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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Melanie Mark outlines accomplishments as MLA and ex-cabinet minister in announcing departure from B.C. politics

Melanie Mark
Melanie Mark was first elected to the legislature in 2016 and served as advanced education minister and tourism, arts, culture and sport minister. Photo by B.C. NDP.

Today, Vancouver–Mount Pleasant NDP MLA Melanie Mark announced  that she will be leaving provincial politics. Below, you can read the Hansard draft transcript of her speech in the legislature.

My traditional name is Hli Haykwhl Ẃii Xsgaak. Last week, February 18, 2023, was the seventh anniversary of me taking my seat in this House as the member for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant.

Today I’m making an announcement. I’m proud to be the descendant of the Nisg̱a’a and Gitxsan people on my mom’s side and Cree, Ojibway, French, and Scottish on my father’s side. My parents, Yvonne Mark and Wayne Sinclair, were both working class. They worked in the fisheries and roofing industries. They both struggled with drug addiction and alcohol addiction. My dad died from an overdose in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

My mom, Yvonne Mark, is my biggest fan. She also happens to be my constituent, and I know we can’t use props, but if you’re going to kick me out, I might as well go out my way. That’s my mom and my girls. My mom was homeless and struggled in the Downtown Eastside for many years. She sobered up on my 30th birthday. She is my inspiration. She is here in the gallery with us today.

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. Three of my grandparents attended the following Indian residential schools: St. Michael’s, Brandon, and Elk Lake.

When I was sworn in, I wore my late Nisg̱a’a grandmother Thelma Mark’s button blanket. Today I’m honouring my late Gitxsan grandfather, Willie Mark, by wearing his tanned, moose skin, beaded coat. He escaped Indian agents as a child, had a grade 3 education, and raised his family, working hard in the logging industry.

For the record, we must continue advocating for justice for all the Indian children who didn’t make it home from school and to do the heavy lifting and hard work to advance the call to action that every child matters.

I grew up in the Skeena projects in East Vancouver with a single mom. I went to Van Tech and five other high schools before I eventually graduated from Ladysmith Secondary. I am the product of the foster care system. I will speak a little later about how important education is to me and why it truly is the great equalizer and why kids in care need us to have their back.

Mr. Speaker, as we all know, as MLAs, we didn’t get to these chambers alone. We had the confidence of our constituents, support from our staff and public service, the passion of our volunteers and the unwavering love of our family and allies lifting us up along the way.

I would not be here today were it not for the unconditional love and support of my aunt and uncle, Jerry and Jack Bush, my aunties, cousins, and my siblings. There’s not enough time to name them all, but they have all had my back, because as we all know, this work is not as easy as it looks.

For 40 years, countless people have empowered me to be on the journey that I am on today. They have paddled hard with me on my journey, often steering me in the direction I needed to go.

People like my high school rugby coach, Mike Haley, gave me the confidence to believe in myself. He told me that I had tenacity. Rugby literally saved my life. Sport is truly a great equalizer. My English instructor at native ed, Susan Briggs, taught me that I wasn’t a dumb Indian after all and that I had the intelligence to complete post-secondary.

I’m the first person from my family to graduate from high school and college—namely, Native Education College in my riding of Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, Douglas College, and Simon Fraser University. As I mentioned earlier, education is very important to me. As Justice Murray Sinclair once said, after leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “Education got us into this mess, and education is going to get us out.”

Many others have had my back and paddled hard with me over the decades, including Sarah Mines, Steve Chetta, Irene Singh, Mary Vonne Delorme, Sean McLaren, Bill Yoachim, and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Thirty-six are here with me today as witnesses. I wish to read their names into the record: Yvonne Mark, Teresa Mark, Janice Mark, Maya Calpar Mark, Michaela Ronaldson, David Huber, Samantha Monckton, Clay Suddaby, Diego Cardona, Kenton Duncan, Jodie Wickens, Gerry Bush, Jack Bush, Edward Bush, Bernie Williams, Janice Brown, Shari Goddard, Thomas Gin, Angie Wilson, Nathan Alan, Pam Russ, Jamie Dexal Poitrus, Cassandra Cordero, Denise Moffitt, Crystal Bush, Avid White Bear, Derek White Bear, Bryden White Bear, Ian Mass, Lynn Van Meer Mass, and Susan Skidmore.

I want to especially acknowledge my three campaign managers—Kate Van Meer-Mass, who is also in the chamber today, Nathan Alan, and Diego Cardona—[and] Mable Elmore and Premier David Eby for being at my nomination in 2015.

To my dear MLA sister, Jodie Wickens, who was elected to this House in a by-election on February 2, 2016, which was Groundhog Day.

All these people, and so many more, have had my back every step of the way, unequivocally. They’ve also believed in my potential, even if sometimes I didn’t.

