FREDERICTON — New Brunswick has raised a few eyebrows by naming its first minister of Celtic Affairs, an appointment that even the province's multicultural association called a surprise.
The appointment of Lisa Harris, an educator, former bakery owner and MLA for Miramichi, was widely seen as a sop to anglophone voters angry over bilingualism requirements.
But the largely white province has long sought immigrants as its population shrinks, and Alex LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, said he would have rather seen the government name a minister for immigration and cultural affairs.
"Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario have all done that. It could be a strong signal for New Brunswickers and for the federal government that we take those issues seriously," he said.
He said the Celtic Affairs portfolio came as a surprise: "It wasn't something that was coming up on our radar, but I don't see any downside to having a minister responsible," he said.
Political critics called it a waste of money, but Premier Brian Gallant said 40 per cent of New Brunswickers claim some link or ancestry that's Celtic, and the ministry comes with no added cost.
"It's a nice way for us to have a co-ordinated approach to the investments that we make in that realm," Gallant said as he announced the new portfolio during a major cabinet shuffle Monday in Fredericton. "Many festivals are supported by the government, whether it's the Irish festival in the Miramichi or whether it's Scottish festivals that happen in many communities."
Green Leader David Coon said the government is facing pressure on requirements for bilingual employees and the need for separate French and English school buses, and he thinks it is playing politics by adding Celtic Affairs.
"I think they're trying to send a message that somehow they're promoting at least one part of the anglophone side," he said. "It would have been fair to have in the department, perhaps a culture section for Celtic Affairs with someone with that responsibility, but actually to appoint a minister of Celtic Affairs seems unnecessary."
Tom Bateman, who teaches political science at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, called the appointment "laughable."
"The only explanation I can think of is that the government has been sensitive to claims that it is too pro-French language, too pro-Acadian and it is doing this in some way to try to correct the balance. I don't think that's going to impress anybody," Bateman said.
"I don't think this will do anything to mollify peoples' other concerns about language in the province."
New Brunswick already has ministers responsible for Acadians and Aboriginal Affairs. Neighbouring Nova Scotia has a Gaelic Affairs Office that promotes "Gaelic language and culture," with its own minister.
In Monday's shuffle, Harris also became minister of Seniors and Long-Term Care and the province also got its first female Finance minister. Cathy Rogers moves from Social Development to Finance, and minister responsible for literacy.
"I'm convinced that with the line-up that we have with the ministers that have taken on the respective portfolios we're going to be able to work with New Brunswickers to grow the economy, to ensure that every family has the best quality of life possible right here in New Brunswick," Gallant said.
Bruce Fitch, the interim leader of the Progressive Conservatives, said the premier overlooked a lot of talented backbenchers, and he doesn't see much positive in the shuffle.
"I've equated it to changing the flat tires on a car is not going to fix your broken engine," Fitch said.
John Ames is the other new member named to cabinet, becoming minister of Tourism, Heritage and Culture.
The shuffle increases the number of cabinet ministers by two, to 14 plus the premier. It includes three women.
The other existing cabinet ministers shift responsibilities, including Stephen Horsman who moves from Justice, Public Safety and Solicitor General to become the minister of Families and Children.
Rick Doucet is now minister of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries, minister of Energy and Resource Development, and government house leader.
Coon said the premier should have named a larger cabinet instead of piling so many responsibilities on some ministers.