Politicians of all stripes rushed last week to insist the pepper spraying of Syrian refugees in Vancouver was an isolated incident. Pardeep Nagra isn’t so sure.
Three days before a man sprayed the 15 newcomers at a welcome ceremony on the West Coast, Nagra says he was spat on for his faith as he left a store near his home in Mississauga. As he has done often since coming to Canada from India when he was toddler, Nagra shrugged the insult off. But turning the other cheek doesn’t mean ignoring the assault’s significance.
“There are people who are offended that I’m here,” the bearded and turbaned young Sikh father says quietly over tea at a local Tim Horton’s. “What do I have to do to be seen as a Canadian?”
Federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, the first Sikh to command a Canadian Army reserve regiment, was among those who said the attack on the refugee was not representative of Canadian attitudes toward minority groups or the faiths they might represent. Nagra, by contrast, contends such prejudice is far more commonplace than most of us are willing to admit.
While the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada, where he is the Executive Director, showcases the rich 112-year contribution of the faith’s members to this country, discriminatory attitudes underlie welcoming surfaces and words, he says. He points, for example, to the way his own son is routinely assumed, at school and elsewhere, to be “Indian” rather than Canadian.
“He was born in Canada. He’s never lived in India. He’s never been to India. He’s a Canadian like any other Canadian,” Nagra says.
Except, of course, for the distinctive clothing – and eventually the beard – intrinsic to his life as a faithful Sikh. Those outward signs, Nagra says, inevitably mark him, his son, and all Sikhs as not-quite-Canadian-enough.
Nagra himself knows what it will feel to literally fight through such discrimination. In 2000, he found himself at the centre of an international media storm when Canada’s amateur boxing governing body forbade him from fighting at the national championships unless he shaved off his beard.
As Nagra recounts the ordeal, seared into his memory detail by humiliating detail, he underscores the ludicrous nature of it by pointing out that all he truly wanted to do was qualify to fight for Canada in the Olympics.
“I was interviewed on an American sports show and they signed off saying ‘well, we hope you get to fight and kick some Canadian bacon.’ I said ‘No, I’m Canadian. I want to kick some American bacon in the Olympics.’”
Though a court order ultimately led to him being allowed to fight, and though he insists what he endured forged his character and deepened his faith’s commitment to social justice, it’s clear his fight for religious freedom shaped his deep perception of Canada’s self-congratulatory boasts of tolerance.
“Social justice is foundational for Sikhs,” Nagra says. “Truth is very high on the scale for us. Higher still is truthful living. The things we say must be true. The pinnacle is living the truth in every thing we do.”
He smiles broadly, cheerfully, as we put on our coats to leave the Tim Horton’s but in his eyes is the message the Canadians need to isolate the difference between what we say about tolerance and what we truly do.