Melanie Mark has made history as the first indigenous woman ever elected to the British Columbia legislature, trouncing the competition with more than 60 percent of the vote in a February 2 by-election.
The Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Ojibway and Cree mother of two knocked out Green Party candidate Pete Fry and the B.C. Liberals’ Gavin Dew in a race to replace Jenny Kwan, who was elected as a federal Member of Parliament last fall after 20 years serving as a provincial legislator. Mark will sit as the representative for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, a New Democratic Party (NDP) stronghold since 1991.
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When she heard that she had just made history, Mark said, she was overcome with emotion.
“I was waiting to be drummed in … when I looked at my Twitter account and I could see the numbers coming in, and of course I started to cry,” Mark told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The first thing that came to my mind was that we worked so hard, and this is my new destiny. I thought of my grandparents. I was wearing my grandmother’s regalia, so it was a very, very emotional moment for me.”
Raised in Vancouver’s turbulent Downtown Eastside, Mark experienced many hardships during her youth, losing her father to an overdose and watching her mother struggle with addiction. She overcame these and other wrenching obstacles to become a prominent figure in the Vancouver–Mount Pleasant community.
After six years as president of the Urban Native Youth Association, Mark set her sights on the B.C. Legislature and ran a grassroots campaign with positive initiatives, an approach seldom seen in the urban, concrete jungle of downtown Vancouver. After her win, she spoke of the responsibility.
“It’s 2016, and our voice hasn’t been heard in the legislature, so of course there is a lot of expectation on me as an indigenous, First Nations woman,” Mark said. “My mandate, of course, is to represent the people of Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, but also more broadly the interests of people across B.C. on policies that affect out families, affect our jobs, and affect our environment.”
In a commentary piece for Georgia Straight magazine before the election, Mark wrote about being raised in low-income housing and understanding the difficulties many youths face today as well as her advocacy work within First Nation communities in Vancouver and the Northwest.
“Working with the Native Court Workers’ Association, Covenant House, the RCMP in Hazelton as a summer student, and as the national aboriginal project coordinator for Save the Children Canada’s Sacred Lives Project, I built on these experiences to take on leadership roles in our community,” Mark wrote. “I was raised in social housing in East Van. I moved more than 30 times in my life. My mother, now 10 years sober, struggled with addiction living in the Downtown Eastside. My father died in the same community of an overdose when I was 23.”
Recounting a story about her grandfather, who was sent into the bush to escape federal Indian agents in the 1940s, Mark said her election is proof that First Nations’ fight for identity and a place in society has come a long way.
“How far indigenous people have come to fight for human rights, to fight for social justice, to fight for environmental justice,” Mark said. “The movement that culminated in bringing me forward. It takes a community to raise a child, and there are a lot of people who invested in my upbringing. My grandparents were a big part of that.”
She also pointed to the obstacles that indigenous people face merely in keeping their families intact.
“It has been a tremendous journey of just fighting for our families to stay together,” Mark said, “fighting for our identity and saying we have a place here in society. In our schools and all those places, we’ve been called ‘chugs’ and ‘wagon burners’ and ‘squaws,’ and all the rest of it.”
Since the Liberals have been in power, more attention has been given to the wealthy and privileged in the province, and those less fortunate have been left behind, Mark said. For example, she said, the Liberals have grossly neglected the residents of Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, especially the youth. She hopes to bring a strong voice to the provincial NDP caucus. Mark has also set her sights on implementing a poverty-reduction plan, an affordable-housing strategy and a vision for an ecologically sustainable economy once she is sworn in.
“The sentiment is to bring in a new perspective and a perspective from both my personal and professional experience,” Mark said. “For people in Mount Pleasant it’s about housing affordability, about the poverty crisis, it’s about doing more with less. So I’ll be fighting with that empathy. I’ve worked with vulnerable people throughout my career, and they’re telling me quite loudly they haven’t been heard.”