Meet Vision Vancouver park board candidate Niki Sharma
2011 Vancouver Civic Election: At first glance, Vision Vancouver park board candidate Niki Sharma seems like a warm, mild-mannered young lawer working in a posh Gastown office. But her resume reads like that of a tireless crusader against social injustice.
Sharma has been working at Donovan and Company since 2005, taking on human rights cases, aboriginal rights and title issues, helping survivors of abuse at residential schools. She sits on the board of the Battered Women Support Services, and also spent time in Ecuador working with women's cooperatives, developing education programs and organic agriculture projects. Everywhere she goes -- Nunavut, Argentina, South Africa -- she seems to be knee-deep in a community or public health project.
“I really believe in public service,” said Sharma, sitting in her law office, surrounded by gorgeous Native sculptures and maps. "I think it comes from my parents and my roots, but I also lived in South Africa for awhile ... I learned how social change can happen through a group of committed individuals with a focus on justice.”
A volunteer with Vision Vancouver during last year's elections, Sharma's attraction to politics might just run in the family. Her mother is currently running for City Council in Sparwood, B.C., Sharma's tiny hometown with a population of just over 3,800.
“I told her, 'Mom, you actually could knock on every door in town!'” she joked, laughing. "And it's just impossible here, but it's the best way to meet voters and I've been doing a lot of that. If you're going to ask for [a person's] vote, you should really introduce yourself."
Working for the under-represented
Sharma was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, but grew up in Sparwood, near the Rocky Mountains.
“I had a really wonderful small-town upbringing,” she said, adding that she came to Vancouver because her sister lived here, and because she loved the city.
Sharma explained that her travels up north led to her long-term commitment to aboriginal issues. While she was going to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, she joined the Queens Project on International Development, and had a chance to travel for working with communities.
“I had the opportunity to go up north, so I was up in Nunavut for one summer -- I just met some really great people and was exposed to the issues,” she said, noting that she was lucky enough to meet many great aboriginal people over the course of her life.
After learning about the wide range of issues they struggled with, Sharma went on to specialize in aboriginal law.
“Fifty years ago, actually -- they (Aboriginal people) weren't even allowed to hire a lawyer,” she explains with a tone of disbelief.
“It's something I care about a lot because there's still a lot of issues that need to be resolved on the way that government treated First Nations people, all across Canada. Unfortunately a lot of the work is in the legal realm, whether it's criminal law or family law, rights and titles.”
Even though Sharma is herself neither Aboriginal nor a victim of abuse, she takes these issues seriously because she feels they are under represented in the public eye. She said she signed on to the Battered Women Support Services after being approached by the organization's executive director when giving a talk about female survivors of residential school abuse.
“I have no personal experiences, but a lot of women know someone who has been in an abusive relationship,” she said. “I'm very passionate about the issue of violence against women and how it affects people. It's a touch issue but so important and people need to pay more attention to it.”
Not an easy stereotype
Sharma may be a young woman of colour, but it's impossible to pin her to a particular community becasuse her cultural roots are just a small part of who she is.
“I wouldn't say there has been a lot of special media attention to me from South Asian media,” she said, reflecting on her past few weeeks of campaigning.
“I guess because I represent that community – my parents are from India ... it's hard to separate that from me, even though I grew up in Canada. I feel like I'm not unlike a lot of people who grew up in Canada but have ties to other countries.”
She laughs about her young age -- she's 32 -- saying that she's still quite a bit older than fellow Vision Vancouver park board candidate Trevor Loke.
“He's a decade younger than me!” she joked, bursting into laughter.
Sharma references the movie Miss Representation, saying that even today, women are still vastly under-represented in politics.
“When I read studies or articles about the lack of women in politics, it concerns me because as a woman, you bring different issues and viewpoints to the table,” she said. “For example, Constance Barnes really spearheaded the child care service for community centres. Before that, child care was not traditionally looked at as a park board issue.”
Sharma has also active been on the environmental front, with an environmental biology degree under her belt. As a student, she worked at community gardens in the Northwest Territories, testing sites for traces of arsenic that could be harmful to the population.
Making a long-term difference
Sharma said that when she first started working in politics, it wasn't a hard choice to choose Vision.
“I love that Vision Vancouver is focused on something that's long-term,” she said. “That's something that's usually missing from politics. The plan is something that looks at the city at the future and makes steps on how to reach goals and solve problems, whether it be homelessness or affordability ... I'm very proud to be part of the team that's putting that forward,” she said.
She said she's also optimistic about the party's work to include more aboriginal voices on the political level.
“For the first time, City Council passed this motion to set up an urban aboriginal advisory council,” she said. “One thing that I've found in my discussions with aboriginals is that a lot of the programming is really centralized. Urban aboriginals everywhere, even though stereotypically they're in the Downtown Eastside."
"But it all starts with listening, right? And asking more questions."
Affordability is one of the biggest concerns for Vancouver, according to Sharma. And it's one area where the park board can make a real difference.
“The park board has a big role to play because that's where people go to build community – the community centres, the beaches and parks. There needs to be a strong mandate to keep them affordable and accessible for everyone, especially today, when it's so expensive to live in Vancouver,” she said.
Sharma said she would like the park board to focus on keeping fees at community centres low to keep them accessible to people of all incomes. She also talked about maintaining the leisure access card to get discounts and free access to services.
“The leisure access card needs to be honoured across the board,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are certain centres that weren't honouring the card so that's something we're putting forward.”
Programs at community centres are important for many Vancouverites, she said:
"First Kids at Britannia Community Centre links refugee or new immigrant kids with somebody that's from Canada, and there's the Red Fox program for aboriginal and at-risk youth to engage kids in sports," she said. "Even if it's just families going on the weekend, these programs are really important."
She also talks about how voices in the transgender community about feeling safe in public safety, particularly in parks at night time. Sharma feels there are good examples of public spaces that feel safer for people due to the open design.
“For Grandview, there are site views that are built into the design of the project, so just by design it's a safer place. It's making sure that when you're walking through the park, you can clearly see in front of you and in the corners,” she said. “It's a passive thing you wouldn't even think about, but it's there.”
Sharma said she would like to work in the park board to distribute green spaces more evenly in Vancouver, bringing in more park space.
"The fact that these spaces public and inclusive to everyone is really important," she said, "and we're going to be working together to ensure that."