Peter Fassbender: Higher education

As a suburban mayor, Peter Fassbender worked on transit funding, renewing a controversial RCMP contract and other challenging files. Now the newly appointed education minister ...

Peter Fassbender, mayor of the City of Langley and rookie MLA: “my personality has always been to jump in with both feet”

What do skydiving and advertising have in common?

They're the two forces that pushed a young Peter Fassbender into politics.

"My wife looked at me and said, 'You're going to do it, aren't you?' Fassbender said of the first time he leapt out of a plane. "I said, 'I think I'm going to try it – just once.'"

Instead, he became a veteran skydiver, going so far as to advocate for the sport that "got a bad rap" as the leader of a provincial association for the extreme sport.

His political ideals were stoked when he got an insider's view of the political process while working at ad agency James Lovick in the early 1970s. The agency handled a lot of government advertising, and Fassbender's hero, W.A.C. Bennett, often conducted strategy sessions at its offices.

Fassbender didn't join the meetings because he had a lofty position; he just knew how to work the slide projector.

"I used to be able to sit in the back room pushing buttons and hearing all the discussions from the premier and all the people from the government departments," said Fassbender. "I got my first behind-the-scenes look at government at that agency."

Fassbender was born in Germany and emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1952. He graduated from Queen Elizabeth High School in Surrey and attended the National Broadcasting School in Vancouver.

He got a film librarian job at CHAN Television (now Global) and moved up the ranks to cameraman, and then producer and director, by making "a pest of myself, just doing whatever I could."

He got interested in advertising through his work at the television station; it was a career that would continue to fascinate him for the next 30 years. He eventually became a partner at one of the largest advertising firms in the country, DDB Canada.

His first few tries at politics did not come so easily.

After a failed run at a Social Credit nomination, Fassbender served a four-year term (1975 to 1979) on the Langley school board. They were conflict-filled years. Fassbender and several other board members were part of a movement that pushed for traditional learning to be reintroduced to public schools after less formal teaching styles had been introduced in the '60s and '70s.

The position often put the board at odds with the teachers' union – and sometimes each other.

"It was a very difficult time ... while I was on the board at the time I was not necessarily a part of the extreme of that particular dynamic, to the point that many of the members on the school board ran a candidate against me," said Fassbender.

He added that since that time, when he was a young father with preschool-aged children, his views on what makes a good public school education have changed.

"Since the '70s, I've matured as a person," he said. "Opinions I held in the '70s were based in that context at the time. But what I still believe in is a good, solid sound education is fundamental to anybody's future, and the components of that have changed as the needs of society have changed."

After he left the school board, 20 years would go by before he re-entered politics, this time more successfully.

In 2002, he was elected as a Langley city councillor. Starting in 2005, he served as mayor of the City of Langley for three back-to-back terms. He served on various Metro Vancouver committees and was the vice-chairman of TransLink's mayors' council.

This May, at the age of 66, Fassbender made the move to provincial politics and narrowly won a Liberal seat against three-term NDP MLA Jagrup Brar in a Surrey riding.

Fassbender has lived his whole life in Surrey, Aldergrove or Langley, but he's proud of his work during those years on areas that had a regional or provincial focus. Working on the problem of transit funding for municipalities, especially for the fast-growing Fraser Valley suburbs, was one such project.

Fassbender also represented B.C. cities in a contentious renewal of the RCMP contract. Throughout negotiations for the 20-year deal, many mayors were in open revolt, saying the initial contract gave them little control over spiraling policing costs. Negotiators finally worked out a deal in March 2012. A key concession was the creation of a committee made up of local government representatives that would have some say over RCMP spending in B.C.

Fassbender became a spokesman for the deal, which included answering its critics, like Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan.

"All the work I've done as a municipal official has shown me that none of us live in isolation," he said.

Transportation and transit are still especially close to his heart. But for now, he'll be focusing on a different subject. On June 7, Premier Christy Clark named him Minister of Education.

Rather than looking back to the confrontational late 1970s, Fassbender said he'll draw from his 30-year career in business as a guide to his new portfolio.

"[I'll bring] all of my life experience, my business experience and understanding what the needs for education are in preparing young people for their future," he said. "Having had all of that experience I understand the reality of that world and getting a job."

Signing a 10-year contract with the BC Teachers' Federation, one of Clark's campaign promises, is also a priority. Like the RCMP contract and transit funding, it's going to be a challenge: so far, the teachers' union has strongly opposed the idea.

Fassbender's former boss has no doubt the man is up to the challenge of bare-knuckle B.C. politics.

"If there was someone who was born to be a politician, it would be him," Frank Palmer, chairman of DDB Canada, told Business in Vancouver before the cabinet announcement was made. "I can't see what else this guy would do. He's just a natural.

"Hopefully Christy Clark will name him and give him a position where he can make a difference, because he'll make a difference in her life too."

As for skydiving? Fassbender gave up the sport when his oldest son was born. But it still makes a convenient metaphor.

"My personality has always been to jump in with both feet."

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