What’s Missing From The Don Cherry ‘Controversy’ Discussion
I awoke on the morning of the eleventh to the same news my fellow Canadians heard; Don Cherry, a mainstay of old-school “locker room talk” boisterous hockey culture, had been fired from Sportsnet for his disparaging remarks heavily implied to have been about immigrants. And of course, controversy ensued. Many wrote countless editorials saying “this is wrong, this is not who we are,” and countless more railed against “PC culture is destroying Canada and the concept of freedom of speech as we know it.” Both statements are wrong. This absolutely is who we are, and it was absolutely right for Don Cherry to have been fired.
I felt compelled to write this piece as I feel there is a certain perspective and narrative missing from the discussion around this controversy; the perspective of a born-and-raised Canadian person of colour. My mother is a white Canadian, and my father is an Ecuadorian immigrant. Growing up, I partook in all classic Canadian activities; I went skating on the Rideau Canal, I almost religiously followed and cheered for the Ottawa Senators, poutine and tourtiere and maple syrup are in my blood, I went to summer camps, I learned how to paddle a canoe, and I watched The Red Green Show, Kids in the Hall, and Trailer Park Boys. I also speak French. In short, I am as close to a “standard” Canadian as humanly possible and yet from time to time I am still made to feel as though I don’t belong here purely because of the colour of my skin.
Ask natives. Ask black people. Ask Muslims, Sikhs, and all immigrants and children of immigrants. This is sadly who we are. While everyone was crowing about how reprehensible Don’s remarks were, Quebec continues to attempt to enforce state-sanctioned discrimination within their borders. We may have multiculturalism as an official policy, but there are still plenty of racists out there, many of whom are proudly defending Don Cherry and his remarks. It’s usually the refrain of “he said what needed to be said!” Except he didn’t. He didn’t need to say that, because he could have rephrased it or he could have simply not said it as it’s not a true statement.
If Don had said “I feel like less people are wearing the poppy. I wish more people would wear the poppy!” Or something along those lines, he’d probably still have a job at Sportsnet. Instead, he decided to use the classic “you people” dog whistle which most of us ethnic and religious minorities are far too familiar with.
For those who might be reading this and thinking “well why should I have to watch what I say? Everyone’s too sensitive, PC culture is ruining this country, grow a backbone,” etcetera etcetera, it’s called common courtesy. It’s also called being a good and nice person, something I thought we were supposed to be stereotypically famous for. Furthermore, Cherry’s rant was simply untrue and probably had more to do with confirmation bias than objective observation. For that, I ironically thank Mr. Cherry for giving me the opportunity to conduct my own objective observation.
In case any might be unaware, confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one's prior beliefs or hypotheses. In other words, you’re looking for reassurance for a currently held belief rather than hard facts. Don Cherry, like many of the nation’s angry goatee-sporting uncles, no doubt kept an eye out for people not wearing a poppy and took note of their skin colour. In a diverse place like Toronto, this is quite easy to accomplish. However, it skews results. Perhaps if Don had also looked at those wearing the poppy and noted their skin colour, he might have seen a different result than the one he was so clearly seeking.
I couldn’t make it to the downtown memorial, but was able to watch it on TV and was able to make it to the afternoon ceremony in Westboro. I decided to scan the faces of those with and without poppies to see if there was a noticeable difference. I saw lots of white faces without poppies. Granted, those attending the ceremony downtown surely get a free pass since they are present for the ceremony. Among those at the ceremony were some noticeable non-white faces, yet no doubt they would have received Cherry’s iconic scorn. As I made my way to the afternoon ceremony in Westboro, I again noticed lots of white people without poppies. I did however see a woman in a hijab proudly boasting a poppy, a fashionable Asian-Canadian wearing a poppy, and even a native man wearing a poppy as I walked down to the Legion branch. It all just flies in the face of Don Cherry’s unsubstantiated, divisive, needless, and hurtful remarks. His firing was well deserved after a long and often controversial career as a professional blowhard. Which reminds me.
Don Cherry hasn’t been ‘silenced’. In fact, he seems to be doing the circuit now. Numerous publications have sat him down for interviews and asked for written statements and he has been all too happy to provide them. Facing consequences for what you say is nothing new, and is not an attack on free speech. Free speech just means the government can’t arrest or imprison you for what you say; it doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Otherwise, every person who has ever worked in retail or the restaurant industry would have thoroughly slandered and insulted you by now if it meant they wouldn’t be fired for doing so. It’s also why you will get in trouble for yelling “fire” or “gun” or “bomb” in public places.
If anything, all this controversy has done is ‘free’ Don from the shackles of his Sportsnet contract. We’re seeing and hearing far more from him now than we had before. Don is going to be a painful reminder that we do not yet have the capacity as a nation to talk openly and frankly about racism and discrimination in this country, and he will also be a painful reminder that consequences for said offenses tend to be fleeting.