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B.C. Culture Minister Coralee Oakes in Vancouver on July 31, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail) (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
B.C. Culture Minister Coralee Oakes in Vancouver on July 31, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail) (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Actress-cum-rookie MLA Coralee Oakes seeks to spread arts wealth Add to ...

Back when she was doing some community theatre, Coralee Oakes kept landing the same kinds of roles, in productions such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. “I usually played old women or witches,” she says, laughing. “I’m not taking it personally.”

Now she likes to say that her own life has turned into a bit of a fairy tale. In May, the former Quesnel city councillor won Cariboo North for the B.C. Liberals. Then the rookie MLA was named Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.

So we invited her to discuss culture in B.C., her connections to the arts and her intentions as minister for the sector – in particular on big files such as a new Vancouver Art Gallery. She was enthusiastic and eager to provide the backstory to the fairy tale.

Ms. Oakes, 41, was born in Quesnel and grew up in tiny Moose Heights on a farm that her family had acquired during the Depression when they moved west from the Prairies. “They were given a tent and a cow and 160 acres,” she explains.

She was 16 and bored one day when her politically active grandparents suggested she attend a meeting with them; this was in the very early days of the Reform Party. Ms. Oakes was hooked. At 18, she ran for the Reform Party nomination in Cariboo-Chilcotin, travelling back to the riding weekly from the University of British Columbia, where she was studying political science. She didn’t win.

In addition to her UBC degree, she received a diploma in performing arts from what is now Thompson Rivers University.

She was elected to Quesnel City Council in 2005, serving two terms.

She took on Independent MLA Bob Simpson, the incumbent – and her old high-school biology teacher – in the provincial election this spring, and won.

She is fiercely proud of her small-town roots. She faithfully keeps a journal. She likes to have afternoon tea with her grandmother, who is 86. She is warm, talkative and clearly thrilled, if a bit daunted, by her new role.

“It’s almost as if I’ve been preparing for 20 years of my life, and everything has all come together in this amazing, miraculous [way].”

Ms. Oakes, once typecast in unflattering stage roles, stresses the importance of having strong women in politics – and for her, Premier Christy Clark fits the bill.

“We don’t have a lot of female political role models [who can] really be our mentors and our trailblazers, and she’s done an outstanding job.”

When asked about top priorities in the portfolio, Ms. Oakes talked about arts and culture and sports being “that nugget” that could attract families to small resource-rich communities that need skilled labour.

“My job is to be a champion and a voice for those small communities, to say there [are] amazing things that are happening in every single community in the province of British Columbia.”

She sang the praises of the Castlegar Sculpturewalk (she hasn’t seen it yet, but plans to go), Victoria’s Royal BC Museum, and, in her own neck of the woods, Barkerville Historic Town and the Quesnel & District Museum, “one of the top museums in British Columbia,” she said.

Citing statistics released last year showing provincial arts funding is lower in B.C. than all other provinces, I asked if there is potential for more funding for the arts.

Her government has already provided more, she said, pointing to $24-million for the BC Arts Council this year, up from $16.8-million the previous year. (She also said she is always skeptical about statistics.)

A big question in Vancouver right now is government funding for a new Vancouver Art Gallery. As part of the conditions laid out by the city in giving the VAG land for a new facility, the gallery is to raise an additional $50-million from the province.

I don’t imagine supporters of a new art gallery will be heartened by Ms. Oakes’s response.

Pointing out that the province has already given the VAG $50-million for a new building, Ms. Oakes said regions need to prioritize. She brought up three other institutions in the Lower Mainland with needs – Presentation House Gallery (which is planning a move); the Museum of Vancouver (which wants to move); and the Maritime Museum (which may require further renovations). Beyond culture, there’s transit, and operational expenses such as sewage. “So we need to really start having a conversation on what those priorities are going to be,” she said. “So we can’t do it all.”

Ms. Oakes said there is a list of communities across B.C. with cultural initiatives, and brought up Castlegar again, and a production of Les Misérables currently playing in Prince George. “I wish we had a pot of gold that we could provide money to everybody, but the reality is, we have to be extremely strategic with the dollars that we invest. And $50-million, if you think about even 50 communities receiving $1-million, what that could do to transform a community is significant. And I’m not saying that this is what it’s going to look like, but I am a champion for communities and that means all communities in British Columbia, and I look at them all fairly and equally,” she said. “And I think that’s an important piece of [my outlook] coming from a part of the world where I come from.”

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