Janet Fraser: From scientist to VSB chairwoman

Green Party school trustee entered civic politics in 2014

The Vancouver’s School Board’s new chairwoman, Janet Fraser, didn’t set out to be a politician. Her first career was as a chemist, working in a lab, inventing new medications.

She was born and educated in the United Kingdom, including earning a PhD in chemistry. But when she met her future husband, a chemist from Vancouver, she sought out a chance to move across the ocean. She found a research project at the University of British Columbia and hasn’t looked back.

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After that, she worked for two bio-tech firms, developing new anti-asthma drugs and antibiotics. The couple got married, moved to Marpole and started a family, but when she was pregnant with her third child, Fraser was laid off in the downsizing that happened during the biotech bubble.

She decided to stay home with her children for a few years and got involved with the Parent Advisory Council at their school. She also became involved in the community, helping with the Marpole and Cambie Corridor plans.

“I could see how elected bodies and the staff affected communities,” Fraser said.  

She started to think about a career change and took a project management program at Langara College with an eye to getting back into science and project management, something she enjoyed in her earlier career.

“I found it challenging to get back into the science project management field after having a reasonably long break,” Fraser said. “There are lots of good young graduates coming out from universities and there’s not a lot of science [jobs] here.”  

In 2014, she decided to run for school trustee, after seeing the staff in her children’s school struggling to provide what they wanted for students. She knew her likelihood of getting elected would be higher if she joined a political party, so she started shopping around.

“I had never been a member of a political party before,” Fraser said. “It’s like getting married — you can’t pick and choose — you’re in or you’re out.”

She says she felt comfortable right away with the Green Party and, in particular, appreciated the way the party’s elected representatives “try to do politics differently.”

In 2014, Fraser was elected and ended up holding the balance of power on a politically split board, with four Vision trustees and four NPA trustees. Fraser’s was the deciding vote in the decision to not approve a balanced budget, a decision that was used as justification for firing the board a year ago. Asked if she would do it again knowing what she knows now, Fraser said she has no regrets.

“I stand by all of the decisions I made,” she says.

Clearly, the firing did not harm Fraser’s reputation. She topped the polls, with her two fellow Green candidates Judy Zaichkowsky and Estrellita Gonzalez coming second and third. Fraser says having more than one Green trustee is “very nice. I like it a lot.”

There have been no official indications yet if the board will be facing another shortfall this year, Fraser said.

She’s heard from people that they want more communication and better relationships and she believes this board can do that.

“At certain times we have to step back from seeing things through a party lens and seeing them through a trustee lens,” Fraser said. “I’m hoping that people see [board makeup] as less of a defining characteristic than before and look more at the individuals who are there.”

Fraser said she is having to adjust, as chairwoman, to speaking on behalf of the board rather than only for herself. She made it clear that everything she said in this interview was not being said on behalf of the board.

Trustees will be interviewing candidates for superintendent next week and Fraser expects someone to be in the job within the next three months.

Other hot issues the board will have to grapple with in the near future include seismic upgrades, possible school closures and teacher recruitment and retention.

Fraser ran unsuccessfully in the provincial election in her home riding of Vancouver-Langara, which has been a longtime Liberal riding. She doesn’t rule out another run for office on the bigger stage.

“When I ran for the first time as a Green Vancouver trustee, there wasn’t a history of electoral success, and as an MLA or an MP, that would be an interesting step to take as well.”

Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues. She can be reached at tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.

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