I’m a true believer in resiliency theory. My daughters, Maya and Makayla, are the centre of my life. They are the sunshine in my life. They are the light from my darkness. I am determined to show them that people can rise above the challenges of their existence, learn from, and overcome the traumas they have experienced. They are one more generation removed from the national shame of the Indian residential school and the foster care system, but still they live with its legacy.

I’m so proud of my baby eagles, who make my life better every day. I know they will be shining stars in their own way as they make their way forward in life. Together they gave me the confidence to fight, to be better and to not give up.

I also had the support of people along the way that took a chance on me. I’m thankful.

Seven years and three elections since I took my seat here. I’m still the only First Nations woman to hold a seat in this chamber and to serve in our cabinet. Take a moment and think about that.

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. 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. It’s also a fact that institutions fundamentally resist change. They are allergic to doing things differently, particularly colonial institutions like this Legislative Assembly and government at large.

There is a lot that I’m proud of, but this journey has been challenging and has come at a significant personal toll. This place felt like a torture chamber. I will not miss the character assassination.

I have been proud, so proud, Mr. Speaker, to represent the great constituency and amazingly resilient people of Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, but it’s time for me to make a change. I’ve been an advocate and public servant for 27 years. It has been my honour to serve.

I will continue my advocacy and fight for positive change from outside this House. I will continue using my big mouth to speak up for the voiceless and those who don’t vote, mainly children, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Mother Earth.

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. 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.

This place can’t be all about votes, polling, and posturing. People need to know that their lives matter, their communities matter, their justice matters. People have no recourse but to sleep on the streets. That’s unacceptable and inhumane. While our government has done so much work to address these systemic issues, there’s so much more work to do.

It is not partisan to be a human rights activist. This institution needs to be less partisan. We need to have the guts and courage to do the right and hard things in these chambers.

Not only am I the first First Nations woman to have a seat in this House, but I’ve also had the honour to serve as a cabinet minister, thanks to former premier John Horgan. My eagle feathers have reached the highest level of political office in this province thanks to John Horgan.

Along the way, with a lot of hard work, grit, determination, advocacy, empowerment, my eagle feathers touched the following initiatives, leaving many positive legacies throughout the province. Article 50: creating the first Indigenous law school in the world.

It’s a long list so you’re going to have to hold your applause.

Article 16: Indigenous languages—teaching Indigenous languages in universities, bringing the Invictus Games, FIFA World Cup, the Grey Cup. It was a lot of fun being the minister, and I got things done.

Student housing: half a billion dollars invested in student housing.

We invested in the Indigenous youth centre in my riding. I volunteered for that organization so that young people had a positive place to go. It took 20 years, but our NDP government did it, and I’m so proud of that.

As the Minister of Sports, I created a grant program so that kids in care could play competitive sport so that they could have a chance to excel. Despite what the opposition critic might think, I did save tourism, arts, culture and sport during this pandemic. I did.

We created the fairs, festivals, and events grants. We saved the PNE. We invested in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gardens and so many others. We overhauled the B.C. Arts Council. We voted together in this House for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act—historic legislation. We eliminated fees for adult basic education because it was the right thing to do the first month on the job when we formed government, an NDP government. That was a very proud day.

We created access grants for students, after 16 years, when there weren’t grants. We overhauled access to higher education. As I said, it’s very important to me. We eliminated interest on student loans. We created a sexual violence campaign. In my riding, the Chinese Canadian Museum, the first of its kind in Canada…. 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.

It’s our responsibility as elected officials and as government to do the hard things, to do the hard work, the difficult work, the work that people don’t usually see or hear about. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said reconciliation isn’t for wimps. Ellen Woodsworth reminded me that we must lift as we climb. There’s also a saying about not forgetting about the people on your way up.

One of the proudest days of my life was taking a seat in these chambers on behalf of all the underdogs, the vulnerable, and the silenced. I have no regrets. I have made mistakes, but I can’t turn back time. What I can do is what I was born to do, which is speak truth to power.

John Lennon is perhaps best known for sharing “imagine all the people, sharing all the world.” But the words that speak most directly to me are “Power to the People.” It’s the people. It’s the power of the people that sent us to this place, and it’s their power that we harness to make change on their behalf. Let’s never forget that.

As I’ve always said, if we paddle together, we will get to our destination sooner. The journey is still hard, and it is still long, but it’s only by paddling together that we will arrive together in a distant shore where we can make life better for all.

As they say, never say never. But for now, my canoe is heading in another direction. I will continue believing in the journey and using my superpowers and big energy as a woman, who recently was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to advance economic, social and environmental reconciliation, and justice.

I recognize this is hard news to hear. This decision did not come lightly. I am not quitting. 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.

I may have been the first First Nations woman to have a seat in this House, but I will do my level best to ensure that I won’t be the last.

t’ooyaḵsiy̓ n̓isim̓

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.