Niki Sharma knows that she has benefited enormously from her parents’ sacrifices. Rose and Pal Sharma immigrated from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s to build a new life in B.C.’s Elk Valley. Sharma’s mom raised four daughters in the small community of Sparwood; her dad worked at a local coal mine for several years.
“He was laid off when we were quite young,” Sharma tells Pancouver over Zoom. “He had that difficult transition to figure out what to do—with his four kids—but he ended up starting his own business.”
Sharma says that when children of immigrants enjoy success, it’s often a victory for the parents. And she will never forget her mom’s reaction upon learning that Premier David Eby had asked Sharma to serve as B.C.’s attorney general.
“I think she was screaming and crying,” Sharma recalls with a hearty laugh. “It was a really lovely moment.”
It’s been a remarkable rise for Sharma, who attended the University of Alberta law school before moving to Vancouver nearly two decades ago. She spent 12 years at the Donovan & Company law firm, often representing Indigenous clients. In 2011, she became the first woman of South Asian ancestry ever elected to the Vancouver park board.
Sharma is proud of that park board’s efforts—with the City of Vancouver—to improve relations with First Nations. In 2013, the city held its first Walk for Reconciliation. It attracted tens of thousands who walked across the viaducts.
“I think we started that journey,” Sharma says.
Gender equality and racial justice have always been close to Sharma’s heart. She spent nearly nine years on the board of Battered Women’s Support Services before becoming the senior ministerial assistant to then minister of state on childcare Katrina Chen in 2017.
Their work led to a dramatic increase in childcare spaces.
Sharma speaks out for human rights
In addition, Sharma has written eloquently on race relations. When federal Conservatives were considering banning public servants from wearing niqabs, Sharma penned a compelling commentary as a private citizen.
“Be conscious that we are in 2015 and male political leaders are debating what a woman has the right to wear in Canada,” she declared.
Then Sharma added this: “Be aware that this election campaign has turned a small group of minority women into political footballs. Be aware that, in our midst, a group of Canadian citizens are being dehumanized. History has shown us over and over again that this leads to oppression, hatred, and violence.”
She expressed similar sentiments after Donald Trump became U.S. president. She felt that consideration of Trump “should have ended at the racist chants at his rallies, at the policies of deportation and discrimination based on race and religion, [and] the endorsements from the KKK”.
For these and other efforts, Burnaby-based Spice Radio awarded Sharma with its annual anti-racism award in 2019, which she shared with Musqueam political activist Cecilia Point. A year later, Sharma won the NDP political nomination in Vancouver-Hastings and cruised to victory in the provincial election.
The premier at the time, John Horgan, appointed her to a new position: parliamentary secretary for community development and non-profits. She was well-suited for the job, having spent more than four years as a director of Vancity credit union and nearly three years on the board of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
As parliamentary secretary, she interacted with many arts organizations. Sharma remains impressed by their determination to carry on despite the burden imposed by the pandemic.
“They’re definitely a very tough bunch when it comes to what they believe,” she says. “They add so much.”
Advancing justice for Indigenous people
She’s no stranger to the arts. Over the past 40 years, her mother has organized countless events and served as head of the Sparwood Arts Council. In Sharma’s view, the most important thing about art is how it challenges one’s perspectives.
When asked if there’s anything about Niki Sharma that her colleagues might not be aware of, she responds with a laugh.
“There’s a video game called Just Dance that I’m very weirdly good at,” she reveals.
In reality, Sharma is very private. She has a nine-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.
As attorney general, Sharma is particularly passionate about her ministry’s Indigenous-justice initiatives. A key pillar are 15 Indigenous Justice Centres. According to Sharma, they will each include a team of people helping prepare Gladue reports, which outline unique systemic or background factors resulting in an Indigenous person coming in contact with the justice system. Under a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, judges must consider this.
The attorney general emphasizes that Indigenous people are playing a critical role in the colonial justice system’s “reckoning”.
“We’re really taking the lead from First Nations leaders from across the country on where they think we should go,” Sharma says.