Melanie Mark has become the first indigenous woman to be elected to the B.C. legislature after she cruised to victory Tuesday night as the NDP candidate for the riding of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant.
In a byelection race that wasn’t even close, the 40-year-old Mark, whose aboriginal heritage is a mix of Cree, Gitxsan, Nisga’a and Ojibway, collected 5,353 votes to win 61 per cent of the popular vote. Green Party candidate Pete Fry finished with 2,325 votes, or 26 per cent of the vote. Gavin Dew of the Liberals could only pull 11 per cent of the vote for 994 votes.
“I’m so proud to be here, it’s the most exhilarating journey that I’ve ever been on,” Mark said through tears to a packed room at the Heritage Hall on Main Street, where she was welcomed to the stage by a steady beat of drums played by supporters.
While Mark’s win strengthened the NDP’s hold on a riding the party has represented for more than 80 years, the celebration Tuesday was clearly about the history Mark made in becoming the first First Nations’ woman to win a seat in the legislature.
Not, perhaps, since 1949 when Frank Calder of the Nisga’a Nation was elected as the first indigenous person in Canada to a legislature – it also happened to be in B.C. – has there been such excitement in the aboriginal community about a new voice in Victoria.
The hall was filled with dozens of aboriginal people, many of whom bursting with pride and admiration for what the single mother of two young children achieved for herself and the community.
“It’s huge because the riding has the largest number of indigenous people in the province,” said Scott Clark, executive director of Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement, or ALIVE, an organization that works to support vulnerable children and families. “I’m very excited, very proud. Her background is rock solid. We need a strong voice in Victoria to support our children and families, so that’s why I’m here tonight.”
Mark made her heritage a central part of her campaign, elaborating on her family’s history in interviews, newspaper editorials and campaign videos. She used the narrative to show what she overcame as a child growing up in social housing “projects” on the East Side, where she was exposed to domestic violence and related substance abuse by her parents.
When she was 23, Mark lost her father to a drug overdose in the Downtown Eastside. Her mother, Yvonne, also battled addictions but is 10 years sober and played a part in the campaign.Those early days, Mark has said, is what made her a fighter, a drive that got her a political science degree from Simon Fraser University and, most recently, work as associate deputy to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth.
Throughout her campaign, Mark stressed the need for more measures to protect vulnerable children and adults. She called on the ruling Liberals to implement a plan to reduce poverty, develop an affordable housing strategy and put a halt to rising costs to medical services plan premiums and ICBC and B.C. Hydro rates.
Fry, who ran a solid campaign but finished second, said he was proud of improving the Greens’ vote share in the riding. But, he said, it was difficult to beat “a big machine” such as the NDP.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed tonight,” Fry told the Courier on a sidewalk outside his campaign office at Main and Keefer. “But I think we showed that there is room for the Green party and there’s room to grow.”
Tuesday’s byelection was necessary to fill the seat left vacant by former NDP MLA Jenny Kwan, who resigned to run successfully in last fall’s federal election for the vacant MP’s seat in Vancouver-East.
The other byelection Tuesday in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain also saw the NDP claim victory. Jodie Wickens secured 46 per cent of the vote to closest challenger, Liberal Joan Isaacs, who finished with 38 per cent of the vote.
The NDP now has 35 seats in the 85-seat legislature.