Acadia returns the favor

Michael Clugston October 25 1982

Acadia returns the favor

Michael Clugston October 25 1982

Acadia returns the favor


Michael Clugston

His French was halting, his natty blue blazer and red tie were strangely out of place amidst the table-stomping Acadians. But when New Brunswick’s Conservative Premier Richard Hatfield ended his election campaign with an exhausting, two-day, 1,564-km bus tour, finishing in the traditional Liberal stronghold of francophone ridings, the winds of political change were at gale force.

Said Hatfield, as he was lifted onto the shoulders of two sturdy supporters during his final rally: ‘T want to win big in the north.”

Hatfield did. When the election returns were tallied last week, he had not only increased his majority in the 58-seat legislature from 30 to 39 seats but he had recast the historic voting patterns of the province’s 247,000 staunchly Grit Acadians.

The Liberals suffered their worst setback in 26 years, dropping 10 of the 28 seats they have held since 1978. Even the nationalist Parti Acadien almost vanished from sight. The New Democrats elected their first MLA ever in the province. While the decisive Tory victory was further proof of the anti-Liberal sentiment sweeping the country, there was no denying that Hatfield’s efforts during the past 12 years to meet Acadian demands for equality with the English community had paid off. Said Denis Losier, president of the New Brunswick Society of Acadians: “The Liberals took our support for granted. That was their mistake.” Hatfield’s response to the landslide, which stripped the brash Liberal leader, Doug Young, of 10 seats and five per cent of the popular vote, was, “I trusted the people and they returned my trust.”

Still, Hatfield had to work to keep the faith. New Brunswick is in an economic maelstrom. With collapses in forestry and fisheries, unemployment is as high as 15.8 per cent in some regions, many French-speaking. The two main parties

cancelled out each other’s job creation planks. Asked to choose between the leaders, accordingly, the voters opted for the drastically slimmed-down Hatfield, instead of Young, a 42-year-old lawyer.

Young presented voters with the im-

Hatfield’s efforts during the past 12 years to meet Acadian demands have paid off leaving Liberals in the cold

age of an ambitious, aggressive, bilingual scrapper. But his speeches turned easily into snarling, furious denunciations of Dicky and the Tories. He had programs for economic revival, but many voters flinched at the memory of Young’s alleged participation in the

messy coup last November against his predecessor, Joseph Daigle, and at his parodies of Hatfield’s mannerisms. “I can fight clean and I can fight dirty,” said Young during the campaign.

In Hatfield he encountered a political survivor, a phoenix who has risen from so many political ash heaps that his staying power may be his bestknown feature across the country. A party kickback scandal, free-spending ministers, the Bricklin car-making flop and enormous cost overruns at the leaky Point Lepreau nuclear plant—as well as Hatfield’s penchant for frequent foreign travel— have brought furious denunciations but never defeat. (The Liberals were half a percentage point ahead of the Tories in the popular vote in the 1974 election, and it was split evenly in 1978.) “Hatfield,” says a top Liberal aide, “is one hell of a smart politician.”

Hatfield’s success in Acadia falls somewhere between political acumen and personal interests. Politically, Hatfield’s support for official bilingualism during the latest round of federal-provincial constitutional debates may have defused the Parti Acadien and its demands. That party, which was founded in 1977 with the long-term objective of an autonomous Acadian province, received four per cent of the popular vote in 1978. Last week’s election gave them less than one per cent, indicating that Hatfield’s gestures in their direction had weakened the protest vote for the moment, at least. Hatfield’s Acadian credentials appear to be impeccable, if his ability in French is not. Although he is known for hobnobbing with members of New York’s literati and social elite, Hatfield counts Acadian writer Antonine Maillet and singer Edith Butler among his friends. His late-night soirees with Acadian artists are legendary, putting him more in tune with Acadians than the Liberals had counted on.

The movement toward Acadian

equality began under the tenure of Liberal Acadian Premier Louis Robichaud before Hatfield defeated him in 1970. In the 1960s Acadians and English-speaking New Brunswickers came close to blows in demonstrations over the relative poverty, poor education and health care in the French-speaking community—products of a system that punished poor areas by funding services from the local tax base. Robichaud’s controversial Program for Equal Opportunity standardized services across the province. His Official Languages Act made New Brunswick officially bilingual. Former Moncton mayor Leonard Jones symbolized English resistance tothese reforms when he

opposed bilingual signs more obdurately than the PC Opposition did in the legislature. As Hatfield continued Robichaud’s direction and repeatedly invoked concerns about national and provincial unity, orange-tinged citizens labelled him a “sellout” and a “traitor.” But combining a shrewd assessment that the Acadian power base was ripe for plucking with personal conviction, Hatfield managed to attract Frenchspeaking civil servants to Fredericton by convincing the city council to buck the critics and accept a French school and cultural centre. His electoral reform of 1974 gave a more representative voice to French regions. School boards and the department of education were split into French and English sections, and Bill 88 gave a philosophical recognition to the different, and enduring, nature of Acadia.

“I think that Hatfield realized there was no other way,” says Losier. “We had to have the same rights and ser-

vices as anglophones, and Hatfield tried to understand. Still, the Acadians had to fight for everything we won, and we will have to fight again for what we want.” Not content with past reforms, the Society of Acadians is campaigning for a better deal. The demands include: better services in French hospitals; a paid holiday on the Acadian national day, Aug. 15; more Acadian civil servants; and an elevation of the Acadian standard of living.

“The problem is that the need and the right must be explained to the entire population,” says Hatfield. “Otherwise, the reaction I get is, ‘Hatfield is doing something else for the French to get their votes.’ Not that it has anything to

do with right, or tradition, or the Constitution or anything else; just that I am doing it to buy their votes.” Indeed, Young was quick to condemn Hatfield’s recent public works spending in the north as “a very exploitive approach, pouring all that money into the region.” Liberals point to Hatfield’s record of broken promises—including a pledge to offer universal kindergartens, which he dusted off this year for the third straight election. But to many Acadians, the Liberals themselves are suspect despite Young’s upbringing among them in Tracadie and his fluent Acadian French. “The Liberals never tackled the questions squarely, like how they would bring in more Frenchspeaking civil servants,” says Losier. “The Conservatives were more specific, and across the province it seems to me the Acadians saw them as having a more open attitude to us.” For Richard Hatfield, the triumph was as complete a one as he will probably ever win.