Born to parents who worked in fast food restaurants and convenience stores, Brian Gallant made a meteoric ascent to become the youngest regional premier in Canada, taking office at just 32. For the past eighteen months, he has presided over New Brunswick, a bilingual province on the Atlantic seaboard with a spluttering economy and an unemployment rate above 10%.
He attributes his rise to a burning desire for change sparked by his family’s financial struggles. As a child, he kept moving schools as his parents searched for work, and at one point had to move into his grandparents’ small home.
His response was to become preternaturally focussed and high-achieving. First getting into school politics at 11, he was president of his elementary school, his high school, the business faculty at university and ultimately the student federation. He was also a provincial tennis champion, winning doubles titles with his brother up until the year before he was elected premier. As a teenager, he and some friends were hauled into a popstar impersonation contest at the last moment; they pretended to be the Backstreet Boys and, naturally, they won.
He talked to Apolitical about what he’s learned from holding New Brunswick’s highest office, how his family helped him succeed and why every big organisation in the world is going to have to change.
What’s been the most unexpected lesson since becoming premier?
That it’s very hard to get your message across, to explain what’s happening and why, and who it will affect. And it’s getting tougher. With social media there’s just so much information coming at people that it’s very difficult for them to know exactly what’s going on. You have millions of people chiming in with what they think is happening, their version of the facts.
Before, if something was written you’d assume that it was checked and fact-checked and there were sources, but that’s not how it is any more. It’s hard for people to understand what are the real facts.
You’ve said government needs to get much faster; why is that?
Globalisation means that we share information, thoughts and suggestions more than any generation before, so it means there are just all these new things around you, new products, new services, new equipment, new ways of doing things, you name it. Before, if you were isolated in your own region, you had a lot of time before the new idea made its way to you. Now things come at you a thousand miles per hour. Every kind of organisation needs to be more agile, including government. You have to be quick to innovate, to implement creative ways of thinking. And for larger organisations, that’s just not traditionally their strength.
How are you trying to get more agile?
We’re trying to develop a more horizontal approach, we’ve set up an innovation lab and we’re making investments in pilot projects a lot more than we used to, so we can scale things up when they work without using a lot of money if they don’t.
When you’re this big an organisation, it’s difficult to be agile, but I think that’s going to be key for all big organisations in this new, innovative, creative, globalised world.
How did you get to be the boss of such a big organisation so young?
It was something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time, so although I may be a bit younger than most premiers, it’s not like I just put this together. I’ve actually been working on this for almost a decade, if not longer.
When I was about ten years old, my family went through a little bit of financial difficulty. And I remember that I wanted to help people like my family. That’s where the burning desire comes from. When I was at university, I started to volunteer and support my local member of parliament. I would drive him around and talk and learn all about the problems, all about politics.
What do you think enabled you to achieve what you have?
My parents worked at grocery stores, fast food restaurants and convenience stores their whole lives, but they gave everything they had in time and resources to support their three children. I was very lucky to have that climate to grow up in. And I had education. I was very lucky to get the education I got. I was inspired by many teachers and professors along the way, and went to great institutions.
Is it true to say that you paid your university tuition fees by setting up two businesses?
That’s right. I was very proud of them. The first was a summer camp I started for just a week at a time. I did that for five years and I ended up running the camp with some of my friends, seeing hundreds and hundreds of kids. Then I started a tennis academy that still exists today. It’s one of the more successful tennis academies in eastern Canada. It makes me understand what businesspeople and entrepreneurs go through.
You ran for premier once before, against the incumbent Bernard Lord in 2006. What happened?
I didn’t win, but I – I didn’t win on paper, I should say, because I did win in terms of the experience I gained, the people I met, and the graciousness that is forced upon you when you lose an election. I learned so much that I really did win.
You’ve studied business and law and could have worked in social enterprise, NGOs or the law itself. Why government?
Well, right now I get a good mix of those three things, looking after business and in the legislature. But I truly think that politics is the most powerful way to make a difference. There are not a lot of opportunities like being in government to help people positively contribute. You have an ability to convene people, to support them, more than, say, NGOs or entrepreneurs. In government you have an incredible ability to enable other people. It’s very powerful.
- You can find Brian Gallant on Twitter.
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