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Indigenous women in public life need support and 'dinosaur skin', says tribal council leader

President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Hupacasath First Nation was reacting to news that Melanie Mark, B.C.’s first First Nations cabinet minister, is resigning from her seat
Melanie Mark cited a "toxic" ” atmosphere in the B.C. legislature for her decision to resign. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

In the face of racism and hatred, Indigenous women in public life need “dinosaur skin,” says the president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Hupacasath First Nation.

Judith Sayers said Indigenous women have to surround themselves with supporters and advocates, since people can be cruel, especially in their criticism of politicians, many of whom enter politics in hopes of making things better.

Sayers was reacting to news last week that Melanie Mark, B.C.’s first female First Nations cabinet minister, is resigning from her Vancouver-Mount Pleasant seat by the end of March.

In an emotional speech Wednesday, Mark said the legislature at times felt like a torture chamber, and that the character assassination and unfair criticisms made for political points she endured during her seven-year term took a personal and professional toll.

Mark said after seven years and three elections since she took her seat in 2016 she remains the only First Nations woman to hold a seat in the chamber and to serve in cabinet.

“Take a moment and think about that,” said Mark. “They are allergic to doing things differently, particularly colonial institutions like this legislative assembly and government at large.”

Sayers said it’s not surprising that some politicians, particularly men, don’t recognize Mark’s experience as an Indigenous woman or understand the impact of “lateral violence” — a form of bullying including belittling gestures or comments.

“She could keep fighting and trying to do, you know, what she’s doing and trying to ignore those men, but obviously, after seven years, she’s had enough,” said Sayers.

Sayers, who holds law and business degrees, said women have to walk into public life “with their eyes wide open.”

“If you know it’s going to be a fight, then that’s good, and then you can think about what is your strategy,” said Sayers. “I tell young women that this isn’t going to be easy, but at the same time it’s opportunities that you can create for First Nations people. You can be a strong voice.”

Chi Nyugen, executive director for Equal Voice, a multi-partisan group that advocates for women and gender-diverse candidates at all levels of government, said conversations are needed about re-imagining parliaments, addressing workplace culture, “being able to kind of name some of the behaviours and practices, and then actually trying to figure out how we move away from that.”

In her resignation speech, Mark said criticism she received over an ultimately scrapped proposal to rebuild the Royal B.C. Museum, including from the Opposition and media, was unfair.

Nyugen said Mark’s call for less partisan behaviour is something that would be supported by many Canadians, who want a “more collaborative, more multi-partisan system, one that more recognizes commonality and being kinder to each other than the current systems.”

Nyugen said Mark’s address was “heartbreaking to hear” and should be reason enough to “stop and think about how those places hold power and how we change our relationship with them.”

Change doesn’t mean disrespecting our legislatures, she said, but “changing how they are operating so that they actually reflect what we need today, and that’s not easy work, but it has to happen across parties with a commitment from everyone.”

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called on Premier David Eby and the provincial government to investigate “the disgraceful and disgusting racist and sexist harassment” Mark faced in the B.C. legislature.

Eby said Friday he’s concerned about losing B.C.’s first female First Nations cabinet minister, and about her comments about her experience of being in the legislature.

“It is a concern to me that someone whose voice is so badly needed in our legislature, whose experience was so badly needed, and who was so transformative, felt that her experience in the legislature was torture,” Eby said at a news conference in Vancouver on Friday.

Eby said he wants to see more Indigenous women involved in politics. The job now, he said, “is to listen to her experience and to support her and other people to participate in our political system.”

Eby, who attended the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs annual general assembly Thursday, said the chiefs, particularly the women’s representative, expressed concern that the legislature has lost Mark’s voice.

He noted that Mark was raised in poverty and was the first member of her family to graduate from post-secondary education, and as a cabinet minister, helped waive college tuition for kids in care. “She transformed the legislative assembly by being there and she transformed our province in the years that she spent in the legislative assembly,” he said.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs performed a “blanketing and brushing off ceremony” for Mark on Thursday to bring “strength and protection to Melanie in light of her experiences.”

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