New MLA makes history in BC legislature

Melanie Mark (centre) is the first female Aboriginal MLA in BC history. - Photo courtesy of Melanie Mark Campaign (Flickr)

Melanie Mark always knew that she was a fighter.

February 2 proved to be a big day, not only for Mark, but also for the province. With 61 percent of the vote, Mark won the by-election for the riding of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant. She is the first First Nations woman to be elected into the BC Legislature — Mark is Cree, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, and Ojibway.

“It’s about time,” Mark said in an interview with The Peak. “The high from the past two weeks has been incredible.”

An alumna of SFU, Mark holds a degree in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. Despite the fact that she was determined to finish her degree quickly, Mark remembers her time at SFU with fondness, calling it a “great opportunity for friendships and networking.” She spent most of her time studying so that she could get on with her career as well as raise her daughter. “I always in a hurry,” Mark recalled. “I wish I had more time to get things done.”

It was this strength and determination that pushed Mark to run for the NDP nomination after then incumbent Jenny Kwan resigned and ran in the federal election. Initially, Mark was planning on running in May 2017 so that she could build up her exposure. But once the position was vacated, Mark saw this as a “push to do it now.”

“It’s now or never,” she said with a laugh. “Put your name in the hat, and do your best.”

Running in the by-election a year earlier than anticipated proved to be a learning curve. Mark compared her experience of meeting people and knocking on doors to “going into a different job interview with each person [she] spoke to.”

“I had to explain what skills I had and what I had to offer to them,” she said. “The more I connected with people, the more I felt that I could be a person that could help them overcome their difficulties.”

Mark’s advocacy work includes being the president of the Urban Native Youth Association, working at Save the Children Canada and Covenant House Vancouver, and more recently as the Associate Deputy Representative for Advocacy, Aboriginal and Community Relations, and Youth Engagement.

It was through this position that she saw how the government system was failing the province’s most vulnerable demographic: children.

“Children have no say in the budget, public policy [. . .]  they are the recipient of what adults decide,” Mark said. “We need to be strong advocates for children’s rights: their ability to practice their culture, their right to safety, and the right to be free from exploitation.”

Mark’s First Nations heritage was an integral part of her campaign and life, though this had not always been the case. Growing up, racism, especially towards people of Aboriginal and First Nations heritage, was extremely prevalent. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of pride [for my culture],” Mark said.

One of the reasons why this was the case was because of fear. Her grandparents, out of fear of discrimination and racism, did not share the First Nations culture with her. “I didn’t learn about residential schools until I was in college,” Mark admitted. She attributes this lack of understanding to a lack of Aboriginal education.

“Many people say that just because I am First Nations, I will only fight for issues pertaining to Native people. I am here to fight for justice and fairness for everyone.”

But none of this would be possible, Mark says, without the support that she has had throughout the campaign and ultimately her life.

Mark’s mother, who had suffered from alcoholism but has since been sober for 10 years, was a prime example of this in her life. “Our family was there to support and embrace [my mom] when she was ready,” she said. In the same way, Mark says that we need to have a society that will be there for people when they are ready to make a change

“We [as a collective society] are strong, and we can move mountains. We sometimes just need the opportunity.”

Mark reminds students that the road may not always be easy, and that people may be there just to “deflate you” in life. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” she said. “If you want to create change, don’t wait for it to come to you. You have to go to the change.”