It was a short speech. Only one minute and 59 seconds.
But former Vancouver park board chair Niki Sharma captured the mood of many people gathered in the lobby of Surrey City Hall on Saturday (March 23) after receiving an antiracism award.
Sharma, a Vancouver lawyer, and Musqueam First Nation member Cecilia Point were each honoured by Spice Radio for their efforts to build bridges in the community and for their willingness to speak out against racism.
After thanking Spice Radio and her parents, Sharma began by saying she was proud to stand with people who want to get rid of the evils of racism and hate.
"What I say...to those who subscribe to terrorism and hate, we will work harder to build connection, peace, and love," Sharma said. "And to those who are organizing to spread racism, we will work harder to make a community that's founded in equity.
"And to those who uphold systems that support the supremacy of the few over the many, we will tear them down and remake them to lift us all," she declared. "And I know in my heart that we can't do this by looking away, by staying silent, and by just saying that we believe in equity without wanting to do the hard work of achieving it.
"I'm so proud to stand with all of you who will not turn away but who will face down racism and hate and say to it directly—not today and not on our watch."
Sharma didn't mention the municipal voting system that led to the election of a nearly all-white Vancouver city council in 2018.
But given her family history, it was hard not to conclude that this was one of those systems that she was referring to.
After all, she's been an outspoken proponent of facilitating broader representation on city council. The former Vision Vancouver politician hasn't received a lot of support on this front from those sitting in the chamber since they were elected in October.
This is despite the fact that not a single person of Chinese, Philippine, Indian, or Vietnamese ancestry was elected to Vancouver city council in 2018.
The only councillor of mixed heritage, Pete Fry, is the son of Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who was born in Trinidad. The nine others are white, as is the mayor.
After the last election, Sharma wrote a frank column on this website asking the newly elected mayor and council to establish a citywide plan for equity and inclusion with an intersectional lens.
That hasn't happened.
I'll include a portion of Sharma's column below:
Just after I lost in 2014, I was in a taxi and the driver recognized me. He was South Asian and told me not to give up—that one day it will change and again one of us will be elected in Vancouver. I heard the upset in his voice and understood that this pain is shared by entire communities that are left out of city hall.
It’s time for change Vancouver.
The weight of these barriers is not ours nor our communities to bear alone. It should rest on the shoulders of every Vancouver citizen. This is about who we are as a city and who we want to be. If we believe in equal opportunity—that every person should have a fair shot at those seats on council.
And, that our democracy should create a platform for people to be judged by their values, ideas, and commitment and not by the colour of their skin. If we believe all this, then we need to take concrete action.
In Surrey, Sharma began her speech by praising her parents, who immigrated from India to build a life in Sparwood in southeastern B.C.
"I have a mom who is relentless and determined and a father who is brave and resilient in the face of adversity," she said.
Her mother, Rose, was once nominated for a B.C. multiculturalism award. She ran three times for the municipal council in Sparwood but was never elected, notwithstanding her long record of community service.
Sharma was elected to the Vancouver park board in 2011, which was the last year her mom sought elected office.
Sharma was the first woman of Indian ancestry ever elected to the Vancouver park board, and only the third of South Asian ancestry in history to be elected to council or park board. She was the first person of South Asian ancestry who ran in a generation who didn't come last on her party's slate of candidates.
In 2014, she was defeated when she ran for council. She received the fewest votes of the eight council candidates on her slate. This reflected the voting pattern in Vancouver that had, with one exception, existed from 1990 to 2011 for candidates of South Asian ancestry in local government elections.
Two years later, Sharma was elected to a three-year term on the Vancity board of directors.
Mayor says now is not the time for reform
Vancouver's mayor, Kennedy Stewart, made electoral reform a cornerstone of his campaign in 2018.
He told the Straight last September that this was going to be the last election in Vancouver in which councillors would be elected "at-large"—meaning they would no longer have to run on a citywide basis against all other candidates.
As a candidate, Stewart also told the Straight that if city voters didn't support proportional representation in the provincial referendum on electoral reform, he would push for a ward system. And if he didn't receive the support of the provincial government, he said he would consider launching a court challenge.
Prior to the election, Stewart said on several occasions over the years, both as an academic and as a politician, that he supports electoral reform because the at-large system is racist.
And he's repeatedly noted in interviews and in academic papers that multi-member districts have been struck down in the U.S. courts as discriminatory.
"If you talk to concentrated visible-minority communities, they need more access to power," Stewart stated in September, before the election.
After the provincewide referendum on electoral reform was defeated, Stewart told reporters at Vancouver City Hall that he was "very disappointed".
"It does kind of take us back to the drawing board," he said in January.
The mayor acknowledged at that time that "not having our major ancestry groups really represented on council is problematic".
"I'm still puzzling through what to do," Stewart said, notwithstanding his clear pre-election promise to support a ward system if proportional representation was defeated.
The Straight asked in January if he had discussed this issue with the three Green members of council.
He replied "a little bit"—and this was about "how we move forward in a way that will help enhance democracy".
Since then, however, he's seemed far more preoccupied with developing a subway to UBC's Point Grey campus.
"What I also have to balance is that the public has told me loud and clear—and all of us—that housing is the top priority," Stewart said in January. "You know, as always, democratic reform is never super-high up on people's agenda.
"So it's balancing when folks are ready to have that discussion," the mayor continued. "And I don't think it's right now."
So far, there's no citywide plan for equity and inclusion with an intersectional lens, despite Sharma's recommendation for this.
It's worth noting that Stewart (along with other members of council) utters all the right words about racism and discrimination.
He immediately described the attacks on Christchurch mosques as Islamophobia.
He reacted quickly to Vancouver police harassment of Toronto journalist and antiracism advocate Desmond Cole, though Cole's recommendations have not been followed through in the form of motions to the Vancouver police board, which Stewart chairs.
Stewart understands why people of South Asian ancestry and other minority communities have been dealt out of electoral politics at the local level in Vancouver.
But the jury is still out as to whether he and members of Vancouver council are prepared to invest the political capital necessary to tear down systems that "support the supremacy of the few over the many".
As Sharma correctly noted, "we can't do this by looking away, by staying silent, and by just saying that we believe in equity without wanting to do the hard work of achieving that."
If Stewart turns out to be yet another local politician eager to support a ward system before an election but who stymies electoral reform after winning power, he could be in for a rude surprise in the future.
Especially if the articulate Sharma ever decides that she wants to run against him for mayor.