By the age of five, Vancouver’s newest MLA, Melanie Mark, had lived a life of hardships most people could only imagine.
Her father had deserted her family. Her mother, an alcoholic, beat her for wetting the sheets. A babysitter from an upstairs suite had begun sexually abusing her. Distraught, Mark stole a lighter and set fire to her childhood bed, forcing her family to move from the basement suite in east Vancouver.
“I knew that if I didn’t do something, that this predator would have had access to me every day, he lived upstairs,” she said. “So my instincts have always been very strong. I’ve always had a strong sense of fight or flight.”
It has been a long and difficult road for Mark, from a revolving door of social housing in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhoods to a career helping protect exploited children. On Tuesday, she won a seat in the legislature as the new NDP MLA for the riding of Vancouver-Mount Pleasant.
Mark has made history as B.C.’s first female aboriginal MLA. It’s a significant accomplishment for someone who grew up at first ashamed of her Nisga’a and Gitxsan heritage, and later inspired by its mythology. Now she’s a role model for aboriginal children and survivors of child abuse.
“It’s really telling people that if you shoot for the stars, you can reach them,” she said in an interview.
Mark, 40, in part credits her “straight-up honest” account of her childhood for attracting supporters.
It was not an easy life.
Her mother battled alcoholism and drug abuse for much of her upbringing and the family, including five siblings, moved often.
At 10, Mark left with a friend and her friend’s family for what she thought was a trip across Canada that would culminate with a visit to Disneyland.
“Considering the fact I was a native girl from the projects, this was a golden opportunity,” Mark wrote in a 2001 account of her life in Canadian Woman Studies.
“By the time we reached the Maritimes, (her friend’s) stepfather began touching and fondling my body and subsequently had intercourse with me.”
He raped her repeatedly for most of the trip, she wrote.
Vancouver police investigated, but Crown did not proceed with charges. Mark said she was told prosecutors weren’t sure they could get a conviction. Being let down by the justice system would eventually spur her toward a career involving child protection.
Mark’s brother Wayne died in a bicycle accident when she was 12. She started high school, but vented her anger through fighting with other kids. Her self esteem plummeted.
Mark left home at 16, just before the Ministry of Children and Families apprehended her brothers and sister. At 19, she said she reached a “live or die” moment in her life.
“What was going through my mind was, ‘Am I ever going to get a break?’” she said Wednesday.
“It was one experience of trauma after another. My brother dies, my mom is a heroin addict, my dad’s an addict, my family is separated, I’m dealing with the ministry, everything just feels like defeat.
“‘Is my life worth living?’ is the question I’m asking myself. You have this defining moment where you say I can’t change the past, I can’t change the hand I was dealt, but what am I going to do going forward?”
She barely graduated high school, but things turned around with a job at Vancouver International Airport, talking to tourists about the work of Haida artist Bill Reid. There, she became inspired by native mythology and spirituality.
That led to a criminology diploma at Douglas College, work with native counselling groups and research into sexually exploited aboriginal children. She rose to become deputy representative at B.C.’s Office of the Representative for Children and Youth, where she said she used her “warrior spirit” to protect vulnerable kids.
“She’s a shining star example of what resilience means, which is never choosing to be a passive victim even though she had ample cause to step back and say ‘I give up,’” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s children’s representative, who hired Mark.
In 2008, Mark reunited with her family. She reconciled with her mother Yvonne, who quit drugs and alcohol, and adopted her younger brother from foster care.
Her father died of a heroin overdose when she was 22.
Mark said she is proud her two daughters, Makayla, 5, and Maya, 12, will grow up with inspiration from her soon-to-be colleagues at the legislature. She continues to tell her story of childhood abuse because it’s more empowering to speak up than be silent, she said.
Fifteen years ago, Mark ran into her rapist at a Safeway on Commercial Drive.
“I came face to face with my abuser. The liberating piece of that moment is to say, ‘You didn’t break me. I’m still standing and that’s it, I’m done with you,’” she said.
“Sometimes that’s the best justice you can ever have … and today he gets to watch the news. That’s how you get people back.”
via the Vancouver Sun