I used to watch Don Cherry every Saturday night. I would turn the theme song up, guess about the colour of Don’s suit, and get ready for whatever Grapes had to say about the hockey world or anything else that was on his mind. Being thirteen years old and moving from Toronto to Vancouver I loved that he was a secret Leaf’s fan even though he feigned impartiality and the fact that he never pulled any punches. I learned from him that touch icing and hard elbow pads were bad because players were getting hurt, that the boards at the new Air Canada Centre were harmful because they didn’t give way like those at the Gardens and that nobody played hockey better than good Canadian boys (and later girls). I also subtly learned that Europeans were weak cowards, that women talked too much at hockey games, and that if you didn’t get up and skate to the bench when someone “rang your bell” you were not one of those good Canadian boys. It was always subtle with a little head shake from Ron McLean and a sometimes a knowing chuckle from Don, sometimes I would chuckle along too.
Last Saturday while talking about wearing poppies for Remembrance Day Cherry said this, “forget it with downtown Toronto, nobody wears the poppy … You people that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that.”
You people that come here.
A subtle little nod to those good Canadian boys and girls that didn’t come from anywhere else. A nod to tell them those people don’t respect Canada, those people don’t wear poppies, those people don’t belong. When given the chance to rectify the statement by his employer Cherry doubled down saying, “the problem is if I have to watch everything I say, it isn’t Coach’s Corner.” If watching everything you say means not singling out newcomers and using your public voice to say they are not as patriotic as others, then you better god damn watch what you say. This is something I am hearing more and more often these days as people criticize the “cancel culture” as if there is some magical police force out there that is waiting to pounce on anything anyone says. While this may be the case sometimes, there is also room to listen, learn, and grow.
There have been many defenses of his behavior. In things I have seen about this people have taken many different approaches. People have quoted him in different ways cutting out the “you people come here” part, said he is from a different time, highlighted the fact that the current prime minister was caught wearing blackface, or hid behind the poppy. They have said he made a mistake, there is no free speech in this country, we can’t talk about anything in a civil way anymore, or get over it that’s just Don being Don.
Let’s take these one at a time:
Cutting the “come here” part of what he said allows people to defend the fact that he meant everyone should wear a poppy, a pretty uncontroversial statement in Canada. He didn’t say that, he didn’t mean that.
Saying he is from a different time may work for an old racist uncle who has six people listening to him every week. Cherry has millions, he shapes public opinion and should be held to a standard of not making statements that target certain groups in society.
The blackface scandal from the recent election was also wrong. Trudeau apologized, kind of feebly but he did. In any case you cannot use someone else’s abhorrent behavior to justify your own.
Hiding behind the poppy to say he was just saying we should respect troops is also not true. He has done that for a long time, he has reminded people to wear poppies almost every Remembrance Day with no one taking issue. He did not do just that that this year, and saying he did is disingenuous.
If he believed he made a mistake then he would have apologized immediately. Saying something to the effect of, ‘I am sorry for what I said, I understand how it is dangerous to single out newcomers, that is really not what I meant to do, I won’t say it again and be more careful from now on.’ He didn’t. He got very defensive, insisted maybe he should not have said “you people”, and kind of shrugged.
There is no free speech in this country. Yes there is. You are allowed to say things. When you say things that include “you people come here and……” people are going to tell you to fuck off and maybe you will get fired, there are consequences. You are still free to say those things, just without a job.
Speaking civilly or get over it that’s just Don being Don, comes from a place of great privilege. When someone says something racist around me, I feel uncomfortable, hopefully have the courage to say something to them, I can have a conversation about why what they said is rude, ignorant or wrong. Maybe we discuss, we argue, have a “civil discussion”, and we go our separate ways. I am a white guy, comments like this are something that is theoretical, outside of myself. For a person of colour comments like this are much more dangerous. They attempt to convince others that this person does not belong, that they should not exist in this space, that they are not worthy of being whatever it is the racist deems them not worthy of. If we have a civil discussion about politics or religion those are someone’s beliefs, if we have a discussion about ethnicity, we are discussing someone’s existence. That is why when people say, “I don’t agree with him but he should be able to say what he believes,” you are agreeing to create a space where those people that “come here” should be watched, judged, separated, or no longer welcomed.
That is what he did. My thirteen-year-old self really wants to believe all the excuses I have heard. He couldn’t have really meant that, he must have just mis-spoke, everyone is over reacting, but I know they are not true, and I think even many of those defending him know. I wish he had taken this opportunity to reflect, think, learn, engage, but he didn’t. He has shown us for many years what he is, and many of us chuckled along. His comments were racist, xenophobic, and hurtful. He pitted Canadians against each other and has no place in a Canada that wants to believe it is open, multicultural, or welcoming.