New Brunswick premier doubling down on anti-trans policies to win next election

ANALYSIS: Blaine Higgs’s open embrace of Christian nationalism should set off alarm bells 

New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs has declared that he’s not going to back down from his attacks on trans kids. As part of his year-end interview with The Canadian Press, he said he will not be moved from his policy on outing students to their parents if they request changing their pronouns or preferred names in a school setting, returning to the dog-whistle cry of “parental rights” as he starts counting down to an expected Oct. 21 provincial election date.

“I’ve always felt parents should play the main role in raising children,” Higgs said in the interview. “No one is denying, you know, [that] gender diversity is real. But we need to figure out how to manage it.”

Of course, his particular version of “managing it” is to deny youth any sense of autonomy and to essentially encourage parents to engage in conversion therapy, which is compounded by Higgs citing fictional statistics, like the claim that “about 60 percent” of young children who question their gender identity “are given automatic affirmation and put on some sort of hormone therapy” after their first medical appointment. The message is clearly that parents will stop this if they know, while sinister teachers are encouraging this sort of thing. And no, Higgs won’t say where he got that number, which means it either was invented out of whole cloth, or he got it from the fevered imaginations of the far-right media ecosystem that he appears to be tapped into.

Despite this dressed-up concern for parents, there is an electoral calculus behind this, and Higgs is quite openly treating parental rights like a vote-getter, which moral panics do have the power to do if wielded skilfully enough. I’m not sure that Higgs actually has that skill, given that his ham-fisted leadership style has been driving away members of his own cabinet, as well as his caucus, but he’s certainly trying to ride this particular horse, as his fundraising letters ask party members to “pledge in support of parental rights.” It remains to be seen if he can—his popularity has tanked in spite of the province’s economy doing reasonably well given the global pressures, and we have seen evidence south of the border where Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign that was focused on denying the rights of trans and queer people has been flopping. Not that this will stop certain people who are convinced that it might work for them. Higgs can take some measure of comfort in believing he’s some kind of trail-blazer on this, as Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe followed suit (and even took things one step further by invoking the notwithstanding clause at the first sign of a setback by the courts).

 

 But things are getting even more bizarre, as Higgs has welcomed into the party with open arms Faytene Grasseschi (formerly Kryskow), a self-described Christian TV host (though it appears her show only appears online and is self-produced) and activist. She has been acclaimed to run in the riding adjacent to Higgs’s, and he was present for her acclimation. Grasseschi’s would-be competitor for the nomination, Hampton deputy mayor Jeremy Salgado, dropped out of the race, citing “the misalignment of my beliefs and values with the current structure of our party,” and that Grasseschi was favoured by party officials (the same party officials who found a number of legal loopholes to protect Higgs from a leadership challenge last year).

Grasseschi may be familiar to those of you who have read The Armageddon Factor, the 2010 title by journalist Marci McDonald, who charted the rise of Christian nationalism in Canada—including Grasseschi and her organization, 4 My Canada. And while a lot of what McDonald was concerned about regarding Christian nationalism didn’t come to pass under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government at the time—he grew disinterested in them and their main conduit to his government, former minister Stockwell Day, retired from federal politics—they didn’t disappear entirely.

Grasseschi relocated from Ottawa to New Brunswick in 2020, and after a failed attempt to run for the federal Conservatives, has been organizing for Higgs in support of his “parental rights” policies , with her 4 My Canada group running a “Don’t Delete Parents” campaign. She has also been signing up members to the party in order to sway local riding dominations, again in the name of the “parental rights,” something she has a history of doing at different levels of government. As has been her history, queer and trans people have always been the targets of her organizing, first with same-sex marriage in the mid-2000s, and it has come back with something of a vengeance around this particular issue with trans and gender-diverse youth.

There is one other connection between Higgs and Christian nationalism that deserves mention, which is that Higgs has named Steve Outhouse to be his campaign manager. Outhouse, a former Baptist preacher, has a history of running campaigns for Alberta premier Danielle Smith and federal Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis in both of her attempts at the job (and he has definitely been a Grasseschi cheerleader). The links to this attempt to make Christian nationalism a feature of the provincial campaign are fairly clear, which is worrying, considering how New Brunswick’s attacks on the most vulnerable members of society for the sake of scoring political points has been taken up elsewhere across the country.

It could be that the worry is for naught, and that Higgs’s unpopularity will carry the day, no matter how many social conservatives he brings into the party with this new direction, and how hard he leans into this moral panic. It should, however, remind us that we need to be vigilant, to call out these connections for what they are and to remember that there are other malignant forces infiltrating modern-day “conservatism” than just Christian nationalism, but that all of it is hostile to the queer and trans communities. This means that we can’t sleep on New Brunswick’s provincial election the closer it draws, because it could portend worse things to come across the country.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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