Constituencies in British Columbia don't get any safer for the NDP than Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, where one of two provincial byelections is underway, so it's understandable why the party's candidate might be planning ahead.
"I feel like I've been training for this job my whole life," said Melanie Mark, when asked why she wants to be the MLA.
A former official in the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth for eight years, Mark said that she could imagine one day being the minister of children and family development in a future NDP government. "That's certainly a title the youth would like to see me carry in years to come," she said. "It's a title I would embrace."
The byelection, set for Feb. 2, became necessary after Jenny Kwan stepped down to run in the federal election, a campaign she won. Kwan had represented the riding since 1996, winning close to 65 per cent of the vote in four of her five victories.
The only time the result was close in the riding, which was represented by former NDP premier Mike Harcourt before Kwan, was in the 2001 election. Then, it was one of just two seats the NDP held in the face of a Liberal landslide.
Running against Mark are BC Liberal Gavin Dew, a backroom organizer with both the provincial party and the federal Conservatives; the Green Party's Pete Fry, a digital designer and community activist; Libertarian Bonnie Boya Hu and Jeremy Gustafson from Your Political Party.
Hoping to be the 'missing' voice
The NDP's Mark tells a compelling story as a candidate. She is Nisga'a and Gitxsan on her mother's side and Cree, Ojibwa and Scottish on her father's.
If she wins, she would be the first ever First Nations woman elected in the province. "The voice has been missing," she said. "We're in 2016."
Issues that she would address as MLA include the high number of aboriginal children in government care, the legacies of the residential school system and the investigation of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
First Nations people have the highest rates of poverty in the province, are the most likely to be in jail and are over-represented in government care, she said.
"All these things need to change," she said, adding she would be a steward of the land and oppose projects like the Site C hydro dam and Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain pipeline twinning. "We want to change the narrative so our future looks brighter. "
Mark lives in Burnaby, but said she grew up in the riding. She is the mother of two daughters, 12 and five years old. She has written in the past about raising her brothers, her mother's struggles with addiction, abandonment by her father and surviving sexual abuse.
As she understated it in an interview, "I don't come from money. I wasn't raised in privilege."
Asked how she overcame a challenging start to life, she cited a resilience theory idea that it takes one person in an at-risk person's life to make a big difference. "That one person for me was my rugby coach who told me I had tenacity," she said.
She became captain and the most valuable player on the high school team, and it built her self-confidence, she said. From there she went to university and a career where she rose to become the associate deputy representative for advocacy, aboriginal, community relations and youth engagement in the provincial Office of the Representative for Children and Youth.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the children and youth rep, stressed that as an independent officer of the legislature she is stridently non-partisan. But on a personal level she spoke highly of Mark, saying, "It was an important service she provided to the representative's office... I really appreciated the support she provided and the work she did."
Green: 'I know I have solid support'
The BC Liberal candidate, Dew, did not respond to The Tyee's calls to party headquarters on Tuesday and his campaign office on Thursday.
Dew has been a backroom political organizer whose areas of expertise include social media use and building social license for development projects. His recent work includes communications and stakeholder engagement on the Trans Mountain pipeline project for Kinder Morgan, according to his LinkedIn page.
Fry, the Green Party's candidate, says that at age 46 he's lived in the constituency for almost 30 years. He's the self-described "black sheep" son of two doctors, one of whom is the recently re-elected Liberal MP Hedy Fry. "As long as we don't talk about politics, it's okay," he said of his mother.
Active in civic politics, Fry won 47,000 votes when he ran for city council in 2014. Not quite enough to win a seat, but he noted he was the top vote-getter in the Strathcona, Mount Pleasant and Britannia neighbourhoods, all of which are within Vancouver-Mount Pleasant. "I know I have solid support in this riding," he said.
Even the wealthier residents are progressive, but not necessarily NDP supporters, he said, adding it's time for a change from the province's bipartisan politics.
Many of the issues facing the constituency relate to the price of housing and poverty, he said. "There's a huge amount of pressure on this part of town."
The failure of senior levels of government to intervene in the housing market is a big issue, he said. The property transfer tax could be used to address speculation and more could be done to answer questions about the impact that non-local buyers may be having. "Let's get the data. Let's develop the tools."
Some 75 per cent of residents are renters, but short-term vacation rentals like those facilitated through Airbnb are taking long-term rentals out of the market. "That's a huge problem."
And social assistance rates haven't kept pace with expenses, he said. Frozen since 2007, welfare will provide $375 a month for rent, while Fry said the average price for a bachelor apartment is $900 a month. Even SROs don't rent for what welfare provides, he said. "Clearly we need to address the shelter rate."
More support is needed for the many people living in poverty on the Downtown Eastside, he said. "There's a hell of a lot of people down here who got hurt or traumatized in some way, through no fault of their own."
The area also attracts predators, he said, whether they are drug dealers, people looking to exploit women, or grocery store owners who charge $3 for a box of Kraft Dinner that can be found for one-third of the price elsewhere. "There's a lot of predation and exploitation," he said.
Finally, with an NDP premier in Alberta promoting pipelines and the Liberals running someone who worked for Kinder Morgan in the riding, the Greens are the only ones to be trusted to oppose the Trans Mountain proposal, he said.
NDP pressed on welfare rates
The NDP's frontrunner status has made it a target for at least one activist. David Beattie, a former riding association executive, criticized the party for not doing more to press the government on welfare rates.
"The NDP is supposed to be the party of the less affluent," Beattie said. "[But] it doesn't want to be seen as the party that stands up for welfare recipients."
A 56-year-old former journalist and ESL instructor who said he's struggled to find work since 2009, Beattie said the bulk of his $610 assistance cheque goes to rent a room in an SRO for $560 a month. "It's a struggle," he said. "It just grinds you down."
The rates need to be raised by $100 immediately and another $100 in a year or two, he said. But the NDP has failed to call for a significant increase and in the 2013 provincial election pledged only a $20 a month raise, which Beattie said would have made a minor difference to people's lives.
The Liberals have frozen the rates for almost nine years, which amounts to a decrease when inflation is included, but the NDP has appeared calculating on the file, Beattie said. "They're just as cynical and opportunistic and feckless."
Premier Christy Clark has argued that with welfare rates frozen, the province has been supporting families in other ways. "We're working on making sure we can move people from social assistance into work," she told The Tyee in December.
"A lot of those single parents are moms," Clark added. "A lot of them are on social assistance, and the way we're helping move those people off social assistance and into work is by paying for their social assistance, paying for their childcare, paying for their transportation, paying for their tuition, while they go get the education they need to get off the welfare treadmill. That's a big change for them."
Both Fry and Mark said welfare rates need to increase, but neither would specify a figure. Asked to say what level rates should be, Fry said, "That's a good question," and added that any increase would need to be costed.
Mark, who grew up in social housing, said that a $20 a month raise wouldn't be enough and that some advocates have said rates need to be $1,000 a month. But asked how high she thought rates needed to be, she said, "We're not in charge of the government. I can't give you a figure."
She said she supports spending more on social housing and co-operatives, and that more is needed to support families and keep them together. Prevention will ultimately cost less than paying for foster care, courts and jail when things go wrong, she said. "It's an enormous cost, and it's an enormous waste."
Read more: Indigenous, Housing, Municipal Politics
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