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Don Cherry. Photo by Dave O from North Vancouver, CANADA via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0].

Don Cherry’s Comments Weren’t About Poppies

Written by
November 26, 2019
Don Cherry’s Comments Weren’t About Poppies
Don Cherry. Photo by Dave O from North Vancouver, CANADA via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0].

By now, certainly everyone in Canada has heard the news of Don Cherry being fired from his role as a commentator on Hockey Night in Canada for Sportsnet. His firing came on the next business day after he made the following comments on a November 9 national broadcast:

“You people love – you, they come here, whatever it is – you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price.”

Cherry’s comments were rightfully identified as racist and discriminatory against immigrants. As well, Ron McLean’s choice to punctuate Cherry’s comments with a thumbs-up gesture was criticized as enabling the vitriol. The conversation both on and offline aided in pressuring Sportsnet’s decision to fire Cherry.

You can read through almost any Canadian publication and find commentary about Cherry’s commentary. Most of it is useful: some people explain how “you people” is a verbal act of othering; some note that Cherry has been getting away with saying racist things for many years; some have seen it as an extension of his general xenophobia, since he has also made derogatory comments about hockey players of Scandinavian descent; some have identified McLean’s role as a bystander, and therefore enabler, of Cherry’s behaviour as problematic; some have illuminated the underpublicized history of people of colour serving in the Forces or wearing poppies.

Wonderful, amazing, awesome. Great work. I’m not even being sarcastic. It’s very heartening to see these conversations being had at the national level. It comes shortly after the Prime Minister found himself similarly criticized for wearing blackface and brownface, and a federal election campaign plagued by racist comments and epithets launched at New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh. It’s good to see the conversation continuing, albeit through shameful instances in our national public life.

Still, something that seems to be missing from the conversation is that Cherry’s comments were not really about poppies at all, as much as some would like it to be. His comments were about assimilation and white nationalism. And more than it ignites anger, it causes me sincere fear.

In Culture and Imperialism, postcolonial academic Edward W. Saïd wrote, “We are all taught to venerate our nations and admire our traditions: we are taught to pursue their interests with toughness and in disregard for other societies.” These teachings make it challenging to criticize our own nation, traditions, and their role in empire in an effective way. We still hesitate to do it much because of these teachings, even though we are afforded the freedom of speech – that is, the right to expression free from government persecution.

Cherry’s comments demonstrate that to be true. He treats wearing a poppy as a tradition worthy of admiration, repetition, and emulation. He very directly suggests it as a reasonable “trade-off” for daring to immigrate to, or exist as a person of colour in, Canada, lest he berate and humiliate you or people like you on national television again and again. Is this not the premise of assimilation? To make oneself (or one’s subjugated group of belonging) more similar to that of the dominant culture to receive resources and/or avoid punitive measures?

Canada is the land of “milk and honey” of which he speaks. Biblical evocation aside, I’m honestly surprised that Cherry’s use “milk and honey” has not garnered more criticism, especially considering what settlers are continuously learning about the living conditions and lived experiences of Indigenous peoples within the state, not to mention the previously discussed racial microaggressions and straight-up aggressions faced by people of colour and immigrants here (Soufi’s restaurant in Toronto comes to mind). Cherry’s comments are ignorant – or perhaps too accurately attuned – to the fact that Canada as “the promised land” is, to varying extents, inaccessible to those who cannot or will not perform a certain level of “Canadian-ness.” And, to Cherry, that Canadian-ness means being born here – or at least looking like you could have been by wearing a poppy. That, and the desire for that, is a form of white nationalism.

I’ve seen a lot of people take Cherry’s post-broadcast and post-firing apologies in good faith, but with all of the above in mind, I just cannot. And it has become impossible for me to even imagine a good faith interpretation of his words when he has been on Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host of which is interested in protecting the United States from “MS-13 in sanctuary cities.” Cherry has clearly done something very wrong when his comments also appeal directly to Ezra Levant, who has launched a petition defending Cherry; and Faith Goldy, one of Levant’s former employees who was present at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. You know, the one where a counterprotestor was murdered? So these are major red flags. Even MuchMusic-VJ-revived-as-Twitter-personality Ed the Sock knows that.

Some may say that this is an overreaction, but I’m not sure that it is. Statistics Canada reports that police-reported hate crimes have sharply increased, with victims being racialized; Muslim; Jewish; and/or LGBTQIA2S+. In Ontario alone, police-reported hate crimes increased 67 percent between 2016 and 2017. We cannot afford to lose any more ground in ensuring these peoples’ safety. To protect each other and our most vulnerable, we have to be “intolerant to intolerance,” as philosopher Karl Popper posits. And if that means that Don Cherry finally has to retire, then so be it.

Arthur News School of Fish
Arthur News School of Fish