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B.C.'s first female First Nations cabinet minister steps down

Melanie Mark says at times the legislature has “felt like a torture chamber.”

B.C.’s first female First Nations cabinet minister announced her resignation Wednesday as NDP MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, saying the B.C. Legislative Assembly has at times “felt like a torture chamber.”

Two-time cabinet minister Melanie Mark, who called herself by her Nisga’a name Hli Haykwhl Ẃii X̱sgaak, addressed the house in an emotional farewell while holding an eagle feather and wearing her grandfather’s beaded buckskin coat.

Elected in 2016, she served as minister for tourism, arts, culture and sport before resigning her cabinet portfolio in the fall to go on medical leave.

Prior to that, she had backed a controversial proposal to replace the Royal B.C. Museum that was later reversed by then-premier John Horgan after a public backlash that Mark said cast a shadow over her achievements.

Mark said her decision to leave was not taken lightly, and insisted she is not quitting.

“If anything, I’m standing up for myself for the first time in my life,” she said. “I’m exercising my self-determination as a single mother to put myself and my daughters first.”

In her address, Mark explained how her father died in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and how her mother, who was homeless and also struggled with alcoholism, became sober on Mark’s 30th birthday.

She said she attended several high schools and was the first in her family to graduate from secondary school and to receive a post-secondary education.

She called her mother, who was in the public gallery, her ­biggest fan.

Prior to her time as tourism minister, Mark served as minister of advanced education, skills and training. She said her proudest moment in that role was when she helped push government policy that waived tuition fees for youth in care, “so young kids like me could have a chance.”

“I wanted to disrupt the status quo,” said Mark. “I wanted big system change. In many ways, I have done what I came here to do, but 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.”

Mark said her time in office has taken a significant personal toll.

“This place felt like a torture chamber. I will not miss the character assassination. The fact is the political environment is cut-throat and dysfunctional.”

Mark described her daughters as “the sunshine of my life,” saying she’s determined to show them that people can rise above challenges and learn from and overcome the traumas they have experienced.

Following her address, both sides of the legislative assembly rose to a standing ovation.

Premier David Eby said Mark’s character is unimpeachable and every memory he has of working with her is a treasured one. “I am so grateful to have been her colleague.”

Eby later told reporters that Mark’s experience should serve as a challenge to everyone in the building “to do better … because her voice is needed here.”

Opposition house leader Todd Stone said Mark always brought passion to her work for her community and the people she represented. “That’s evident to all of us.”

Stone thanked her for sharing the more intimate facets of her life. “Our thoughts go out to her family and I want the member to know on behalf of the Official Opposition that we support you,” said Stone.

“We thank you for the important work that you did. We thank you for your service to this chamber in this province and we certainly wish you all of the best.”

Green Party house leader Adam Oslen, MLA for Saanich North and the Islands and a member of Tsartlip First Nation in Brentwood Bay, said he was disappointed to have “one less paddler in our canoe.”

“I’m sad that the space that’s created is from someone who has a voice that is so deeply necessary in this house.”

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, in a media briefing on Wednesday, said too many women are prematurely leaving work they love, particularly women in high office, which, she said, sends a worrying signal to young women.

“We see women stepping away from their roles, especially women who have held high positions, ministers, prime ministers,” said Furstenau.

“We need that diversity of representation. And I think we need to really ask ourselves: how do we improve things for women?”

Mark said she will step down at the end of March. Byelections must be held within six months of an official retirement date.

While she was the first First Nations woman to sit in the B.C. legislature, Mark said she will do her “level best” to ensure she isn’t the last.

“For now my canoe is headed in a different direction,” she said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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