A fighter for justice: Minister Melanie Mark’s path to politics
Carly Whetter, Foundation and Alumni Relations
In 2016, Minister Melanie Mark (Hli Haykwhl Ẃii Xsgaak) made headlines after winning a by-election in the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant riding, making her the first First Nations woman to serve in B.C.’s Legislative Assembly. Nearly six years later, she remains the only Indigenous woman to hold the title of MLA in British Columbia.
Since then, Minister Mark’s career has only grown. In 2017, she was re-elected as Vancouver-Mount Pleasant’s MLA and was also appointed as B.C.’s Minister for Advanced Education, Skills and Training. In 2020, she was appointed the Minister of Tourism, Art, Culture and Sport.
Minister Mark’s career is informed heavily by her own experience. She is a survivor of childhood abuse, both of her parents battled addictions, and her siblings were in the foster care system. Today, she is known widely for her passion for social, environmental and economic justice.
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A path to a career
Although Minister Mark has made a name for herself in politics, it wasn’t always her career goal. In fact, she wanted to become a police officer.
“As an Indigenous person, we often hear of the injustices to Indigenous people. Whether we’re talking about the missing women and girls across the country, the over-representation of children in care and jail or women as victims of assault,” says Minister Mark. “All of those pieces together inspired me to be a fighter for justice. Being a police officer would’ve allowed me to be a first responder who could protect people and that was inspiring to me at the time.”
To pursue this career, Minister Mark kicked off her educational journey with Douglas College and Native Education College’s joint Diploma in Criminology partnership. The Native Education College (NEC), which has supported Indigenous learners who have relocated to the Lower Mainland since 1967, has transfer agreements with many other institutions, allowing students to begin their education at NEC and complete it at other post-secondary institutions like Douglas.
“I attended classes the first year at the NEC campus in East Vancouver and was at Douglas for the second year,” explains Minister Mark, who completed her diploma in 1999. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so having the opportunity to attend two different colleges was helpful because it exposed me to different learning environments.”
Of her favourite instructors at Douglas was Dr. John Fleming, the current Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“Dr. Fleming taught a course called Sociological Explanations on Criminal Behaviour and I felt like he brought practical tools into the classroom. He really explored the dimensions of justice, which was very inspiring for me,” she says.
Minister Mark went on to pursue a major in political science and minor in sociology at SFU and an Advanced Executive Certificate from Queen’s School of Business.
Ultimately, Minister Mark decided policing wasn’t her path. Instead, she applied her personal experience and education to build a career fighting injustice and advocating for youth through working and volunteering with community organizations. As a volunteer, Minister Mark served on the board of the Urban Native Youth Association, and mentored and supported youth with Big Sisters and Youth Custody Centres.
In fact, she credits her volunteering as a key component of her success. “My education helped open doors and gave me a sense of confidence,” says Minister Mark, whose work today aims to provide marginalized youth with the same confidence. “But I got to where I am in my career because I volunteered with organizations that help young people. It’s that experience that helped build my understanding of governance and leadership.”
Minister Mark has also helped build organizations that address gaps in the community. In 2006, she co-founded the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre Society (VACPCS). It works to decrease the over-representation of Indigenous individuals in the criminal justice system through advocacy, education and victim assistance.
“When I was in school, there was a real movement for what was called proactive policing, where police were more present and visible so that people could see them as allies and community members. As an Indigenous person, I found this model fascinating as there isn’t the most positive track record between police and Indigenous communities,” she explains. “I helped found the VACPCS after an Indigenous man was left for dead in an alley in the Downtown Eastside. These are real stories and they’re real issues we need to fix.”
A rising tide lifts all canoes
Minister Mark strives to be part of the solution. With a personal understanding of how education can help make youth more resilient, equitable access is very near and dear to her heart.
“Education is an equalizer, but not everyone has the same access as everyone else. So, how do we level the playing field? We create opportunities,” she says.
Minister Mark’s work continues to make an impact on students at Douglas and across the province. In 2017, she helped introduce B.C.’s first Provincial Tuition Waiver Program (PTWP). It was designed to provide former youth from the foster care system with tuition-free post-secondary education. Today, Douglas College has the fifth-highest number of PTWP students in the province, of which 30% are Indigenous learners.
The PTWP program creates opportunities for students who may not have otherwise had access to post-secondary education. Minister Mark is excited about the doors these opportunities open.
“Education changed my quality of life. It helped break the cycle of poverty that I came from,” she says. “No one gave me a free ticket, I had to work hard like everyone else, but the conditions that I came from may not have been the same. That’s the thing about social justice. That’s the thing about equity. Give a person a seat at the table and who knows what they can do with their ability.”
When it comes to the next generation of learners, Minister Mark shared some words of encouragement as we persevere through the next phase of the pandemic: “First of all, I’m proud of you, you made it this far. Second, please don’t be too hard on yourself as we continue to navigate the changes due to COVID-19. Do your best and know you’re there for a reason. Stick to your goals and remember why you’re pursuing them – that’s going to help you cross the finish line.”
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