In celebration of Sikh Heritage Month, the University of the Fraser Valley is holding a screening of the local film Press Breaker on April 21st which follows the real-life career of Surrey’s very own Harleen Sidhu (now Dulay)—one of the first Punjabi women to play NCAA Division I basketball. The film will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, a historian and sessional instructor at the University of British Columbia and the University of the Fraser Valley. 

Breaking barriers

Sidhu started playing basketball at a young age with her dad, and later joined her team at Khalsa school where her budding talent quickly caught the attention of the community. In high school, Sidhu’s grade 8 team was disqualified from the provincial championships—a call they ended up taking to court. She eventually went on to play for the University of Nebraska on a four year scholarship. 

Although a serious knee injury stopped her from playing out her final year as a Cornhusker, Sidhu was able to finish with two years of play at UBC. 

Throughout the journey, she felt the weight of responsibility to make the community proud, especially as one of the first Punjabi women to break barriers in varsity basketball.

“It came with its own sort of pressures. It was kind of on my shoulders to do well and succeed as much as I can, but I was also just a young kid who wanted to play basketball. Simple as that,” she says in an interview with 5X Press. 

Now, in addition to working as a pediatric nurse, Sidhu runs a training academy in Surrey and Cloverdale alongside her husband to pay her love for the sport forward to the next generation. 

Surrey has a flourishing basketball scene, especially amongst South Asian youth. As someone who’s been immersed in community basketball for years, Sidhu says she sees even more Sikh youth, especially young girls, wanting to play and take the sport as far as they can.

“I went through it in a time when it wasn't so common to have South Asian, especially females, playing basketball. To see how the interest has emerged and how there's so many more kids in the community that are interested in sport who want to succeed and play beyond high school is incredible.”

Unpacking racism in sport 

Sandhra, a committed anti-racist scholar, community member and mother of two young boys, has seen first hand how valuable having spaces for young boys to play basketball are in her community in Abbotsford. 

“I've been doing a lot of anti-racist activist work on campus at UFV for the past three years, and one of the stories that I discovered is experiences of explicit racism against former UFV basketball team members,” she says.  

Sandhra tells 5X Press that she’s heard of racialized athletes facing heightened scrutiny and discrimination in university sport.

“One of the boys told me that they were constantly under attack for being accused of using drugs, whereas none of the white volleyball girls were ever tested for drugs… they would be told ‘you're all taking drugs,’ and it's like they're constantly seen as a deficit,” she says.

As a parent, Sandhra is also attuned to the unfair stereotypes placed on young boys. “Raising a teen and a preteen also makes me very hyper alert to how communities stereotype our boys and stir and you know, how schools stereotype our boys and how communities stereotype our boys,” Sandhra says. 

When many of us in the Lower Mainland think of Punjabi Sikhs in basketball, our minds go to Surrey. But Sandhra cautions against conflating Surrey’s racial and community landscape to Abbotsford’s because the religio-racial dynamics at play are distinctly different. 

Sandhra says the pervasive hyper-Christian privilege in Abbotsford, which has been referred to as the “Bible Belt” of B.C., creates barriers for racialized youth in university and community sport. Despite being home to the fourth largest population of Sikhs in Canada, it’s not always a straightforward path to gain access to safe spaces for racialized folks to play. 

Sandhra has spoken with Punjabi club owners in Abbotsford who say they’ve struggled to book spaces for their teams to practice and are left to play in churches rather than community centers, local arenas or schools like other teams. 

“I'm fully aware that who you go to church with and who you rub elbows with here in Abbotsford is how you get into these spots,” she explains. 

“They always tell us it's due process, but we actually know this 20-something year old Punjabi kid isn't going to get access to a huge sports arena over an established organization led by white Christian fella who of course will get it. But these are the things we don't want to talk about.”

In Abbotsford, Sandhra tells 5X Press, Punjabi club owners are doing considerable work to mentor and uplift young boys and girls in the community without fear of being stereotyped for following their passions. They’re creating safe spaces for our youth to explore their identities, build a rooted sense of self, and even go on to inspire further generations—just like Sidhu has been able to do in her career.

“Everything's fighting churches and Christianity and evangelism in this community. Supporting anybody who wants to create a safe space whether it be for boys or girls, no matter what age, I will do whatever I need to do.”

For more on this topic, check out the Press Breaker film screening and panel discussion is on Friday April 21st, 2023 at the University of the Fraser Valley room B101 from 5:30pm-7:00pm. No registration required. 

About the author

Jeevan Sangha

Jeevan is a writer, producer and the editor-in-chief of 5XPress. She loves writing about pop-culture, media, politics and everything about the South Asian diaspora. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Sociology and has previously worked in community engagement and mental health. When she isn’t writing, you can find her over-caffeinating, binging a new show or sharing her thoughts on Twitter @jeevanksangha

Instagram: @jeevanksangha 

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