First Nations MLA Melanie Mark steps up at a time of 'complex' aboriginal relations

NDP MLA Melanie Mark has made history by being the first First Nations woman elected to the B.C. legislature at a 'complex' time in government's relationship with aboriginal people.

B.C. government making inroads on some fronts with First Nations, but still battling in the courts

Melanie Mark, MLA elect for Vancouver-Mt Pleasant, speaks with media after becoming the first First Nations woman to serve in the legislature. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

It was a step that no other First Nations woman has ever taken.

This week Melanie Mark walked onto the red carpet of the B.C. Legislature to take her seat as an elected representative complete with ceremonial dress and music, and not without a few tears.

The new NDP MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant says she already feels loaded with great expectations.

"I am feeling like this is a very powerful step forward for justice in our history. There is a lot strength behind me," Mark said. "It's really a testament to where British Columbians want to go and that is really about reconciliation."

But it's clearly going to be a lonely and difficult road. Just a handful of government MLAs bothered showing up to her swearing in ceremony even while the entire NDP caucus watched.

It was a strange message from a government that seems keen to build better relationships with British Columbia's First Nation leaders.

Melanie Mark is escorted in by B.C. NDP leader, John Horgan, during a swearing in ceremony at the legislature as members of the Nisga' a First Nations play their drums. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

'Complex' relationship

University of North British Columbia First Nations historian Ted Binnema describes the relationship between First Nations and the province as 'complex'.

He says the size of the aboriginal population in the province is growing faster than non-aboriginal and that the Christy Clark government has been attempting some sort of reconciliation for the way generations of First Nations people have been treated in the province.

"There are signs of positive developments in the relationship between aboriginal British Columbians and non-aboriginal British Columbians," says Binnema. "I get a sense that many British Columbians understand the need for reconciliation."

The majority of that success has been in the progress on land claims. But Binnema says the government's attempts to develop resources in the coastal and northern parts of the province have put a strain on relationships.

"The government has not been particularly good understanding what meaningful consultation means in resource development," Binnema says. "But it has sent some positive signals more recently. It is a learning curve certainly."

Premier Christy Clark, right, greets Chief Michael LeBourdais, of the Whispering Pines-Clinton Indian Band in the Shuswap First Nation near Kamloops, B.C., after addressing a gathering of First Nations leaders and B.C. cabinet ministers in Vancouver. (Darryl Dick/The Canadian Press)

First Nations split on relations with government

Clark has been successful in bringing First Nation leaders to larger gatherings twice, with a third meeting set for next week. Among that group Clark has her supporters and she has adversaries.

The Grand Chief of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs Stewart Phillip has never shied away from his disdain for the current government

"Absolutely dismal, at the lowest end imaginable. This government does not have any credible aboriginal policies," says Phillip, when describing how he thinks Clark's government is doing with his community.

"There is an enormous growing tension within our communities and more and more First Nations communities are filing lawsuits against the government as a consequence of failed policies."

Phillip also points at resource development as a government failing. Many of those court proceedings include injunctions brought by First Nations seeking to stop development on their land.

Both the Pacific Northwest LNG plant and Site C are being fought through the legal system. The federal government itself has initiated some changes, including the National Energy Board review process, that would see more First Nations consultation.

"To a certain extent the Trudeau government's initiatives have overshadowed the provincial government. The day is very early for this [Trudeau] government. It has yet to run into some of these obstacles and challenges," Binnema says.

"The current (Liberal) government of B.C. has a long record either positive or negative. The Trudeau government does not have the burden of a long record."

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, right, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark listen during the first ever gathering with cabinet ministers and First Nations leaders in Vancouver, on September 11, 2014. (Darryl Dick/The Canadian Press)

An emerging influence

Mark knows that as one voice in opposition she has very little power to make policy changes. But Phillip says there is hope her arrival will symbolize long-term change.

"We are absolutely cognizant that Melanie Mark represents the emerging face of women assuming leadership roles in government," says Philip.

"I don't think the question is how well will she do in opposition. The question is, what role will she play when the NDP wins the next election."

That may be less of a prediction and more the opinion of a chief who has already made up his mind. But whatever the long-term impact Mark might have on the province, certainly she has changed something by just walking into the legislature.