British Columbia's new education minister is acutely aware of the work ahead.
Hours after being tapped for the role, Mike Bernier – MLA for Peace River South and former Dawson Creek mayor – turned his thoughts to the coming weeks and the meetings he plans to arrange, as part of his mandate from Premier Christy Clark to rebuild relationships.
The Dawson Creek resident, appointed on Thursday to replace Peter Fassbender, inherits a high-profile portfolio with a long history of heated labour and legal disputes. Mr. Bernier said he is hopeful that his newcomer status to cabinet will translate to a fresh start – and a chance to shift the focus back to British Columbia's educational outcomes.
"The Premier called me and said, 'I'd like to put you in as the education minister. I want you to really work on collaboration and make sure that, going forward, we have a really great relationship with teachers, with the teachers' union and with the parents here in British Columbia,'" Mr. Bernier said in an interview on Thursday.
"I got some great direction, so I've got some work in front of me."
The protracted labour dispute between the province and British Columbia's public school teachers put the position of education minister into the public's crosshairs. The long-standing animosity crystallized during the last school year when the province's more than 40,000 public school teachers hit the picket line in what would become the longest teachers' strike in British Columbia's history.
Much of the tumult ended with a negotiated settlement last September, but the battle is not yet over.
The BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) has sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, hoping it will overturn an April decision by the B.C. Court of Appeal that found the B.C. government did not violate teachers' Charter rights when it stripped them of their ability to bargain class size and composition.
The province has until the end of August to submit a response. The Supreme Court will decide at a later date whether to hear the appeal.
Mr. Bernier commended Mr. Fassbender for the work it took to reach a long-term agreement and said he is excited to build on that success.
"I'm looking forward to having a sit-down meeting with [BCTF president Jim] Iker and making sure we build a hopefully positive relationship from the start," he said. "It's a clean slate in a lot of ways. Hopefully we can take that to all of our advantage."
Mr. Bernier said his being from British Columbia's Peace region will also bring a unique perspective to the table, such as the challenges facing rural schools and students.
Rob Fleming, the NDP's education critic, said it will be a tall order to bring harmony back to a chaotic education system, but noted that Mr. Bernier brings a "fresh pair of eyes and an open mind."
"I think Mr. Bernier – who is somebody I know a bit and get along with – I think he needs to draw upon his local government experience, and respect for that level of government, to heal some new wounds that have opened up with elected school officials," Mr. Fleming said.
Also on Thursday, Ms. Clark announced that Coralee Oakes will replace Suzanne Anton as the minister responsible for liquor. Under Ms. Anton, drawn-out announcements of liquor-policy reform had received considerable criticism, such as that from craft-beer enthusiasts who saw their brew bills increase by 10 per cent, in many cases.
David Eby, the NDP's critic for liquor policy, said it did not inspire confidence to see the appointment of Ms. Oakes, who fired the auditor-general for local government after she allegedly blocked an investigation into her productivity.
"It's not like Coralee Oakes has such a great record of managing complex files," Mr. Eby said. "She showed very little ability to handle the [auditor-general] mess, and the liquor file is currently a mess."
Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees in B.C., said his organization is looking forward to helping Ms. Oakes get up to speed on a "complicated" liquor file in British Columbia.
"There's a lot of frustration and anxiety with some of the changes. We're just looking forward to working with her to help the government make some good decisions," he said in an interview.
With a report from Ian Bailey
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Coralee Oakes was fired as auditor general for local government. This version has been corrected.