David Sharpe, Law’95, remembers what gave him his first push into the field of law. As a young man, he was playing high-level hockey and had yet to complete an undergraduate degree.
“I knew that pro hockey was something I did not want to seriously pursue and I was anxious to go to school, but I didn’t really know what to do with myself,” says Mr. Sharpe. “I was talking to hockey agent and Queen’s graduate Pat Morris at the time and he looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer.’”
Mr. Sharpe remembers being a bit stunned. It never occurred to him that he could be a lawyer. “Pat told me I was smart enough, that I could do it.”
That conversation with Pat Morris, Law’85, changed the course of his life. Mr. Sharpe, whose father is from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Deseronto, Ont., says neither of his parents finished high school. Mr. Sharpe's family moved to Toronto to find work, and growing up, he spent time in the summer in the Tyendinaga area with his grandparents and the rest of his time in Toronto.
“I am very close with my grandmother, and as a child, I especially cherished her service to others and her kindness – she was very wise,” he says. “But it was a complex relationship, too. Her generation was made to feel ashamed for being Indian, and I felt plagued with that in some ways, shame in being myself.”
Mr. Morris’ encouragement gave Mr. Sharpe the nudge he needed. He went on to complete a BA at the University of Guelph, assisting with coaching varsity hockey along the way. A few years later, he was thrilled when he received his acceptance to Queen’s Law, because of its reputation but also because he wanted to be close to Tyendinaga, to his grandmother.
Now – after adding an LLM in securities law from Osgoode Hall Law School and an MBA from Richard Ivey School of Business, along with two decades of experience in the Canadian financial services industry – he runs, alongside his wife, CEO Natasha Sharpe, a company called Bridging Finance. The firm provides small- and medium-sized North American companies with alternative financing options and is one of the only bridge lenders in Canada to First Nations and Inuit for infrastructure projects.
“We saw the need for these loans for Aboriginal communities. Because we can be quick and nimble about getting money into communities, the loans are game-changers. They are making a big difference in people’s lives.”
Most recently, Bridging Finance provided a loan to a 100 per cent Inuit-owned corporation in Nunavut for the purchase of a 64-metre arctic trawler, used to fish turbot and shrimp. It has also financed housing and elders’ apartments in northern Manitoba, a wind farm and hockey arena in communities in Quebec, and a grocery store in Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. Mr. Sharpe is especially proud of this last project, because the store has been a goal of Elsipogtog for decades and is key to the social and economic development of the community.
“This was all community-driven and the store, a national chain with a pharmacy, will provide jobs and revenue for Elsipogtog.” Mr. Sharpe says Bridging Finance was able to provide the loan in a matter of weeks, and the store will be up and running in eight months.
“We’re committed to First Nations communities,” he says, of Bridging Finance. “It’s so important to get the money in quickly, especially because in many northern and remote places the season for construction is short. And if the money isn’t there, the community loses another year without the infrastructure.”
Guiding all of Mr. Sharpe’s work is a strong belief that solutions to addressing issues in First Nations communities lie in economic development and education. While busy on Bay Street and running businesses (“I feel as comfortable in a sweat lodge as I do in a boardroom,” he says), he has always kept the education part close to his heart.
For the past five years, he’s served as chair of the Board of Governors for First Nations University of Canada in Saskatchewan, and he has strong connections to Aboriginal causes across Canada, including Eabametoong Economic Development Corporation, Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, and Indspire Institute for Inuit and Aboriginal student mentoring. He is also active at Queen’s Faculty of Law. He is the alumni ambassador for Aboriginal student recruitment and on the Dean's Advisory Council, and this past summer, he accompanied Dean Bill Flanagan on a “reconciliation trip” to the remote Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation in northern Ontario.
In his own academic journey, Mr. Sharpe says it was a course he took before starting at Queen’s Faculty of Law that really emboldened him and propelled him to address his fears and move forward in his life. While he didn’t need to for his acceptance at Queen’s, he decided to take the Program of Legal Studies for Native People at the University of Saskatchewan, aimed at preparing Aboriginal students for success at law school.
“There were First Nations students from coast to coast at the program. It was amazing to be surrounded by people from many different Aboriginal cultures. I felt accepted there and it was important for me to feel this sense of community. I spoke with an elder in the program about some of my struggles and he simply said, ‘your heart is good.’ It gave me a push forward.”
When Mr. Sharpe started working on Bay Street, he says he didn’t tell people of his Aboriginal background. He thought it would ruin his chances, that he’d be excluded. But, over time, he realized, if he’s hiding from his own identity, he isn’t doing anything to change the perceptions of First Nations people in Canada.
“I made a conscious decision that I have to step up. I want to mentor young people and help them get to where they want to go. There needs to be change. Major companies need to have more Aboriginal people on their boards, as this is positive for these organizations. The big institutions need representation from First Nations. (See the Diversity 50 initiative.) This will go a long way to move things forward in a positive direction.”
When he speaks at universities – at Queen’s, in particular – he often asks groups of students whether they will go on to practise Aboriginal law. Usually, he says, only a couple raise their hands. He then tells them that they all will indeed be impacted by Aboriginal law.
“Today, Aboriginal law impacts every facet of the legal landscape in Canada,” says Mr. Sharpe. “The Supreme Court of Canada has clearly outlined the duty to consult and accommodate, which impacts all levels of government and corporate Canada. When I tell students this, they recognize that every area of law is impacted by Aboriginal law, and as they gain more experience, they will recognize it more and more.”