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New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs uses annual speech to highlight economic growth

FREDERICTON — The premier of New Brunswick says more than $200 million in new, private investment projects are an indicator of growth in the province over the past year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

FREDERICTON — The premier of New Brunswick says more than $200 million in new, private investment projects are an indicator of growth in the province over the past year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blaine Higgs delivered his annual state of the province address Wednesday, but instead of speaking to a large business audience in Fredericton, he delivered the speech online and via community cable television due to health restrictions.

Higgs joked that instead of a packed ballroom, there were only about 10 people in the room. 

New Brunswick continues to grapple with a second wave of COVID-19 and many people are uncertain about what the future holds, he said.

"It is more important than ever that we stay focused on our priorities," Higgs said. "Since the pandemic struck, we have incurred incremental costs of approximately $202 million to help New Brunswick get through the crisis. Additionally, we did not curtail any of our originally planned and capital expenditures for the fiscal 2020-2021."

He said the government has remained disciplined with spending because of the difficulty in predicting how the pandemic will evolve. The province's projected deficit this fiscal year is $13 million, he added.

But that figure quickly drew reaction from opposition politicians, who said the premier is being stingy and refusing to use more public funds to help small businesses.

"We've got one out of four small and medium sized businesses in New Brunswick that is looking at going bankrupt during this pandemic," interim Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said. "The deficit is his only focus and not trying to help out some of these businesses who are trying to survive."

Green Leader David Coon called the low deficit figure a "slap in the face" to small business people in the hospitality, entertainment, arts and tourism sectors who are struggling to stay afloat.

The premier said there are several positive indicators regarding the economy. He read a list of companies that recently announced investments totalling more than $200 million in the province, such as McCain Foods, which has an $80-million expansion plan in Grand Falls, N.B.

New construction hit its highest level in more than three years in December and real estate sales are breaking records in both volume and price, Higgs added. 

Higgs said his government will continue to push for the development of small, modular nuclear reactors and will invest $20 million in ARC Clean Energy Technology, an American company operating in that sector with an office in the province. ARC Canada is one of two companies in Saint John that is hoping to develop and market small, modular nuclear reactors in New Brunswick. The other is Moltex.

"We are convinced that through this investment, not only will we support the development of local expertise, we will also contribute to creating a critical mass to attract the best talent, which will enable other companies to grow," Higgs said.

ARC Canada's Chairman, Donald Wolf, responded to the premier's comments by issuing a statement saying the money from the province is conditional on the company collecting matching funding that he said will come from private investors.

Higgs told reporters after his speech that there's a place for both ARC and Moltex, and that he expects more money from the federal government and private investors will soon be announced for that sector.

Coon, however, said the $20 million would have been better spent on helping to transition the province to a green economy.

The premier said his government is confident there will be 5G internet connectivity throughout New Brunswick within the next three years.   

Higgs said the province will conduct a 90-day review of the rental situation in New Brunswick following calls earlier in the week for rent control and a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic from tenant and low-income groups.

When it comes to health care, Higgs said his government is focused on reducing wait times and exploring opportunities to centralize some services and recruit specialists.

Despite his positive message, Higgs also warned about falling oil prices and federal carbon pricing plans.

"We are seeing an unprecedented increase in new regulations imposed by the federal government," he said. "The future federal plans around carbon pricing and clean fuel standards together would create a perfect storm in New Brunswick."

"Costs for our provincial utility alone could rise by 25 per cent," he said. "And that's just with the federal government's new rules on carbon. When I look at our oil and gas sector, I am very concerned."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press