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B.C. NDP leader John Horgan with Melanie Mark, MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, at legislature on Feb. 17. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
B.C. NDP leader John Horgan with Melanie Mark, MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, at legislature on Feb. 17. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Melanie Mark breaks barriers as B.C.’s first female MLA from a First Nation Add to ...

Melanie Mark, who once wrote of her shame at being native, has been sworn in as the first woman from a First Nation in B.C.’s legislature – the latest chapter in a harrowing life in which she survived physical and sexual abuse.

On Wednesday, drummers and dancers greeted the MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant – one of two New Democrats who won by-elections this month. The other is Jodie Wickens, elected in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain.

“Today just really cemented things,” Ms. Mark, a former deputy representative of B.C.’s Office of the Representative for Children and Youth, said in an interview.

“It really has me grounded in carrying out the work that I plan to do,” said Ms. Mark, who has policy interests in such areas as housing affordability, affordable child care, renovating schools to withstand earthquakes and the tech sector.

All of this is also a new chapter in a life that Ms. Mark chronicled in a 2001 essay, My Life So Far, published in the Canadian Woman Studies journal, in which she noted that, at times, she knew “being an Indian was not a cool thing” due to negative stereotypes. “I learned to be ashamed to tell people that I was native.”

To Ms. Mark, who is of Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree and Scottish descent, those days are now happily long gone. Asked about the gulf between those words and being embraced this week for her cultural background, she spoke of a journey of successfully reclaiming her cultural identity.

“In my early days, there was a lot of shame,” she said, noting her voice became stronger as she learned about her culture. “I am feeling stronger than ever before in my life and I am going to use that strength.”

Ms. Mark has been forthright about the physical and sexual abuse she suffered in a childhood during which she was raised by a single mother she described as an “alcoholic and fanatical woman.” Her father deserted the family and eventually died of a heroin overdose.

At the age of 5, she was sexually abused by a babysitter – an experience that prompted her to light her own bed on fire. During a road trip across North America with a girlfriend, along with the friend’s brothers and stepfather, Ms. Mark, then 10, was sexually abused by the stepfather. That led to a police investigation but no charges.

Her turnaround began when she worked as an art interpreter for Haida artist Bill Reid at Vancouver International Airport, answering questions from travellers. Interested in being a police officer, she eventually earned a criminology degree from Douglas College, which launched a career that took her to the children and youth office.

“I hope the public doesn’t take the first two decades of my life as the defining piece. It’s a part of what shaped me. It’s a part of what gives me my empathy,” she said. “When people phone you and say, ‘This is what I am faced with,’ I can understand what they’re talking about.”

When Vancouver-Mount Pleasant’s Jenny Kwan ran for a seat in last year’s federal election, Ms. Mark decided to try to win the NDP nomination in the long-time New Democratic seat.

After eight years in the children and youth office, she says she was dismayed with provincial child-care policies. “I saw enough of inaction and status quo and stand-pat budgets and a lack of commitment,” she said. “The a-ha moment was, ‘I am not going to sit on the sidelines.’”

B.C. has previously elected two aboriginal men  to the legislature — Frank Calder and Larry Guno — while current New Democrat Carole James and former Liberal Marc Dalton are Metis.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Melanie Mark as the first aboriginal woman elected to the B.C. legislature. In fact, she is the first woman from a First Nation in the legislature. Carole James, who currently sits as a New Democrat, is Metis.

With files from The Canadian Press

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