Bruce Arthur: It really should be game over for Don Cherry this time after toxic ‘you people’ rant

Hockey

For a while The Canadian Press had a reporter babysit Don Cherry on Saturday nights, because he might say something that made news. He was one of the most famous men in the country, in one of its biggest pulpits, and he said whatever he wanted. For many, that was part of the appeal.

So CP assigned someone to watch, just in case. They don’t anymore. But Saturday night, Don made another mess.

“You know, I was talking to a veteran, and I said, I’m not going to run the (annual Remembrance Day montage) anymore, because what’s the sense? I live in Mississauga, nobody wears, very few people wear a poppy,” said Cherry in his rapid-fire, sentence fragment-generating way. “Downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears a poppy. And I’m not going to, and he says, wait a minute. How about running it for the people that buy them?

“Now you go to the small cities and you know, the rows on rows, you people love — 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. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price. Anyhow, I’m going to run it for you great people and good Canadians that bought a poppy.”

It’s not hard to parse this, and Cherry is like audio wallpaper at this point, but we should. “You people … that come here” doesn’t mean Romanians or Swedes or even big bad Russians, because if Don Cherry is walking around downtown Toronto or Mississauga, he’s not spotting the white immigrants who aren’t wearing poppies.

When he says “now you go to the small cities,” he’s saying more people wear poppies in smaller towns. And smaller Canadian towns, in general, are full of Anglo-Saxon white folks.

And when he says “good Canadians that bought a poppy,” he’s doing what he did when he cartoonishly separated players into good Canadian boys and chicken Swedes and soft old Russians, except this time he’s separating Canadians into good and bad people. And he’s doing it after addressing “you people … that come here, whatever it is.”

He’s saying rural Canadians are good Canadians. Not the ungrateful immigrants.

Never mind that people of colour have long fought for Canada, including in the First and Second World Wars — Indigenous people, Chinese-Canadians who didn’t yet have the right to vote, Sikhs and more. India lost 74,000 in the Second World War, by the way. Never mind that while remembering the sacrifices of those who fought and died is indeed important, forcing people to perform their patriotism is a weak-minded impulse. Never mind that many visible immigrants wear poppies, or that poppies fall off people’s jackets in 10 seconds as often as not. None of that is the point, precisely.

There has always been a calculation with Don, and it has been magnified as he has gotten older. When does he say something that sinks the whole thing? When does he go too far? The 85-year-old’s future has been discussed at Sportsnet more than once, as painful cuts have been made elsewhere.

But nobody has been willing to be the one who fired Don. This isn’t new. Coach’s Corner started with someone else picking the topics, but the CBC let Don become bigger than the program a long time ago, and every executive went along. He has derided French-Canadians, Europeans, Russians, and more. In 2007, Ron MacLean said Indigenous people felt they were not treated equally in Canada, and Cherry said, “Fair shake, why don’t you go out and get your own fair shake in life and work for it, don’t give me that stuff.” In 2013, he said female journalists don’t belong in locker rooms. For over a decade he’s complained that climate change is a scam because winter still happens.

The CBC would waggle a finger and nothing really changed because the ratings rolled in, and there are lots of Canadians who thought like Don. There still are, but they don’t get to be on TV every Saturday night. For years, pollster Frank Graves of EKOS has asked Canadians this question: Forgetting about the overall number of immigrants coming to Canada, of those who come, would you say there are too few, too many or the right amount who are members of visible minorities?

The national number hovers around 40 per cent who say too many. But Conservative Party supporters who say too many immigrants are visible minorities has gone from 47 per cent in 2013 to 53 in 2015 to 69 per cent earlier this year. Cherry’s popularity says something about this country beyond the habits of Saturday night.

And it matters. It’s the toxin that drove Brexit, though that included Polish carpenters or whatever foreign devil was the flavour of the day. It’s alive again in Europe. It drove the election of Donald Trump, and Cherry has said he is a big fan, and the fact that Canada’s First and Second World War soldiers went to war against racist fascists is ironic, if you think about it. The acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, D.C., Russell Travers, gave a speech this past week in which he said, “We are now being seen as the exporter of white supremacist ideology.”

Don represents people who have always been suspicious of foreigners, especially the dark-skinned ones. The age has just caught up to him.

Sportsnet, to its bare credit, released a statement from network president Bart Yabsley, who said, “Don’s discriminatory comments are offensive and they do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network. We have spoken with Don about the severity of the issue, and we sincerely apologize for these divisive remarks.”

But Sportsnet, as the CBC did, makes a choice by keeping Don on the air. The NHL condemned the remarks, but lightly: Every Stanley Cup champion, like every World Series champion, has visited Trump’s White House.

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And Don, you may note, didn’t apologize. Because Don has been Don forever, and he won’t change now. In 1990, Eric Malling interviewed him for “The Fifth Estate” and Cherry said Canadians “are ticked off at the foreigners coming over earning the dough … I just say what I think, and that’s the way I think. You can say it’s bigotry if you want; I don’t think it is.” He boasted, “Canada first, and Canada only. That’s what I am. A nationalist. I want to start a new power, the nationalists.”

And Malling, to his credit, asked, “That really plays in the country these days, but where is it going to end if we get into that kind of politics, whether it’s in sport, whether it’s to do with jobs?”

We’re finding out in the wider world now, in all kinds of places. And Don Cherry is still on TV, still saying what he thinks. He shouldn’t be. It should be over. But whenever it ends it will be a cultural battleground, a proxy war over Canada, and a part of it should be this: People often say hockey, and Canada, is for everyone. But the doddering old high priest of hockey keeps saying that isn’t true.

Bruce Arthur

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