Almost half the kabaddi players who come to Canada to play the rough sport don’t return to India.
Instead, an internal Immigration Department report reveals more than 120 professional kabaddi players in a three year-period have either vanished within Canada, applied for refugee status or been able to obtain a work visa.
The kabaddi players, most of whom come from village teams in the Punjab region of India, come to Canada to play for about $50,000 through a season of large tournaments, especially in Surrey but also in Edmonton, Calgary and the Toronto suburb of Brampton, which has a large Punjabi population.
While some Sikhs in Canada are unhappy with the way kabaddi athletes pay consultants to help them jump Canada’s visa and immigration queues, federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says in a government document that the special visa program for the mostly Punjabi athletes “provides benefits” to Canada.
A 2018 internal Immigration Department report, obtained under an access to information request, says “Kabaddi players applying through Chandigarh (Canada’s visa office in the capital of the Punjab region) are typically young, single, unsalaried males with limited economic prospects in their country.”
The report acknowledges that it’s hard to control abuse of Canada’s quick-entry program for the players, which is managed by three large kabaddi clubs in Canada.
“It is difficult to gauge a player’s skill or standing in the sport as there is no formal structure. … Misrepresentation and fraudulent documentation are a matter of concern.”
Given that the past decade has featured intermittent controversy over bringing kabaddi athletes to Canada, Surrey-based radio talk-show host Harjit Singh Gill said Friday that many Indo-Canadians are “disgusted” with the government’s leaky sports-visa program. “Everybody knows about this in the Punjab. Most of the athletes who apply to come here to play kabaddi know they’re not going back.”
The internal report said that of the 261 players who entered Canada between 2014 and 2017, only about half returned to India. Twenty-six per cent were somehow able to obtain work permits (which are easier to apply for in Canada than in India), 21 per cent can’t be traced at all and a few made inland refugee claims.
The Hindustan Times, a one-million circulation English language daily in India, is among the publications that have reported Canada’s kabaddi-player visa program is often supported by Canadian politicians as a vote-getter, since several thousand fans often show up to enjoy each game. Many have loosely compared kabaddi to a combination of wrestling and rugby, featuring frequent dislocated joints or broken bones.
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum won plaudits from Sikhs in B.C. and India in 2005 when he spearheaded construction of the only purpose-built kabaddi field in North America, at Sullivan Heights Park. Some Punjabis claim the costly facility, now known as the Bell Centre Kabaddi Stadium, is the only one of its kind in the world.
The number of kabaddi players arriving in Canada peaked at 670 in 2011. The Vancouver Sun reported in 2014 that the then-Conservative government began to realize the scheme was becoming a vehicle for trafficking in humans and illicit drugs, including those used in sports doping. As a result, the federal government allowed in only one kabaddi player from India in 2013.
But the numbers of visas granted kabaddi players from India has again been creeping up in the past four years, through a plan the federal Liberals call a “pilot program.”
Some Indo-Canadian public figures have expressed regrets the kabaddi visa program has been politicized. And Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who published the internal Immigration Department in his newsletter, Lexbase, is among the many who say some Canadian members of parliament get behind the kabaddi visa program to try to win the votes of Punjabi-Canadians, who are known for being politically active.
Gill, whose Punjabi-language show airs at 1550 AM, said the federal government’s latest kabaddi pilot program “should be closed up for a year or two — and reformed.”
Among his many concerns, Gill believes most kabaddi athletes don’t pay taxes on their earnings either in Canada or India. But a lot of politicians, Gill said, worry about cracking down on those abusing the sports visa scheme, in part because they fear the electoral clout wielded in Punjabi-dominated ridings by Canada’s influential kabaddi clubs.
The internal Immigration Department report, prepared by deputy minister Marta Morgan, concludes: “The rate of players who obtained work permits after entry to Canada in the years 2014-17 suggests that they intended to enter Canada primarily for long-term work unrelated to kabaddi. Selection by a kabaddi club for visa facilitation effectively allowed them to circumvent the conventional examination of work-permit applications at a migration office outside of Canada.”
Despite the many problems associated with the kabaddi visa program, the report shows that in 2017 Hussen, the immigration minister, approved its continuation.
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