After Roopnarine Sharma, a Crown prosecutor in Guyana, refused to support the government in a time of political turmoil, he was in for a rude sacking.
“(He was) shocked to find another lawyer sitting at his desk in his office, and his things packed in boxes,” says his daughter, Mala Sharma-Singh. So, in the late ’60s, Sharma left for Toronto, where for the next half-century, the lawyer and humanitarian worked tirelessly to help marginalized immigrants.
“He fled Guyana because he feared for his life and the lives of his children under a corrupt government,” says Sharma-Singh. “In Canada, he helped hundreds of people from all over the world obtain refugee status, saving their lives and the lives of their families. He sympathized because he experienced political division and injustice in his own home country.”
Born in Sparta, Essequibo Coast, Guyana, Sharma came from humble beginnings. One of Ramachal and Phulmati Sharma’s four children, Sharma “was a dutiful child,” says Sharma-Singh, working after school to support his parents.
His accountant father was killed in a motor vehicle collision when Sharma was in his early 20s, and as the oldest son, he became the breadwinner of the family. He cancelled an arranged marriage – to have taken place the day after the accident – and got a job as a court clerk. For 15 years, he gave his paycheque to his mother.
Following a childhood dream of becoming a lawyer (“He was a firm believer in truth and justice and always strove to defend the innocent and underdog,” Sharma-Singh says), Sharma and his wife Dhani, whom he had met at a church picnic in 1957 in Guyana, moved to London, England in 1961. He graduated from Middle Temple Law School in 1964.
The family returned to Guyana, where Sharma began work as a Crown prosecutor in 1965. The country, then led by prime minister of British Guiana (later, Guyana) Forbes Burnham and his People’s National Congress, was in great turmoil.
“Roop was threatened to join the PNC (government) or lose his job,” his daughter says. “He had a religious radio show and the government told him to publicly support them on radio. When he refused, they took away his high-paying job.”
Fearing for his children’s lives, Sharma began the family’s immigration process to Canada, arriving in Toronto in 1967. Since his British law degree was not recognized in Canada, he did research for other lawyers out of a rented office at 942 Gerrard St. E.
After his wife and five children joined him in 1970, Sharma left his family once again to attend law school at the University of Windsor, while Dhani worked as the secretarial assistant to Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry. Upon his graduation in 1973, Sharma bought the building at 942 Gerrard and began practicing family law, criminal law and specializing in immigration law.
Over the next 50 years, Sharma “set many precedent cases for refugees from Guyana, Trinidad and India,” says Sharma-Singh. “One time, a ship arrived in Halifax with a boat with hundreds of Sikhs seeking refugee status. He represented many clients pro bono, as they had no funds. Many times, when I was with my father in public, he would be greeted by clients. They would have tears of gratitude in their eyes. They thanked him for improving their lives, as they now owned businesses and homes and their children are now settled in Canada as Canadian citizens.”
For his contributions, Sharma received lifetime achievement awards from the Canadian Legal Fraternity and the Canadian Association of South Asian Lawyers and was awarded a gold medal by the London Academy of Dramatic Arts for public speaking, a skill he mastered in Canadian courtrooms. “Many judges commended him on his written submissions but more so his verbal presentations in court,” says Sharma-Singh. “He’d find loopholes in the way the law was written and challenged them successfully in Superior Court, finding new legal precedents.”
Sharma also contributed financially to the poor and disadvantaged, says Sharma-Singh –through the Caribbean Children Foundation, and donated to clients for their children’s university education. “He always said an educated child could change an entire family’s life.”
A respected Hindu leader, he supported many cultural organizations: he was legal advisor for the Shromani Sikh Society; and in 1970, founded the Canada Hindu Organization (now the Gayatri Mandir), one of Toronto’s first Hindu temples as its lifetime president. The language and arts activities the organization supported, says Sharma-Singh, helped people to teach their children about the culture. “He supported many multicultural events and encouraged his congregation to attend other nationalities’ festivals.”
He was one of the first Guyanese to chart pilgrimages to India in the 1970s, returning home with hundreds of rudra malas (beaded necklaces), rosary beads and Shiva lingams (sacred stones) to distribute to the community, says Sharma-Singh. “He thought it was the utmost importance to preserve the language, religion and culture of India for future generations.” In his home, he had one floor dedicated to prayer and meditation and all – including strangers –were welcome without any formal invitation.
A lover of reading, travel and nature, the father of Prabha (born 1962), Mala (1964), Ishwar (1966), Astuti (1968) and Kamla (1970), and later a grandfather and great-grandfather, purchased a lakefront property in Orillia in 1988, which he called Shanti Kunj, Hindi for “peaceful place.”
“Dad loved to feed the trumpeter swans at Shanti Kunj, and on the day he passed away, over 100 swans came to the shores of Shanti Kunj to bid their farewell,” says Sharma-Singh. “I had never seen so many swans in all the years we were there.”
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