Last Saturday during Coaches’ Corner, a Canadian hockey icon went a step too far. On Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry went on the following rant:
“You people … 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”
Many immediately demanded Cherry’s head on a platter. Others railed against his co-host Ron McLean for putting his thumb up and saying nothing, when the latter is clearly paid to stay silent while Cherry runs his mouth. In a surprising show of good sense and solidarity with its viewers of color, Rogers and Sportsnet did a very brave thing: they fired him.
The result of his firing has led to praise by many, but if you look at the comments sections of the social media accounts of The Montreal Canadiens and others that announced his dismissal, you see Cherry being defended against evil “SJWs” who are allegedly punishing him for “telling it like it is”.
The problem with these comments?
They mostly come from whites.
They come from white Canadians, and in the cases where immigrants weighed in, many of them were white, and therefore benefited from white privilege. As a woman of color, I fully acknowledge that I am jeopardizing my safety by coming forward with my opinion about this, as many online trolls are also known for doxxing and inciting hatred against women and visible and sexual minorities.
But what I have to say HAS to be said, because there are many Canadian voices of color who have been drowned out by a chorus of vitriolic white hockey fans.
So who am I to call out a Canadian icon?
I’m Montreal-born daughter of a first generation Filipino immigrant. My grandfather served with the Americans in the Philippines against the Japanese in World War 2.
On my father’s side my ancestors are Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the 1910s. My great grandfather’s garment company made the uniforms for Canadian soldiers during the Second World War.
Being half-Asian, I can occasionally pass for white, but I am also regularly mistaken for Indigenous and Latina. Saying I’m Canadian often isn’t enough for a lot of white people I meet who will give me the “What are you REALLY?!” question, as if determining the true nature of my ethnicity will somehow affect how I’m treated.
Don Cherry did not explicitly call out immigrants of color. Nevertheless, every person of color knows that when an elderly white person (Cherry is 85) uses the words “you people” to call out immigrants, they are not referring to white immigrants. As many others have pointed out, most Canadians don’t think of whites when they think of immigrants because their skin color gives them the luxury of blending in with the majority.
I do not always have that luxury. My maternal family does not have that luxury. My black and Asian and many of my Middle Eastern friends do not have that luxury.
It’s not just that he painted all immigrants with the same brush and implied that they are somehow ungrateful to be here.
If there’s one group that understands sacrifice and gratitude almost as much as our veterans, it’s immigrants. Most immigrants abandoned lives they knew to come here, either because their safety was being threatened back home, or because they lacked opportunities where they were from.
As an ex-immigration law firm employee and a journalist, I can vouch for the fact that the Canadian immigration process isn’t easy. It’s often lengthy and expensive and the judges hearing refugee cases often go into hearings looking to find any excuse to refuse the applicant before them (see my 2016 article on how refugee claims are decided).
Cherry also inadvertently gave a voice and became a figurehead for the most racist and xenophobic members of Canadian society. The ones who believe that refugee claimants are somehow draining public resources and think that Muslim immigrants are out to convert everyone to their religion. He became a hero for people who yell “Go back to your country!” to Canadians of color, many of whose families have been here for generations and may very well include veterans of the Great Wars.
It must also be said that at the end of the day wearing a poppy is part of our freedom expression as Canadians and unlike Don Cherry’s comments, choosing to wear one or not is not determinant of one’s value as a Canadian. There are lots of ways to honor and support our veterans that do not include inciting hate or pinning on a plastic flower.
So let’s recognize Don Cherry for what he is: Canada’s racist grampa who should finally be retired and ignored.
Featured Image: Painting by Samantha Gold