VICTORIA — A former New Democrat cabinet minister who gave what was likely her last speech in the legislature Wednesday, said she was proud of her accomplishments despite working in an institution she called a "torture chamber."
Melanie Mark held an eagle feather and wore her grandfather's beaded, buckskin jacket as she looked back on a political career but forward to her life ahead.
Mark, the first First Nations woman elected to B.C.'s legislature and the first to serve in a cabinet, wiped away tears as she described her battles to be a change-making champion in a "colonial institution."
"There's a lot that I'm proud of, but this journey has been challenging and has come at a significant personal toll," she said. "The place felt like a torture chamber. I will not miss the character assassination. The fact is the political environment is cutthroat and dysfunctional."
She said she entered politics to stand up for society's underdogs and speak up for the voiceless and those who don't vote.
"People need to know their lives matter," Mark said. "We need to be less partisan and have the guts to do the right things."
But she said she often ran headlong into bureaucracy that was resistant to change, especially when those bureaucrats encountered a person with an Indigenous perspective.
"It's also a fact institutions fundamentally resist change," Mark said. "They are allergic to doing things differently, particularly institutions like the legislative assembly and government at large."
Mark, 47, said she is the first person in her family to graduate from high school and the first to receive a post-secondary education. She estimated she moved more than 30 times in her life and at some points lived in "abject poverty."
Premier David Eby said Mark brought her life experience to the legislature and made sure it was part of her work on behalf of the people of B.C.
"She changed this place," he said. "She changed this province."
Opposition Liberal house leader Todd Stone said Mark is a trailblazer who has paved the way for more Indigenous people at the legislature.
"She is someone who always brought that passion to the work she does," he said.
Green house leader Adam Olsen, who is Indigenous, said Mark made the legislature a more welcoming place for all people.
"Today, I'm sad we have one less paddle in our community," he said.
The Vancouver-Mount Pleasant member of the legislature recently returned from a six-month medical leave, and said she expects her last day to be the end of March.
She said she wasn't quitting but is standing up for herself and putting herself and her two daughters first.
Mark, who said she has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, described herself as a "Ferrari with bicycle brakes."
She resigned her tourism, arts, culture and sports cabinet portfolio last September and took a leave, citing health reasons.
"I have no regrets," Mark said. "I have made mistakes, but I can't turn back time. In many ways I have done what I came here to change."
Mark said her proudest moment in the legislature came as advanced education minister when she helped drive government policy that waived tuition fees for youth in care, "so young kids like me could have a chance."
First elected in 2016, Mark said her work in the legislature helped create the first Indigenous law school in the world at the University of Victoria and introduce Indigenous language courses at B.C. universities.
Former premier John Horgan announced earlier this month he is speeding up his retirement by choosing to leave his Langford-Juan de Fuca seat next month rather than his previous plan of staying until the fall 2024 election.
No byelections have been called in either Horgan's Victoria-area riding or Mark's Vancouver-Mount Pleasant riding.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2023.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press