In turn, they are slowly being infected by Brampton’s hockey bug. As well as local heroes in the National Hockey League – such as Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin and Raffi Torres – Bramptonians also go wild for Toronto Maple Leafs star Nazem Kadri, who has no ties to the city but happens to be Muslim. “Mr. Kadri there is a big draw for what we call the ‘New Canadian’ market,” says Glenn McIntyre, general manager of Brampton Hockey, the local organizing body.
Breakaway, the 2011 romantic comedy about an all-Sikh team, captures the game’s growing appeal – illustrating why the Punjabi broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada is so popular here. The film is set in Brampton, with a cast that includes Mr. Peters, whose old joke about a play-by-play announcer struggling with such a team (“Singh passes to Singh, and Singh shoots on Singh”) inspired the script.
As well, the growing interest has been carefully cultivated – and comes none too soon. Changing demographics so eroded attendance for the Battalion, the local major junior team, that it is moving to North Bay, a city with barely one-tenth Brampton’s population.
After watching enrolment in its programs decline for years, Brampton Hockey started to send emissaries to area schools and temples for “education days.” Mr. McIntyre says they soon learned that, while young South Asians were keen about hockey, most couldn’t stand up on ice.
So the kids and their families were promptly pointed toward the city’s learn-to-skate program. Now, he says, “On any night, probably 95 per cent of [of the classes] is that South Asian community, at all ages … trying to get their balance and make some strides.”
Participation for other ethnic groups has been stagnant of late, but Brampton Hockey now attracts 150 to 200 new South Asian recruits every year.
So where does all this lead? My month in Brampton leaves me optimistic. Critics say too much has been done to accommodate newcomers, but I saw many indications this is becoming a two-way street.
Despite all the evidence of insular self-sufficiency and isolation, the Sikhs are making clear attempts to reach out.
For example, the Sikh Activist Network is a youth organization that, in part, attempts to correct stereotypes by organizing community events, such as concerts and art exhibitions. Its members include lawyer Gurratan Singh (a dead ringer for older brother Jagmeet, who represents a local riding in the Ontario Legislature for the New Democratic Party), who has a background in religious studies and says he frequently participates in inter-faith gatherings.
Harpal Singh is on the same page. Being Sikh helped him break into trucking, but he is no advocate of enclave thinking.
Since buying his house in 1997, he has watched his neighbourhood transform. It is now predominantly South Asian, yet he considers himself closer to next-door neighbour Frank Arruga than anyone else on his street. Of Portuguese descent, Mr. Arruga is often on call to step in at home when his friend is on the road.
When the former banker from Punjab thinks of the future, he sets his sights well beyond the confines of “Singhdale.”
On my second visit to the Singh household, youngest daughter Simar, 7, excitedly produces a Mother’s Day card she made in class and, in a sing-song voice, reads out the photocopied poem glued inside.
“I don’t know what all of it means yet,” she says with a grin, then races into the family room to watch India’s Dancing Superstar with her grandparents and sister.
And why is the girl attending a French-language school when she already speaks English, Punjabi and Hindi, the latter two picked up mostly from her grandparents?
Mr. Singh doesn’t want to live on a monocultural island – but he has even higher aspirations for Simar and her generation.
“We were thinking,” he says, “because it’s a bilingual country … she needs another language too.”
Especially “in case she wants to have a political office.”