He sits near the basketball stand at Toronto Raptors home games, often conspicuously jumping up and waving a white towel when his team shoots a basket. As one commentator put it, he cheers louder than your young son for the only Canadian-based team in the NBA. He wears a Raptors T-shirt as well as a turban, indicating that he is both a diehard Raptors fan and a Sikh. Meet 67-year-old Nav Bhatia.
In 1984, the 32-year-old immigrant landed in Canada to begin a new life. The certified mechanical engineer had not wanted to leave his home and work in the Punjabi area of India; he became an unwilling refugee. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had recently been assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, resulting in a deadly nationwide backlash against Sikhs. Thousands were murdered, thousands more fled India. Bhatia was one of the latter.
Like many educated, qualified immigrants, Bhatia could not find work in his field, despite Canada’s relatively open attitude toward immigrants. Again like many newcomers, he took what he could find. In his case, it was as a car salesman at a Hyundai dealership in a rough area of Rexdale, Ontario. His troubles did not end there:
“It was mainly a white staff, and they all called me names and all those kinds of things. I decided I would have to do better than good if I wanted to survive,” he recalls.
Bhatia proved as good as his word, selling some 127 cars in three months. In fact, he eventually wound up buying the dealership and now owns three, with a staff of nearly 200. He has been an award-winning Hyundai franchisee ever since.
“You just treat people like you want to be treated yourself,” he says. “This is very important.”
Back to early days in Canada: like most immigrants, Bhatia wanted to fit in with the citizens of his new country, so he cast about for something to join in on. As fate would have it, he bought a ticket to the first-ever game of the then-new Toronto Raptors professional basketball team. Though he didn’t fully understand the ins and outs of basketball, he was hooked on the excitement and the competitive spirit he experienced at that game. Bhatia has never missed a single Raptors home game ever since, sitting courtside, visibly (and audibly) cheering on his team.
But the plucky, energetic Raptors “Superfan” (so dubbed by the team’s vice president, Isaiah Thomas) has not stopped there: he spends large amounts of his net worth on tickets for underprivileged children to attend Raptors games, as well as endowing a foundation that aims to counter the discrimination he faced as a new Canadian. The foundation is also involved in resurfacing community basketball courts across Canada, to afford underprivileged children the chance to play sports and realize their potential. He is also involved with World Vision and has endowed infrastructure improvements through the NGO to girls’ schools in northern India, his original home.
Bhatia is a faithful Sikh, part of a religious offshoot of 15th century Hinduism. As such, he is required to avoid cutting his hair, which, like many of his caste, he keeps neatly tucked into a turban known as a dastar. The turban, which has been the focal point of much misunderstanding and discrimination, is nothing more than a practical means of keeping his hair in place. Certainly, the turban is part of Bhatia’s highly recognizable presence at Raptors home games.
Because of his experience and beliefs, Bhatia makes a point of challenging us, especially those of us of the majority citizenry, to get out of our comfort zone, and get to know our neighbours. Multiculturalism is not a luxury to him: it is an imperative if we are to survive as a species.
He will be throwing out this challenge as keynote speaker at The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Celebration Breakfast, Thursday, March 19 from 7:30–9 a.m. at the Victoria Inn. For information, go to: diversitythunderbay.ca.
Event has been cancelled due to coronavirus.