Ankit Sharma isn't your typical construction guy. "I'm the opposite of handy. I don't remember the last time I changed a...
"…every accomplishment is worth celebrating."
When Colleen Nimchuk first walked the halls of Kwantlen, she was a single mom with a Grade 9 education, newly aware of her Métis heritage.
Today she’s a champion of Indigenous legal rights, advocating for Indigenous People as the Indigenous Justice Strategy Executive Director with the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General. In this new position operating out of the Justice Services Branch, Colleen’s work is cut out for her. She is responsible for the B.C. Indigenous Justice Strategy, which will focus on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, decreasing the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the justice system, addressing violence against Indigenous peoples – especially women and girls – improving access to justice and justice services for Indigenous peoples, and designing services for Indigenous peoples that are culturally relevant and appropriate.
It’s been a long climb for Colleen – from obtaining her Adult Basic Education (ABE) at what was then Kwantlen University College to becoming a lawyer and working within the highest echelons of the province’s justice system appearing at both the provincial and Supreme Court levels in British Columbia. But her motivation remains the same – a better future for Indigenous children, families and communities.
“I was 23 and a single mother with a Grade 9 education who wanted to do something to enhance my career options so I could have a stable income and a good life for myself and my daughter,” says Colleen. “I’ve always had a strong passion to advocate for people without a voice. Once I realized I was a single mother with limited options, I knew that I was someone I needed to advocate for.”
Colleen looked at Kwantlen for upgrading. It was an adjustment to go back to thinking like a student, but she had help. April Wright, who worked in the Admissions department, was a constant for the young mom, always there to answer questions Colleen hadn’t even thought to ask.
“Every day I was at Kwantlen, April was always there,” says Colleen. “It was April who asked me if I had looked into a student loan to further my education, and April who directed me to the right people. I had never had that much support before.”
Colleen had a difficult upbringing. Her parents were divorced and she had no extended family support. Her older sister left their home at 16 and Colleen ran away at 14. She spent three weeks hitchhiking across Canada and through Washington State before police picked her up. She was returned home to her birthplace, in Calgary, Alta., but left again at 15, this time for good, and supported herself working three jobs, until age 21 when she moved to Vancouver.
“I grew up in a very dysfunctional family with parents who divorced when I was around 11 years old. During the volatile separation and subsequent divorce, our parents placed us children in the centre of their disputes, expecting us to choose sides. That process was grueling on me and my sister and deprived us of opportunities,” says Colleen.
She also grew up unaware of her Métis ancestry. Raised in Calgary, Colleen recalls her mom speaking a few Cree words and the family eating traditional Métis food, but at the time it was just part of her life and she didn’t question it. It was only later as an adult that she had the context to recognize the Indigenous elements of her life, which were later confirmed through a genealogy test.
When she became a mom herself, Colleen didn’t have relatives to help her raise her daughter, but she did have help from her community. Colleen and her daughter lived in the Newton neighborhood of Surrey, home to the Kwantlen Polytechnic University Surrey campus. Upon hearing that Colleen was considering upgrading, her neighbours – the Takher family – offered to watch her daughter while she took night classes.
“The Takher family had three children of their own who hung out with my daughter all the time,” says Colleen. “My daughter became part of their family as well. Everybody chipped in.”
With the help of the Takher family, April Wright, and other Kwantlen staff and faculty, Colleen finished her ABE and went on to complete her Associate of Arts degree at Kwantlen, majoring in Psychology and graduating with distinction, and as the President’s Outstanding Graduate in her graduating year.
Three instructors that stand out for Colleen all these years later are psychology instructors Farhad Dastur and Steve Charlton, and English instructor Mary Griffin.
“Those three instructors were not just educators, they were really there for you; interested in supporting you. I didn’t have family. I didn’t have people cheering me on. They stuck out because they talked to me about everything. They were great encouragers and motivators,” says Colleen. “I visit campus every time I’m in town, as I now reside in Victoria, B.C., and the last time I was there, I attempted to contact all three. I couldn’t locate anyone, but Farhad heard I was looking for him [he was off-campus] and called me, and we had a 20-minute conversation.”
