obvious reasons in an election year, about the total cost of the reforms and improvements it proposes. The new provincial tax on real estate, $1.50 per $100 of market value, will bring in about $24 million. A recent increase in sales tax from three to six percent will bring an extra $18 million. To this total of $42 million may be added the $10 million or so that the province had been handing out in municipal grants for education, for a grand total of $52 million. But the education budget in New Brunswick is already $62 million, and no changes have yet been made except to raise teachers’ salaries by an aggregate $4.4 million.
Just what the whole program will cost has not been announced, though some fairly startling estimates have been made. It is privately admitted by government sources that the preliminary budgets for education, health and social welfare add up to more than the entire revenue of the province from all sources. How and where they are going to be cut, to leave enough money for other provincial services, has still to be decided.
In the face of this daunting prospect Minister of Finance L. G. DesBrisay bravely insists that the program can be financed without any further increase in provincial taxes. Even in private he does not explain exactly how this will be done, though presumably he will have to do so in the budget he brings down this spring.
Another topic on which the government is not quite frank, in public, is the competence of the provincial civil service to bear the new burdens imposed upon it. In private, though, government spokesmen are candid enough.
“Of course the present education
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Nobody challenges the French Fact
department can’t carry the load,” one of them said. “We know that as well as the Opposition does. But if Louis had moved in at the outset, putting new people over the heads of senior civil servants, he’d have had everybody screaming at him as a tyrant and a despot. I think he’s going to leave the education department alone until it’s got every school board in New Brunswick absolutely furious — and that won’t take long. Then, when he brings in new men and puts them in charge, he’ll have support for it all across the province.”
Meanwhile, though, school administration is in a considerable mess. County authorities have been abolished, but county school superintendents have not yet been replaced. School budgets are still being made up by local school boards but then sent, not to the city or county council as before, but to Fredericton where they are seen first by the education department, then by the Treasury, and often as well by something called the Office of Government Organization — OGO for short. One result is that local school authorities often get three different directives in quick succession. Another is that school budgets are being cut 13 to 20 percent in almost all cases, and local school boards are livid with indignation.
“Some of those local boards put their whole Christmas list into their budgets, as soon as they realized the government would be paying the shot,” a government spokesman explained. “These cuts aren’t necessarily final, but the school boards will have to assume the burden of proof that the original budget was justified.”
It’s too soon to guess how well the program will go down with the people of New Brunswick once it is in full operation. Undoubtedly some, and especially the better-off, will have to pay more taxes, and undoubtedly they won’t like it. But the well-to-do are always a smaller minority than they think they are, and their indignation is unlikely to be effective.
In view of the widespread myths
about French-English relations in New Brunswick, I should perhaps mention that one thing not in dispute is the right of French-speaking Acadians to have their children taught in French. If French Canadians in New Brunswick have had a grievance it is not because they are French, but because they are poor.
Dr. Alexandre Boudreau of the University of Moncton, who was a member of the Byrne Commission, said, “In terms of language, we could probably serve as an example to the rest of Canada, but financially the system of grants was inadequate. French-speaking areas were among the poorest, with the smallest tax base, but also with the highest percentage of school-age children. In order to support lower standards of education, we had to carry up to three times the tax load of other areas with better schools.
“But the grievance was purely financial. As a language group we have had no grievance at all. And under the new plan, French Canadians will get a fair deal in both respects.”
Schools are not, of course, the only thing affected by the Program For Equal Opportunity. County jails, some of them truly remarkable survivals of medieval standards, will be taken over by the province and the worst of them abolished. Hospitals and socialwelfare agencies will also be entirely provincial. (Premier Robichaud told me that in one county they even found that the overseer of the poor law was paid on a commission basis—the more he gave, the more he got.) But on these matters the controversy has been much less intense, partly because the province was providing almost all of the money anyway. Schools have been the only hot issue.
The big question, still unanswered, is whether New Brunswick can raise its poorest schools to a satisfactory level without lowering the high standards of its present best. If that difficult trick can be turned, it’s safe to predict that the whole program will be a resounding success. ★