Alumni, Political Science
Alumna Profile: MLA Melanie Mark, Political Science
Melanie Mark (BA, Political Science), who is Nisga’a, Gitxan, Cree, and Ojibway and the first First Nations woman elected to the BC Provincial Legislature, says she initially began her post-secondary education in the late 90s intending to become a police officer by studying Criminology at Douglas College. Instead, her passion for social justice took her in the direction of advocacy and social justice. Mark’s employment and volunteer experience includes working for such organizations as Big Sisters Canada, Covenant House, Save the Children Canada, the Urban Native Youth Association, and the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth. In June 2016 Mark was chosen by the New Democratic Party as their candidate to replace Jenny Kwan as MLA in the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant by-election and she won the seat by a landslide in February 2016. Mark completed her BA in Political Science from SFU in 2005 and says part of what’s made her path to leadership successful is continually moving between school and practice, not only studying and learning about social inequality or political systems, but also participating “in the trenches,” seeing what is needed on the ground in communities.
Before coming to SFU in 2002, Mark was national aboriginal project coordinator for Save the Children Canada’s Sacred Lives, a report published in conjunction with the National Aboriginal Consultation Project in 2000 which outlined the commercial sexual exploitation of Canadian Aboriginal children and youth in 22 communities across Canada. The report consulted with over 150 sexually exploited children and youth to document their experiences. It also included recommendations to eradicate the commercial sexual exploitation of Aboriginal children and youth, a national awareness campaign, and national and regional roundtables alongside the establishment of a youth network and a series of youth-driven pilot projects. Mark says despite the energy and passion that went into Sacred Lives, she was profoundly discouraged by the government’s inadequate response to the report’s recommendations, and her return to post-secondary school was sparked by a desire to understand the political systems that enabled such injustice to exist. “My educational path has always bounced between school and practice. So, when I came to SFU I had seen with my own eyes what was happening ‘in the trenches,’ and I knew what needed to be changed. I came to school with the perspective of not only wanting to understand our own political system but also wanting to see how different political systems worked, to question: ‘how do I make changes happen within our system?’ ”
While Mark recalls her time at SFU fondly, she says she struggled to balance education, work and life as she became pregnant with her first-born daughter, Maya, and was single parenting while also finishing her degree. She says it was also a memorable time when courses like Doug McArthur’s Aboriginal and First Nations Policy introduced her to (then) new ideas about Aboriginal Self-Government and when she had dynamic peers like Mira Oreck (now Director of Public Engagement at the Broadbent Institute and an NDP candidate in the 2015 federal election). Mark says the number one skill she attained while studying Political Science at SFU was the ability to understand and analyze the relationships between different levels of government, legislation, policy, and how laws are established. “It was incredibly valuable for me to learn the differences between federal and provincial policy but also to learn what was within one’s mandate depending on your role in governmental or non-governmental organizations. Also, I learned how different levels of government interpreted legislation into policy.”
At the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth, working for Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Mark says her background in Political Science served her well. As the only representative with a degree in Political Science, Mark says she had a particular strength in interpreting legislation that impacted the Office and understanding what was within (and outside) their jurisdiction. While Mark was working at the Representative’s Office, she also applied to UBC Law and was admitted to the JD program, however she turned it down in favor of continuing her work in advocacy at the Office of the Representative. With eight years in the Representative’s Office, Mark is proud of the work she’s done: helping young people and their siblings to be heard in decision-making processes and empowering people to speak for themselves and be their own advocates.
Entering provincial politics, Mark says she is continuing her commitment to helping people be heard, representing constituents in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant on such issues as housing affordability, poverty, and leadership and respect for B.C.’s indigenous peoples. She says she approaches her role as MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant with “a passion and conviction to create public policy within a human-rights framework,” and that passion was demonstrated in her rousing inaugural speech to the BC legislature in late February, which included a sharp critique of the BC Liberal government’s 2016 Budget. She argued that the 2016 Budget “is not balanced,” and that the Liberal government had “failed the hardest working and most vulnerable citizens of [British Columbia]” by spending money “fighting First Nations in courts” rather than working with them, and by being the only province in Canada “without a poverty reduction or housing strategy.” Mark also noted that aboriginal rights have “come a long way” compared to the days when “indigenous communities were on the verge of extinction,” and she credited those gains to the “relentless determination and unwavering, rights-based advocacy approach” taken by “trailblazers” before her like Frank Calder (first MLA of indigenous decent), Rosemary Brown (first black female MLA), Moe Sihota (first South Asian MLA), among many others.
When FASS asked Mark about her own role as a leader and how she plans to take on the challenges ahead, she says she’s planning on connecting with allies and stakeholders who share the goals of addressing the affordable housing crisis, creating affordable childcare, and implementing recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including the inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women. “I’m a determined person who wants to see outcomes, and I’m not alone in that desire,” she says. Mark also says her community and family—her daughters Maya and Makayla, in particular—have been strength-giving and motivate her to keep pushing for change. When asked if she could offer any advice to students struggling to find their own paths, she says, “I remember realizing during my studies that I didn’t want to break my back getting this degree done. So I would say: don’t be too hard on yourself. A big lesson I learned during my studies was that some paths are paved for us.” She goes on: Twelve years ago, I never imagined I would become the first First Nations woman elected to B.C. parliament, but I stayed on the path that kept me passionate about what I was doing and trusted those who had faith in me.”