Remembrance Day, with a Cherry on Top

The opinion of a Canadian, poppy-wearing member of the visible minority.

I have been watching Don Cherry say what he wants for most of my life.

For those who are not familiar with this name: he is best known for co-hosting the five-minute commentary segment, Coach’s Corner, that airs during the first intermission of Hockey Night in Canada. Toronto Sun (2014) calls it “one of the most-watched five-minutes in the country”, and the Globe and Mail (2013) refers to Cherry as an “icon of Canadian TV hockey.” Cherry and his co-host, Ron McLean, have been named by many sources as being among the most influential Canadians. In 2004, CBC ranked the flamboyant Cherry as the seventh-greatest Canadian of all time, ahead of Sir John A. Macdonald who was one of the Fathers of Confederation and first Prime Minister of Canada. In 2016, Cherry and McLean were inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

The bottom line is that Don Cherry is—or was—unavoidable for those who follow hockey, other sports, or even just the daily news.

Prior to Coach’s Corner, Cherry spent two decades as a defenseman in the AHL and various minor leagues before becoming an AHL coach in 1972 and NHL coach in 1974. He was awarded Coach of the Year twice in his nine-year coaching career before being picked up by CBC as a studio analyst, and there began nearly four decades of a colorful yet controversial broadcasting career.

Leading up to Remembrance Day this year, Cherry singled out visible minorities in one of his Coach’s Corner rants. “You people, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry noted based on his observations in Toronto and Mississauga. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

When interviewed the next day, Cherry insisted that “I did not say minorities, I did not say immigrants. If you watch Coach’s Corner, I did not say that. I said ‘everybody.’ And I said, ‘you people.’” He, however, did not once apologize for nor admit to the connotation of his “you people” reference, something I think most public figures today would be inclined to do in his position (I realize Donald Trump is a glaring exception to this).

Cherry has always been unapologetic about his demeanour and controversial opinion, whether it is about hockey (2011) or climate change (2010, 2018), women (2013), indigenous people (2015), French-Canadians (1998, 2004), and now visible minorities. Why network stakeholders kept Cherry around for 37 years is incomprehensible to many, but the truth is that positive ratings rolled in after each heated episode because there are a whole lot of Canadians who think like him. As a female, visible minority who grew up in Montréal and who is conducting research amidst indigenous communities in the North, I unsurprisingly find Cherry and his views offensive, as do most of the people I surround myself with. However, the fact that Cherry has remained highly popular on national television is a sign that the desire for segregation in the country is not going away any time soon. That, I think, is the frightening reality we need to work towards changing, and this 85-year old man with a unique sense of fashion is only one small piece of the puzzle.

On Remembrance Day, Sportsnet confirmed that Cherry has been fired. “Sports brings people together. It unites us, not divides us,” said Bart Yabsley, Sportsnet President. I personally can locate little evidence of Sportsnet caring about diversity prior to this incident and find the world of hockey in Canada to be relatively Caucasian-oriented (for example, commercials that air during hockey games mostly feature only Caucasians). Nonetheless, I will take comfort in knowing that we live in a country where there is generally low tolerance for xenophobia and enough voices against it that even media giants like Rogers (who owns Sportsnet) have to take action.

With regard to the lack of poppies on the streets, it is easy for people like Don Cherry to blame immigrants and visible minorities despite a complete lack of data to support this causation. I know people of all races who buy poppies each year, and I know many who do not. I also know some who do wear poppies but could not tell you its significance nor identify the war that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought in. In fact, survey results from CTV, CBC, and Global News (for lack of better sources) in the past 3 years indicate that fewer and fewer people in general (and not just minorities) understand the meaning of Remembrance Day. With that, I have to question whether there is, in fact, a significant correlation between sporting a poppy and respect for—or even awareness of—our fallen soldiers.

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