BORN: St-Antoine, New Brunswick • 21 October 1925
All across Canada, Orangemen were preparing for their annual celebration of King Billy’s victory over the Irish Catholics that morning of 12 July 1960. But in Fredericton there was more than a tinge of gloom over the arrival of the Glorious Twelfth.
That very day a French-speaking Roman Catholic Acadian would become premier of the province, and the thought chilled the descendants of the Loyalists who had governed for so many years.Louis Robichaud, though one of ten children of a sawmill operator, village postmaster, and strong Liberal, had opportunities most Acadians did not.
He went to school, to a classical college, to university, and he articled with a local lawyer. In 1952, a fervent Acadian turned social reformer by his schooling at Universite Laval, he was called to the bar and opened his law office in Richibucto.
That same year, short but sturdy and still in his twenties, he won the nomination to run for the Liberal Party in Kent, a seat that had been Liberal for fifty years. He won easily and his rise was spectacular, as he demonstrated a capacity to get re-elected and to impress his party colleagues.
In 1958 the province’s Liberals selected him as their leader, and in the election two years later, after a brilliant campaign that saw him cover 50,000 miles, shake what seemed like a million hands, and deliver his passionate speeches in virtually every schoolhouse and auditorium, he won power on 27 June 1960, the youngest premier in his province’s long history.
He had campaigned against New Brunswick’s archaic liquor laws, against a compulsory hospital insurance tax, and Tory government corruption. Expectations were high.Robichaud lived up to them.
He set out to ensure that Acadians, living in the poorest parts ofNew Brunswick with the weakest schools, received their due, “We want to stop the outward flow of our people,” he said, perhaps thinking of his family members who had emigrated to Maine, “This is no time to be firmly entrenched in the past.”
He brought fran¬ cophone civil servants to Fredericton; he set out actively to recruit industry for his province; and he adopted the recom¬ mendations of a royal commission that transferred the costs and controls of the municipalities to his government in areas of education, public housing, welfare, justice, and public util¬ ities.
The aim was to provide a minimum acceptable level of services to every New Brunswicker.This “Program of Equal Opportunity for All” was quickly denounced by many English-speaking New Brunswickers and by the newspapers controlled by K.C. Irving, the province’s wealthiest citizen, as a scheme to make the Anglo majority subsidize the Acadians.
The plan, the Opposition argued as it launched a filibuster against “King Louis,” would “rob Peter to pay Pierre,” an all but open attempt to fan the flames of anti-French bigotry. Robichaud persisted, however, forcing his plan through. “New Brunswick has no pockets of poverty,” he argued,
“we have only pockets of prosperity.” There could be no doubt that the province’s premier had begun the process of equalizing opportunity for francophone New Brunswick.Skilfully, he persuaded an Ottawa that was anxious over Quebec’s restiveness to provide funds to speed New Brunswick’s economic transformation and to help weld Acadians to Canada.
He was no separatist, he said, and “there is not one separatist among us,” but Ottawa wanted to be certain. The result was a ten-year program, with 75 per cent of the funding provided by the federal govern¬ ment, to improve life in rural, depressed areas, to upgrade education and vocational training, and to build public housing and roads.
“We are not afraid of change if it is due,” the premier claimed, “and believe me in New Brunswick it is long overdue.”But change frightens people and, although he retained power in the 1963 and 1967 elections, a tired and depressed Robichaud fell before Richard Hatfield and the Conservatives in the election of 1970.
Strikingly, Hatfield was no typical Tory. He moved to reinforce the efforts Robichaud had made to improve life for the Acadians of the poorest parts of the province and, before the end of his long time in office, he made New Brunswick officially bilingual.Robichaud had pushed and pulled New Brunswick into the present, providing equal rights for all and setting his province on the road to equal opportunity.
In his decade in power, he left an indelible stamp on the country. His subsequent service on the International Joint Commission and in the Senate must have seemed anticlimactic to a man who had accomplished his best work by the age of forty-five, but Robichaud’s achievements had been impres¬ sive by any standard.