Asian Heritage Month: An interview with Pardeep Singh Nagra
Pardeep Singh Nagra is a man of many talents. He is the Executive Director of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, located in Mississauga, Ontario; he is also an historian, a researcher, an athelete, a public speaker and a human rights advocate. In the 1990s Mr. Nagra was barred from competing in a Canadian boxing championship because of his beard, which is a mandatory article of his Sikh faith. Mr. Nagra challenged the beard ban and in 2000 the courts ruled in his favour, breaking down a barrier that prevented him and other Sikhs from participating in the sport. In May of 2015, Mr. Nagra participated in a panel discussion at the Museum about the connections between sports and human rights. More recently Mr. Nagra spoke with me about growing up in Canada, his love of sport and his own experience of standing up for human rights.1
Is Asian Heritage Month important to you?
I think Asian Heritage Month is important for all Canadians because it’s not a time just for Asians to acknowledge who they are but for us as Canadians to be able to use Asian Heritage Month to get to know each other a little bit better.
When you were a child, you and your family immigrated to Canada from India. Can you tell me what that experience was like for you and your family?
I was a toddler when we arrived but I know the challenges we had, because I came as part of an eventual extended family. At that time, my dad’s brother was here and then his sister joined us as well. It was challenging both to secure meaningful employment for my parents and at the same time try to create a life and become Canadians here in Canada. At that time it was more about pulling resources together as a family. Once we got physically established then we all got an opportunity to become less interdependent and a little bit more independent as families – but still very close. And so those were the early parts of the journey. I grew up in a very diverse community, in Malton, Mississauga and I think that gave me a great sense of community and civic responsibility as well as an experience of what it truly means for Canada and its diversity.
How did you get into boxing? What made you interested in that particular sport?
Growing up, I was very athletic and I played many different competitive sports. In fact, soccer was my first love and still is. I wrestled in high school, I was a tennis champion in high school, I played on the soccer team, I played on the badminton team and I played very competitive ball hockey and stuff. So there was almost no sport that I wasn't looking to participate in either competitively or recreationally. Nevertheless what ended up happening was, I got injured playing soccer and part of the injury was, for lack of a better word, a blown shoulder where I had to get shoulder surgery. The timing of the surgery and the injury coincided with me just joining the Peel Regional Police Force as an auxiliary constable and training was mandatory so I couldn't miss any training time. That’s why I wasn't able to go into rehab for my surgery and so, as soon as the training finished, I ended up going to a boxing gym to literally heal the injury. You might not think a boxing gym would be good for that, but in fact a lot of the boxing training is conditioning – especially the arms and the shoulders when you're doing the speed bag. I always had a knack for wanting to compete in sports and so I was excited by the opportunity to possibly compete as a boxer as well.
In the 1990s you refused to shave your beard and were then barred from competing in the Canadian Boxing Championships. Why was it important to you to keep your beard?
Canada is a country built on faith traditions. I happen to be a Canadian who is of the Sikh faith background and I have articles of faith that I present myself with publicly. These articles of faith include unshorn hair and so for me, it was important to not compromise the integrity of my spirituality. At the same time I recognized I wouldn’t impose my spiritual practices if they compromised the safety of myself or someone else in a certain way. Researching what I did with respect to boxing and finding out the origins of the beard piece, I was in a position where I could advocate for both: for me not shaving off my beard and at the same time competing as a boxer. It’s important that we recognize the concept of religious freedom. When I say “faith,” it’s a broad concept of a belief system. Even the non-faith and atheists have a belief system. It may not be a faith with respect to a concept of a creator but there is still a principle that they believe in as atheists.
Ultimately, you went to court and won the right to keep your beard while boxing. Can you talk to me a bit about this experience and how it impacted your views on human rights?
