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Aspiring Liberal leader’s lack of citizenship could lead to disqualification

The race for the leadership of the New Brunswick Liberal Party gained one candidate Tuesday but may soon lose another.

Businessman Gaétan Pelletier announced he will join the race to replace Brian Gallant, who officially resigned as party leader this week.

At the same time, René Ephestion of Moncton confirmed that he could be disqualified because he is not a Canadian citizen.

Ephestion, the executive director of Moncton’s Nazareth House and a member of the party executive, said he has permanent residency and applied for Canadian citizenship last September.

“I will be a citizen before summer,” he said, adding he expected to have his citizenship in mid-May.

Liberal members elect their new leader June 22.

The leadership race rules published by the party Feb. 7 require that candidates “be eligible for election to the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick in accordance with the Elections Act.”

And that act in turns requires candidates in provincial elections to be citizens. 

“It makes me wonder if that rule was put in place for me,” Ephestion said in an interview.

Last month, he told CBC News that some “old boys” in the party have tried to discourage him from running because he was “an atypical candidate.” 

“They’ve never seen that before,” he said at the time. “I am young, I am black, I am francophone, I am an immigrant, and I bring new ideas and new vision. Maybe it’s too much for them. But these kinds of comments energize me.” 

Ephestion is a citizen of France and who immigrated to Canada in 2015. He said when he first spoke to party officials last fall about running for the leadership, they said there was technically no restriction on a non-citizen. 

He said he plans to forge ahead with submitting the required signatures and entry fee to join the race and will see whether the steering committee overseeing the race approves his candidacy.

Ephestion said he spoke Tuesday with one member of the steering committee who agreed with what he was told last fall and who said he should not be disqualified. 

Gaétan Pelletier is businessman and a former Balmoral village councillor. (Submitted by Gaétan Pelletier)

Meanwhile, Pelletier, a former Balmoral village councillor who helped run Madawaska-Restigouche MP René Arseneault’s 2015 federal campaign, said he intends to pay the $20,000 entry fee within days. 

Pelletier said he plans to focus on health care and environmental issues, particularly the shortages of doctors, nurses and other professionals plaguing the health system.

Asked for what he would propose to address the problem, he said, “I don’t have an answer yet, but I’d definitely look at how to make it better.”

Pelletier said the Liberals fell short in the last election because they didn’t fix problems with ambulance services and in health care and didn’t address controversies about bilingualism head-on.

But he refused to say whether he thought Gallant had been a good leader.

“I think he criticized himself on TV already and I’m not going to criticize him any more than that,” Pelletier said.

Two other potential leadership candidates could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Former House of Commons sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers, who is retiring soon as Canada’s ambassador to Ireland, is reportedly looking at running.

And Stephanie Tomilson, the principal of Rothesay High School and a Liberal candidate in the 2014 and 2018 provincial elections, is also considering a bid.

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