An Interview with Mike Bernier,
Minister of Education
As a politician with over ten years’ experience, Bernier has led a unique path to his current position. From his time as a Councillor in Dawson Creek to his transition to Mayor; from his years on the NCLGA Board as Regional Director to sitting as President; and from his position as MLA to being appointed to a Ministry – he certainly has put in the time.
In true Northern spirit, Bernier is humbled by the opportunity, and is excited to get down to business.
“It's an amazing honor, when you think about it. Having the northeast represented in cabinet is one thing but, as a fairly new MLA, to be put into what they say budget-wise is the second largest Ministry in the province, it's an amazing opportunity.”
“And it's not just the [work]. It's the responsibility. That, to me, was one of the big things. Like I say, I was very excited, very honored to be put in this position. When you take a deep breath, you realize, man, this is a huge responsibility and I've got a lot of work in front of me. I have to make sure I get this right. To do that, that's where I want to engage with as many people as possible.”
Bernier is stepping into his new position with a collaborative approach – what people in the North like to refer to as a “barn raising mentality.”
“One of the big things over the next six months is going to me touring around the province. I'm meeting with lots of different stakeholders, with school boards, with teachers. But it’s really about engaging with the parents, as well. I've got my schedule pretty well full for the next three months. I want to get out and I want to hear from them, some of the challenges and the issues they have. More importantly, for me to make good decisions, I have to see first hand and hear first hand some of the opportunities that we have to work on.”
Learning from past Ministers, Bernier made it a point to involve the BC Teachers’ Federation from the moment he took office. “The very first phone call I actually made after being appointed Minister was to Mr. Iker and the BCTF. The whole point for myself around building those relationships, we all want the same outcomes, which is the best education possible for the students.”
“I had a great discussion, albeit quick, with Mr. Iker at the beginning of the week. One of the first meetings I will be having face-to-face is actually with him, as well in the next short few weeks. I look forward to just building a better relationship with BCTF and the teachers themselves.”
“I would definitely say you can't use a cookie cutter approach in administering education (in Northern BC). Times are changing. We have to be able to adapt to that. When you look at rural communities, First Nation communities, it's a different kind of environment. There's different stressors that come between the urban and rural areas. If I remember correctly, the six year completion rate for Aboriginal students has increased by more than 45% to over 61% since 2001. We've made a lot of great strides there. Still, when I look at 61%, that shows me there's a heck of a lot of room for more involvement, more improvement there.”
Bernier agrees that the North faces challenges that the rest of the Province doesn’t, such as inclement weather, simple logistics such as bussing kids long distances to schools, and the diverse cultural makeup that goes along with living in Northern BC. “When you look at rural schools, you look at First Nation communities, you look at even just the smaller rural areas, teaching the kids is one thing but it's sometimes you have to look at teaching them differently in different areas, depending on culture, the geography, etc.”
Although only on the job for less than a fortnight, Bernier’s already dealt with criticism. “Some people have wondered: If I don't have any teaching experience, how is that going to help me?”
Bernier sees his lack of direct experience as a blessing. “In fact, I think that's a bit of a benefit because I'm not coming in with any pre-conceived ideas about what's better than something else when it comes to the education system. I want to reach out and work with the professionals, which is the teachers, the support workers, the amazing staff I have in the Ministry. Those are the people who I will lean on for advice as we go forward because they're the ones that really have the expertise and the ones that have to be part of the solution.”
Although Bernier doesn’t have direct work experience in the field of education, he doesn’t see himself coming into the position blind. “I have five kids and I've got my first grandkid coming in December, so I look at it personally that I've got a lot at stake. I've got a lot of experience in the system and I foresee a lot more in the system in the future.”
In fact, Bernier has a lot of vision going forward regarding his new Ministry. He’s looking to make some curriculum changes over the next six months, and he’s excited to get started.
“What I think's really important going forward is how the world is changing. We have some of the best educational outcomes in the world, but in order to keep that standard, we have to be changing to keep up with what's going on. It's no longer just reading, writing, and numeracy. What about technology? What about skills training? What about all the opportunities out there? We have to be figuring out how to incorporate that into making our students as well-rounded as possible for the jobs of tomorrow, not just how we used to be.”
When pressed for more information, Bernier jokingly replied that he “can't let the cat out of the bag just yet.”
In all seriousness though, the NCLGA is proud of the strides former-President Bernier has made, and is excited to see his progress over the years to come. He’s a great example of hard work paying off.
If any NCLGA members are interested in congratulating Minister Bernier in person, he will be joining us at the NCLGA Luncheon at UBCM in Vancouver this September.