I had the opportunity to interview Melanie Mark, newly elected MLA for Vancouver/Mount Pleasant, a riding that was held by outgoing Jenny Kwan for the last 19 years. She graciously agreed to an interview, and we initially decided to meet at Our Town Cafe in the heart of her Mount Pleasant riding, but she suggested we walk across the street to the Kingsgate Mall, where we could find a quieter spot on one of the benches. As it turns out, the location was a place of fond memories.
Kingsgate Mall is in a predominantly working class, blue collar neighbourhood where Melanie Mark grew up. We found a good little bench in the middle of the mall, and she began introducing herself. Friendly and personable, Melanie shared with me that she knows almost every area in Mount Pleasant and that growing up she’d hang out with friends at the Kingsgate Mall to get a bite to eat or just sit and enjoy a cold pop. “I’ve moved at least 30 times in my life around Mount Pleasant and the east side. My mom still lives in the Downtown Eastside (DTES),” she said, “and I really just enjoy this area and being involved with the community.”
Melanie is a First Nations woman with Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, Ojibway, French, and Scottish background. Her grandmother is from the Nisga’a Territory, and her grandfather was raised from the Gitxsan territory. She is a 40-year-old single mother of two daughters, a 5-year-old and 12-year-old. Her educational background includes a criminology diploma with one-year at Native Education College and a one-year transfer program with Douglas College, in addition to a degree in political science and a minor in sociology from Simon Fraser University.
I asked Melanie about her motivation to enter politics, and she began by saying that she spent eight years representing children and youth and advocating for the most vulnerable families, children, and youth throughout British Columbia. “Quite frankly, I saw enough people hit dead ends and brick walls and suffering the system that is supposed to be there to help,” Melanie said. “I felt like an effective advocate who fought for children’s rights, but it felt like I was fighting one battle a time instead of making systemic change.”
She went on to say that 2016 was a big surprise for a lot of people when Libby Davies decided not to run federally and Jenny Kwan ran and won for Vancouver East. That left Kwan’s seat available for the first time in 19 years. “Jenny and Libby held their spots for so long, so I thought I would run in 2017. That would give me a couple of years to learn the ropes, network, meet people, and build up a base, but everything moved so quickly. I had to decide just like that to put my name in the hat and run last April.”
Melanie then began the hard work of fundraising for her campaign because, in her words “campaigning is not cheap: paying for buttons, staff, campaign offices.” She then started connecting with the people by going up and down the hill of Mount Pleasant, saying that it was and still is “fantastic.”
I asked her to share her thoughts on the night of her election victory with a commanding NDP stronghold of 5,353 votes (61%); trailing distantly was Green Party candidate Pete Fry with 2,325 votes (26%). “I have to tell you, I was in a backroom at the Heritage Hall with my grandmother’s button blanket, and I was told to stay in that room because the guests and band were arriving. As I waited, I looked at my cell phone and saw on my Twitter that I had won! So it was Twitter that told me that I had won, and of course I began to cry.”
Melanie continued, “Regardless what people say that this is a solid riding and Jenny was there for 19 years, I’m the new kid on the block. No one knew who I was. I had to work as hard as I possibly could and get people’s confidence. It was an incredible emotional day considering where I came from, and to achieve something like this is beyond my wildest dreams.”
I asked to her to describe why her campaign was successful, being a first time political candidate. “I’m not a stubborn person, but I know my own style, and I knew I was going to do things my way,” she explained. “My way is to go into the community, and I love connecting with people, and this is the best part of the campaign. The challenge of the campaign is that you’re basically being panelled everyday and every minute by the people you’re meeting with. You have to do a lot of homework, and you’re always studying in a way, and learning about new unions, business owners, environmental policy, so it’s an incredibly tense process, but at the same time an exhilarating process.”
Melanie says, “If you can meet people and change their minds, that’s incredible. If you meet people and they say, ‘I’ve never voted in my life, but I’m going to vote for you,’ that’s also incredible.” She continued with a story. “I met a man in his 90’s who served in the war, and he said. ‘No no, I’m not interested. So I said, ‘Ahh, you know that’s fine, with all due respect, I respect your opinion.’” Not long after speaking to this gentleman, she saw him again. Melanie explained that she guessed he read her bio. “He came down to the lobby and told me, ‘I’m going to vote for you. We’ve treated the Indigenous people of this country horribly, and the fact that you’re standing here proud, a single mother working so hard, I’ll vote for you.’ So you can imagine how impactful that is when a person in their 90’s, who is not Native and has never voted in his life… that’s powerful.”
Melanie also grew up partly in foster care, so to be able to share her experiences with with children and youth in foster care is quite remarkable. Some youth she once advocated for in foster care approached her and asked to work on her campaign. “They would tell people, ‘I know Melanie Mark will fight for you, cause she fought for me when I was kid in care.’ Imagine a 19-year-old kid out of foster care campaigning for you—that is an amazing and empowering experience.”
Melanie Mark says she will focus on three key areas housing affordability, child care, and economic sustainability. “We’re in a housing crisis, there are children impacted by welfare in the DTES and the child care crisis, and the third issue is the green economy—those are the three issues that came out in the campaign.”
Over the next few months, Melanie plans to get accustomed to her role in the legislature and familiarize herself with its structure, and she anticipates going in and making strong statement in the legislature on behalf of Mount Pleasant. She says, “The more connected I’m with my constituency, the better the people of Mount Pleasant are being heard.”
Melanie also touched on other issues, including Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman. “We know a lot of Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable in the DTES, and those women are not usually from Vancouver; they’re from throughout the province and country. One murdered person is enough,” she said. “We waited for twelve hundred, and the grassroots people had to push for an inquiry—we need to keep pushing the envelope.”
She also expressed her view on housing affordability, “There are over 1000 people homeless in Vancouver, and a large part are Aboriginal. The streets are where people are being subjected to extreme violence, and most are woman. This doesn’t mean men are not affected, and the youth going out of foster care to single room housing or even on the streets; they have nowhere else to live.”
Melanie Mark believes it’s a new era in Canada with Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government. “I think the people spoke loud and clear: anything but the conservatives. People had enough with the dictatorship we lived in under the conservatives. He (the prime minister) has a huge mandate, and the fact that the Murdered and Indigenous Woman Inquiry is going forward, to move any process in government, and the fact that it is moving, there’s a real sense of change and optimism,” she noted, “but it’s early.”
Almost immediately after ending her sentence, a passer-by came up to her to congratulate her, then another, and another. Soon Melanie was surrounded by well wishers talking about their hopes for the new MLA. I can see why she was elected in the BC Legislature. She is approachable, and the NDP’s are definitely fortunate to have her on their side.