Melanie Mark quit as a B.C. MLA Wednesday and shared her frustrations as the only First Nations woman elected to the legislature and to serve in cabinet.
While Mark listed many accomplishments that she’s proud of, she also said colonial institutions like the legislature and the government are resistant to change and “allergic” to doing things differently.
“This journey has been challenging and has come at a significant personal toll,” she said in the legislature wearing a beaded moose skin coat that was her Gitxsan grandfather’s. “This place felt like a torture chamber. I will not miss the character assassination.”
Mark, 47, has represented Vancouver-Mount Pleasant since winning a byelection in 2016.
“I am not quitting,” she said, though she plans to officially step down by the end of March. “If anything, I'm standing up for myself. For the first time in my life, I'm exercising my self-determination as a single mother to put myself and my daughters first.”
After the NDP formed government in 2017 former premier John Horgan named Mark advanced education minister, later moving her to tourism, arts, culture and sport.
Her list of accomplishments included the creation of the first Indigenous law school in the world, support for teaching Indigenous languages, building student housing, attracting sports events, passing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, eliminating fees for adult basic education and improving access to post-secondary education.
But it was changes to opportunities for children coming out of foster care that she was most proud of, she said. “The best thing that I ever did as a politician was create the provincial tuition waiver program so that young kids in care could have a chance — young kids like me could have a chance.”
Mark is the daughter of a Nisga’a and Gitxsan mother and a Cree, Ojibwa, French and Scottish father. Both were working class and both struggled with drug addiction and alcohol addiction, Mark said. “My dad died from an overdose in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.”
Her mom, who was in the legislature Wednesday for her daughter’s speech, was homeless and struggled for many years on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and has been sober for 17 years. “She is my inspiration,” Mark said.
“My family, like so many Indigenous families in B.C. and Canada, carry the multigenerational scars and trauma of the then Indian residential school and the current foster care system,” Mark said. Three of her grandparents attended residential schools, and she described herself as a “product of the foster care system,” attending six high schools before graduating and going to university.
Before running for office she worked for eight years in the Office of the BC Representative for Children and Youth.
Mark noted that seven years after winning election, she is still the only First Nations woman to sit in the chamber and to serve in cabinet.
“I wanted to be an MLA so I could be a strong voice for my community, the people I grew up with, and so I could be a champion for change,” she said. “I wanted to disrupt the status quo. I wanted big systems to change. In many ways, I have done what I came here to do.”
Premier David Eby said he will always remember the Nisga’a drummers at Mark’s swearing in. “For me and for my colleagues, for all of us, it was a sign that Melanie had changed this place forever just by showing up in the room,” he said.
Of course Mark went far beyond just showing up, Eby said. “She came here to get things done,” he said. “One of the things that I admire most about the member's time here and her work is how she brought her life experience... to bear on every single job she took on in this legislative assembly.”
Opposition house leader Todd Stone said Mark had “blazed a trail” for others. “We're all very hopeful that there will be a future where more Indigenous peoples will sit in this place and where more First Nations, Inuit and Métis people will see themselves in this house,” he said.
Adam Olsen, the Green Party’s house leader, referred to Mark as “my relative” and expressed gratitude for how she entered the legislature. “I think that it changed this place,” he said. “It created a better place for me to be brought in here when I was brought in here by my relatives as well.”
He acknowledged what her election and role in cabinet meant. “It's important that our grandmothers, our mothers, our aunties, our sisters, our nieces and our cousins have a place in this house and that the experience here be a welcoming and safe experience for Indigenous people, and for Indigenous women in particular.”
In explaining her reasons for leaving, Mark told reporters that she did not have an actual childhood herself and that her priority is to be available to her two daughters, who are 12 and 19. “I don't want to leave my kids alone,” she said. “It's not a lie that I'm divorced. I'm a single mother.”
Mark also mentioned that she was recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and that her “big energy” was often misunderstood by people around her. She said she is working to understand what it means for her, but compared it to having a Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes.
Still wearing her grandfather’s coat, she spoke with Eby at her side.
Asked about the “torture chamber” comment, Mark said “I think the opposition are absolutely awful.”
She said women are treated worse than men in politics and that much effort goes into making them look stupid. “The nastiness from white men in here is awful. I put up with enough abuse in my life.”
The media were also hard to deal with, she said. “There was I don't know how many efforts of work that I did that I worked really, really hard, and I definitely didn't get the credit for it... I did way more than ruin the Royal BC Museum.”
The government announced plans last year to build a new museum that better tells the story of the province’s history, but abandoned it amid sustained criticism from the opposition and in media reports.
“The people deserve a museum and work is being done and I took seven months of being like totally annihilated over something that was my job,” Mark said. “It was my mandate from the premier to revitalize the museum. We deserve a better museum. That institution, just like this institution, is colonial and needs to be improved.”
Despite the challenges of the job, Mark said she hopes a First Nations matriarch will come forward to replace her and added that she will continue working to see that happen.
That she sat in the legislature at all is a political statement, she said, a reminder that Indigenous people are still standing despite long institutional oppression. “The conditions of Indigenous people are not good,” she said. “We are over-represented in care, in jail, homelessness, you name it.”
That’s why she came to the legislature to fight, she said, adding that more people like her and more allies are needed to keep fighting for people’s rights.
“Members of this house have heard me say that we need to paddle together, but the fact is the political environment is cut-throat and dysfunctional,” she said in the legislature. “Disrupting the status quo is about using your power for good to adjust policies that stand in the way of people living their best and healthiest lives. Future generations need us to have the guts to have their backs and fight for their rights.”