ELECTION: New politicians include first aboriginal trustee in Delta school district

ELECTION: New politicians include first aboriginal trustee in Delta school district

DELTA — One of Delta’s two new school trustees is bringing an indigenous perspective to the board of education for the first time in district’s history.

Rhiannon Bennett, who lives on Tsawwassen First Nation treaty lands, says she intends to work on issues facing aboriginal youth in Delta.

"The graduation gap between aboriginal students and non-aboriginal students was concerning and I would like to be able to address that," she said.

While praising the school district for developing curriculum and programs to improve aboriginal outcomes, Bennett said it lacks perspective from a member of the aboriginal community.

"There’s just something missing when that’s not your life experience and not your story, trying to fix it," she said. "It’s the best intentions and the most empathy, but when it’s not you it’s not the same."

Bennett has extensive experience working with aboriginal youth, employed in Vancouver as a family outreach worker for Musqueam First Nation.

Bennett said she hopes her achievement will inspire other aboriginal people.

"Now I’m in the position of leadership in our community that now all these young indigenous students get to look up to," she said. "And that’s a pretty powerful thing when you’ve got someone close to home in a position of leadership that you can aspire to."

But Bennett said she’s not coming into the school board "guns blazing" and will take the first year just to get acquainted with her fellow trustees. One of those trustees will need no introduction. Bruce Reid was one of three candidates on her Kids Matter slate who was also elected.

Reid, a Tsawwassen resident and counsellor at J.N. Burnett Secondary in Richmond, said he decided to run for office because of the "silence" from trustees, principals and school staff about the state of public education.

"Principals are probably equally as aware of the underfunding problems as teachers are. And yet by their silence – and the same thing for school trustees – the implication was that teachers were just making it up as a bargaining strategy," he said.

Reid said the school district has faced $21 million in budget cuts due to chronic underfunding by the province, adding the slate Kids Matter fared well in the election because they promised to address that.

He added that he was also frustrated that school administrators and members of government are not "in the trenches" and can’t see how bad the situation really is. Reid said there’s a hesitancy to say too much about the deterioration of public education because he doesn’t want to drive more parents to private schools.

"But by the same token you can’t allow it to be cut and cut and cut without speaking up," he said.

Delta’s third new face is actually a familiar one. Heather King, another Tsawwassen resident, was first elected to council in 2008 but lost her seat when she took on mayoral juggernaut Lois Jackson in 2011.

She said she didn’t consider running for mayor this time around because she finished her Masters Degree at SFU in Adult Education in July.

"When you’re going to run for the mayor position you’ve really got to start a year in advance. And I couldn’t do a campaign like that justice," she said.

But King said she’s willing to stand behind Jackson and support her, adding the mayor has done a good job in general.

"I’m happy to accomplish what I’m able to accomplish with the rest of the councillors without having to be mayor."

King said she likes the recent change to four year terms from the previous three, adding it will allow council to accomplish more. Terming the election year "silly season," King said that starting in January incumbents will attend more ribbon cutting ceremonies and photo ops that will make the person more memorable come voting time.

"If we can delay that by a year it gives us more time to focus collectively on getting a lot more done for Delta," she said.

Looking forward, King said she’s focused on the revitalization of Ladner Harbour and North Delta neighbourhoods. While campaigning in North Delta she said many businesses asked for beautification.

"(They said), ‘Why are we having such a different streetscape than Tsawwassen?’ And they’re right. We need to have some equality there."

She said Tsawwassen’s beautification only came following a 2004 National Geographic article that referred to 56th Street as a "strip-mall hell" on the way to Point Roberts.

Delta’s inaugural school board meeting will convene on Dec. 9 from 7:30-9:30 p.m. at the school board office (4585 Harvest Dr.) in Ladner. King will swear-in as councillor on Dec. 1 and attend her first meeting on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. at municipal hall (4500 Clarence Taylor Cres.) in Ladner.

Twitter: @adrianmacnair