During her time at Kwantlen, Colleen was the Aboriginal student representative for the Kwantlen Student Association working under Darlene Willier, who was a great Indigenous mentor. Colleen benefitted from forming friendships with fellow student parents that have lasted decades and continue to this day.
The Kwantlen memory that stands out most for Colleen is the graduation ceremony for her ABE program, where she would have received her Grade 12 Dogwood Diploma. Colleen was told she could be part of the ceremony, but after signing up and realizing the event was the formal Convocation ceremony where all of the undergraduate students are presented with their degrees, she decided not to attend.
“I felt literally embarrassed to cross the stage with everyone who was getting their important diplomas so I stayed home,” admits Colleen. “A couple of hours before grad I felt poorly about the decision. I think I was crying and my then three-year-old daughter noticed how upset I was and asked why. I told her, ‘Mommy is really upset because I’m missing a special moment tonight; everyone is celebrating their achievements.’ She asked why I didn’t go and I told her I felt embarrassed about my accomplishment. She very innocently responded that I shouldn’t be embarrassed to receive something I had earned. She just made the issue really simple and childlike, and I thought what kind of adult role model am I if I don’t demonstrate that every accomplishment is worth celebrating?”
Colleen and her daughter jumped in the car and rushed over to the ceremony. They just missed it. However, some of the staff finishing up noticed Colleen; they dressed her in a gown, had her cross the stage and took photos of her and her daughter. Colleen still has those photos and is extremely proud of that first step she took to improve her life and that of her daughter.
It was her education at Kwantlen and the support of her community that changed Colleen’s path and enabled her to continue her post-secondary journey and pursue her passion for advocacy to law school. After passing the bar, Colleen specialized in family law, child protection law and mediation for predominantly Indigenous families and started her own law firm Spier & Company Law in 2010 under her married name.
Since then she has served on the board for the Island Métis Family & Community Services Society in Victoria, as both a Director and as President of the Board of Directors, and since 2012, as the Executive Director for the agency. Colleen was also formerly the Vancouver Island Representative of the Canadian Bar Association’s Aboriginal Lawyer’s Forum, and served two consecutive three-year terms on the British Columbia College of Social Workers Board, through ministerial appointment.
In 2005, Colleen married her husband, who is a member of the Lake St. Martin Band in Manitoba. They welcomed a son in 2006. Both of Colleen’s children are registered as First Nations through her husband’s band and identify as Indigenous: both Ojibwe and Métis.
“We try to bring them up aware of the richness of both cultures,” says Colleen. “That’s what inspires me all the time — my daughter and my son, and all the Indigenous children who need a voice. As adults, we need to ensure we work to make the world better for the little people.”
Second-best KPU moment: Being chosen as the President’s Outstanding Graduate! Love KPU! And greatly appreciate my accomplishments being recognized.
Are you still in touch with anyone from Kwantlen? The two other moms that I started friendships with back in the day at Kwantlen, we’re still best of friends. They continued on with their Bachelor of Education degrees and are both working as teachers at the elementary level. I just visited one the other day at her school and the highlight: I got to see behind the scenes what goes on in the teacher lounge. Those are friendships that started at the Kwantlen campus in Surrey, and it remains a place I drop in to say hello whenever I’m in town.
Why study psychology? I took psychology because of interest, I am intrigued by the workings of the mind. And the more I learned the more interested I became. It’s been extremely helpful in my work. In the legal world and in family and child protection law in particular, you’re dealing with people with trauma who have all sorts of issues that need to be identified in order to do no harm when working with them. Having that psychology lens gave me a way of relating to people; it helped me to understand that people need to process trauma and the different ways they do that in order to move forward in a positive and healthy way.