The award-winning provincial novice champion is truly an inspiration – not only to the boxing community but to humanity worldwide.
The toughest battles are not always fought in the arena. The strength, persistence and resilience required to stand for one’s identity against social and legal norms often surpasses the physical valour needed for the most intense of sports. Such is the story of Pardeep Singh Nagra, a Sikh Canadian boxer and now activist.
During his training days, Nagra was told by a peer that beards are prohibited in competitive boxing. His coach, unsure at first, confirmed that boxers with facial hair, an article of faith for Sikhs, are not allowed to compete – both within Canada and internationally. At this point, Nagra realized that his first fight would be outside the ring.
Born into a Sikh faith, the boxer recalls a point around his teenage years when he consciously chose to accept the Sikh faith with its principles, which played an important role. He asked himself whether he is Sikh by default or by choice. By default, one often blames others, but by choice one defends their faith; it becomes a different element of responsibility. There is a sense of social responsibility and action, rather than a static approach where one is neutral or indifferent. Taking a proactive approach, Nagra fought against the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association in the year 2000, creating a historical milestone through his victory as the court ruled in his favour.
Apart from his strong faith, the award-winning provincial novice champion mentions that if he did not do anything, others would have to deal with it, for which they may not have the means – financial or institutional. For example, Nagra’s activism had instilled in him strong foundational understandings of the legal system, which put him in a more effective position as he understood certain rules and laws. Hence, his mindset is such that if you have the capacity and means, you have privilege. With privilege, comes responsibility and accountability.
Showcasing this fight for identity and Nagra’s continued journey as an activist, Hollywood biopic film, Tiger, hit national screens in November 2018. Tiger went on to win the Best Feature Film award at the 2018 San Diego International Film Festival. Nagra describes the film with a three-pronged approach, “The first piece is representation – who we are as Canadians, Americans, or religiously. The second piece is inspiration; standing up is not an easy journey. The third piece is celebration of our identities, victories, and diversity.” The feedback for the film speaks for itself. As part of its educational program screenings, Cineplex has chosen Tiger as its top school pick, enabling any school in Canada to arrange a screening at Cineplex. In fact, Nagra’s story and work is notably featured in Civics and History textbooks, by publishers like Nelson and McGraw Hill Ryerson.
Beyond his ongoing fight for identity in international courts and involvement in the community through various projects, Nagra continues to train and provide soft motivation as a mentor to many. When asked about future plans in regard to his humanitarian causes and advocacy, Nagra explains, “You don’t have plans for activism; you just respond. Activism is a state of mind and practice. It can require anything and everything – money, mobilization or energy. There are times when you need to raise your voice and times when you use a museum as your tool of action.”
Nagra most importantly shares that, for activism, one needs to be informed. The inability to answer even one question immediately undermines the others you may have answered correctly. Especially given the new landscape of digital media, one needs to know both sides. With the megaphone for hate bigger than ever before, stories – particularly those that are relatively negative – travel further and get more attention than positive ones.
To stir positivity and take real steps toward change, Nagra is also a motivational and public speaker. Remarkably, he has been a keynote speaker for the year of sport in Canada at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in 2014. With a book in the works to add to his wide portfolio, the former Ontario flyweight amateur boxing champion is truly an inspiration – not only to the boxing community but to humanity worldwide. However, he maintains that actions surpass words, highlighting that he is never just there to deliver a speech and get praise. Rather, he pushes the pressing need to inspire action. For him, a truly enriching conversation sparks with this question: what have you actually done?