While I personally made the decision that I would like to compete as a boxer when I was training in the boxing gym and healing the injury, somebody approached me and said: “You wouldn't be allowed to compete with that” and they were pointing to my beard. And so that's when I looked at the rules and regulations and realized that beards were prohibited. Mustaches were allowed, side-burns were allowed and so I had to first challenge the Boxing Association. I approached Boxing Ontario and they said: “You know, it’s Boxing Canada who you should approach and we’re governed through each province through Boxing Canada.” Eventually I made my way to Boxing Canada. I approached them at their annual general meeting and I presented the merits of my position to allow for beards. They put it as a motion and took a vote and actually voted nine to six against it. So then I had to go back to the drawing board.
Eventually I filed an Ontario Human Rights complaint against Boxing Ontario and we resolved that through mediation. I started competing in the provincial novice tournament which I won. I became the provincial representative for Ontario at the National Championships in 1999 and that was the Olympic qualifying national championship tournament in Canada for the Sydney Olympics. It was taking place in Campbell River and that's when they decided they were not going to let me continue boxing. I was already competing in Canada – I was competing in Ontario, but they disqualified me. They disqualified the weight class and so it was very frustrating because I had the legal right to compete. And so when that unfolded, it became national and international news because they had canceled the whole weight class as well and my story got picked up by news outlets right around the world including across Canada and it was interesting what the reaction was.
In fact, my life was personally threatened during that whole incident and yet it wasn’t my biggest concern because, believe it or not, I was prepared for that. I was privy to Baltej Singh Dhillon, the RCMP officer who went through a similar process with respect to articles of faith and the human rights issue of wearing the turban in the RCMP. I remember him sharing stories – he used to get hate mail all the time, mail saying, “There's a bullet with your name on it.” So I knew this could be – as wild as it sounds – a reality. But the most frustrating part that I had during that process and that I still have today was being recognized and seen as a Canadian for who I am. I am a Canadian and yet people would say: “Why do those people come to our country to change our rules?” And who are the “those” and who are the “we,” right, in terms of trying to frame accusations that way? There were pieces like: “Why doesn’t India take on this case?” Because this has nothing to do with India. I’m a Canadian citizen and I’m Canadian. There were comments like: “You knew the rules coming in and so why don't you just try to find something else to do?” I’ve always been doing other things as well, but rules evolve and the origins of these rules was strictly aesthetics. It had nothing to do with boxer safety because professional boxers actually box with beards. They couldn’t even figure out their position because originally they had it as a safety issue and then, at one time, they were almost trying to challenge the beard as an unfair advantage to me – I didn’t know that hair could be so cushy! And I thought: “If that was the case, then why not ask all boxers to make beards mandatory, because you’re always trying to look for boxer safety?” They came back to the other position but it had no merit and eventually we had to go back to court after the national championships because, at that moment, we actually got an injunction for that tournament. They had to go back to get the rules changed permanently and that’s where those rules sit today. It was always challenging because, like I said, it’s that place where we’d like to kind of pat ourselves on the back as Canadians talking about how progressive we are as a country and around human rights and multiculturalism and diversity and all those different aspects. But the real test becomes: How do we respond as Canadians when those issues come up? At the end of the day, my issue was as a Canadian. If I did eventually win the nationals and get to the Worlds to represent Canada, I’d be representing the maple leaf and our values and so that’s kind of what had unfolded in 1999 in Campbell River at the national championships.
You know, seeing that I played a lot of sports, I use a sports metaphor when it comes to human rights: If you’re sitting on the sidelines, you’re part of the problem and not the solution. It’s that sports metaphor – In the game of human rights, on the field of human rights, don’t be on the sidelines. I think that’s important.
Mr. Nagra is still an athlete, having recently competed in the Boston Marathon. His boxing story is being made into a movie called “Tiger,” starring Mickey Rourke as his boxing coach.
1 All information comes from Mr. Nagra himself or from CBC News, “Bearded boxer wins court fight,” Jan 12, 2000. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/bearded-boxer-wins-court-fight-1.238851 (Accessed May 12, 2016) and the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada website: www.shmc.ca.