May 11, 2023

Diversity Is Strength Conversations: Asian culture in Canadian football

Photos supplied by Henry Chiu, Obby Khan, Farhan Lalji

TORONTO — Henry Chiu, Obby Khan and Farhan Lalji all have deep ties to the game of football, but each are connected in a different way.

Chiu is the president of the Canadian Football Officials Association and chairs the CFL’s Amateur Officiating Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Before Khan became the minister of sport, culture and heritage for the province of Manitoba, he played nine years in the CFL, suiting up for the Ottawa Renegades, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Calgary Stampeders between 2004-2012. Lalji is one of the most prominent sports reporters and broadcasters in Canada, bringing you CFL news and coverage from sidelines to the studio on TSN for over 25 years.

While all three represent different avenues of the game, they were all pulled into it by the overwhelming sense of belonging it created for them.

Khan first found it when he was recruited as a self-described drama improv reject in high school, when a coach encouraged him to put his big frame to work on the football team. He had it reaffirmed when, after excelling as a high schooler, he arrived on the Simon Fraser University campus to play at the next level. When he and his teammates were at the end of their training camp, they made plans to go out for burgers and drinks. They invited Khan, but he felt pangs of nervousness when he began to explain his hesitation in joining.

» The CFL’s Diversity Is Strength Conversations series
Diversity Is Strength Conversations: Black leadership in football
» Diversity Is Strength Conversations: Changing the sports landscape
» Breaking Tackles And Barriers: The legacy of Bill Hatanaka

“I said, ‘Hey guys, I’m a Muslim. I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t eat pork and I don’t eat meat unless it’s halal,’ Khan told Donnovan Bennett, as part of the CFL’s latest instalment of its Diversity Is Strength Conversations series.

“I thought they were going to make fun of me and ridicule me and say, ‘You don’t drink alcohol, how are you on a football team?’ I still remember, Kris Pelley and Jake Roberts said, ‘We don’t care if you don’t drink. We don’t care what you don’t eat. We just want to hang out with you because you’re a good guy and we want to be friends.’

“That was an a-ha moment for me,” Khan continued. “This is a group of guys that just want to all be in this together. From that moment, it gave me more courage and strength to stand up for who I am and what I believe in. That was just an amazing moment for me in my life.”

Through his nine-year CFL career, Khan had numerous moments like that with teammates and coaches. Since football brings such a big group of people together, Khan has been on both sides of those conversations, teaching others about his culture and learning about where his teammates come from, what they believe and what they’re about.

“It was just such a great atmosphere of people getting together and talking and sharing things and everyone loving and respecting people after that,” he said. “That’s one of the most beautiful things that I take away from football. It wasn’t the games, it wasn’t the wins or losses. It’s those memories of growing with each other. That’s the greatest thing I have to say about football.”

As the Diversity Is Strength Conversations series shifts to Asian Heritage Month, Chiu, Khan and Lalji shared their experiences in and around the game. Each of them discussed bringing representation into football, how to grow that on the field and in the stands and on addressing racism in sports and society at large.

Chiu said that when he’s out recruiting officials, particularly people of colour, it breaks down a barrier for them.

Henry Chiu has helped make headway in bringing diversity into the ranks of football officiating in Canada (Supplied, Henry Chiu)

“All of a sudden, they take on a different lens that, ‘Hey, this guy that looks like this’ — and it’s not common to see people that look like me, in my stature, to be on the field as an official,” he said.

“Especially kids, players, they tend to go, ‘Oh, this guy is different. He can be an official and achieve a certain level, maybe I can too.’ In some ways, that has helped my roll off the field, in terms of recruiting and talking about officiating in general.”

“Representation on all those levels matters,” Khan said, adding that he was one of the first Pakistani players to make it to the CFL. Today, he sees football teams full of kids of different colours from different backgrounds. It’s something Lalji, a longtime high school coach in the Vancouver area, has seen firsthand as well.

“Breaking down that barrier is so important,” Khan said. “We need to continue that as we move forward to the future for these kids and for the growth of sports and society, because it is one of the utmost important things that football brings to the field.”

Lalji added that, “it’s not enough sometimes to simply be included or to feel like you’re welcome. Sometimes you need to be invited.

“I think it’s incumbent on sports organizations to also see it that way. If you are in charge of assembling a board for football or hockey or any other sport, you should think about what your membership looks like, what you want it to look like and go invite people to be a part of it at a leadership level or to get involved directly.

“Sometimes it’s not good enough to send out a blast email. I think it’s incumbent on leaders to go out and invite people to create representation. It’s not enough to just say, ‘Our doors are open if you want to come.’ Go get them.”

In the final segment of their conversation, Khan spoke to the work he and his colleagues in the Manitoba provincial government are doing to fight racism and all forms of discrimination in sport.

“Not being racist isn’t good enough. It’s not going to be, ‘I’m not racist, or I have friends of different colours.’ No, we need to actively get out there and say, ‘Racism must stop’ and when we see it we have to call it out.

— Obby Khan on fighting racism and discrimination in sport

“Sadly, racism still exists in sports and the world and in society. It’s there, it’s present. We hear stories about kids in hockey, basketball, whatever it might be even in the playground. My kid is of mixed descent and he’ll tell me stories when it comes up. It still exists. We need to step up and do more as a society,” he said.

“Not being racist isn’t good enough. It’s not going to be, ‘I’m not racist, or I have friends of different colours.’ No, we need to actively get out there and say, ‘Racism must stop’ and when we see it we have to call it out.

“We had a federal provincial territorial conference a few months back and every province had signed on to saying by December ’23, every province is going to have a third party mechanism to deal with maltreatment of athletes in sports.

“In Manitoba, we have a triage system where we have a hotline, we have resources, we have a sport law phone number that people can call and get tips and help and legal advice on how to deal with these things. We are committed as a government and I think as a nation, the federal minister (of sport, Pascale) St. Onge, has committed to this, that we need to take proactive steps to eradicating racism and maltreatment of athletes.

“It’s a big task to take but I think we’re headed in the right direction, talking about it is a good step. But there needs to be more than just that. Here in the province of Manitoba, we are taking steps to do that. And I hope other provinces are also following that lead as well.”

After a racial reckoning in 2020 that highlighted an increase in anti-Asian sentiment, all three panelists agreed that positive progress on this front is slow, if moving at all. That makes these discussions all the more necessary.

“I think the conversations around race are as relevant today and as important today as they ever were,” Lalji offered.

“We’re not in the ’60s, where you need a civil rights movement, or maybe we feel like we do. We almost had one in 2020 in and around Black Lives Matter and Asian hate, we’ve had Islamophobia issues. So it’s still important (to recognize) that we’re not as far advanced or progressed as far as we’d like to.

“These conversations are important and we need to make sure that we continue to educate and make sure that people understand each other. If we can use sport as a vehicle to bring people together to understand each other, I think that matters.”

The comment system on this website is now powered by the Forums. We'd love for you to be part of the conversation; click the Start Discussion button below to register an account and join the community!