We need to analyze why Don Cherry wasn’t cancelled a long time ago

Immigrants have been welcomed into Canadian culture, but other groups remain excluded

Rafi Matchen touches on the complexities of the timing of Don Cherry’s firing.
Photo: 
Anyone who’s had the displeasure of spending their Saturday nights from October to April watching the Toronto Maple Leafs lose on Hockey Night in Canada knows that if you can get through the first period without throwing the remote at the television, you see something special. 
 
After a beer commercial or two, two men appear on screen. On the left is Hockey Night host Ron Maclean, playing the hardest straight man role on television. On the right, with a flashy suit and a white beard, is Don Cherry, ready to tell Canadians what he thinks they need to hear. 
 
That extends to his harmful comments about immigrants in Canada earlier this month.
 
Part of Cherry’s on-air charm was that he was a hockey man who never quite made it. 20 years in the minor leagues before becoming a coach and then a broadcaster gave him the moral authority to talk to Canadians as a Canadian, not as a high-flying superstar preaching to the little people. 
 
We don’t like when elites extol the virtue of hard work, but Cherry was an example of just how far gritting your teeth can get you in a world where no matter how good you are at something, a video of a six-year-old prodigy is just a click away.
 
There’s nothing wrong with valuing hard work. There’s also nothing wrong with wrapping yourself in the flag and talking about the hard work that gave us the Canada we’re blessed to have today, as Cherry was wont to do.
 
But Cherry espoused those values in ways that managed to alienate most Canadians.
 
There’s nothing that hasn’t already been written about the myriad of groups Cherry managed to insult over his 33 years as the biggest bully pulpit in Canada. 
 
Among other groups, he attacked Russians, Scandinavians, Black Canadians, Indigenous Canadians, and French Canadians.
 
Canadians have been talking about Cherry’s harmful rhetoric for a long time. The final straw—calling immigrants “you people” in a tirade about his perception that fewer people are wearing poppies—while certainly offensive (how does he know that the poppyless folks are immigrants?), fits right into his regular pattern. 
 
The question is why his television network, Rogers, chose to fire him now, and what made this time different than all of the other times he’s offended vulnerable groups. 
 
Some have suggested that this cultural moment, with “cancel culture” all the rage, forced Rogers’ hand.
 
I’m not convinced of that.
 
Surely it would have been unacceptable for anyone other than Don Cherry to call the Inuit seal hunt “barbaric,” or to say of Russians, “They’ve always sucked.” Those quotes are both from the last five years of his screen time.
 
The fact that I had the same reaction as Rogers—to support his silencing despite watching him for years—tells me some other factor is at play here.
 
I think our collective turn against Cherry for this comment, unexceptional by his standards, reflects a certain hypocrisy in the English Canadian psyche. His previous comments didn’t provoke outrage broad enough to oust him until now because they were targeted at people outside our ‘tribe’—the in-group afforded respect and tolerance within mainstream Canadian culture. 
 
Russians and Scandinavians are unambiguously not 'us.' They’re from across the ocean, and Canadians still retain some Cold War-era prejudice against Russians. 
 
Hockey plays a unique role here. So many of us grew up hearing about our team beating the then-Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series. The mythology of an all-Canadian contribution to the fight against communism provided the perfect justification for tolerating Cherry’s prejudices.
 
Another group Cherry targeted was Indigenous peoples. If anyone should be acknowledged by Canadian society, it’s the people who were here first. But the average city-dwelling Canadian has almost no interaction with Indigenous people. That makes it easy for people like Cherry to cast them outside our culture, and for people like me to keep watching.
 
French Canadians, too, are as Canadian as anyone else, but different. If Don Cherry thinks they’re too dainty on the ice, not like our hard-nosed boys from towns like Kingston, then maybe the ‘damn Frenchies’ should just skate harder. French Canadians seem to form another group that the majority of Canadians are comfortable poking fun at.
 
This leads us to question what to make of the overwhelming response to an attack on immigrants, which places them in our tribe—a right that hasn’t been granted to the aforementioned groups. 
 
I think it represents the ever-growing acceptance of immigrants in our community. There’s much more work to do, of course, but we’ve come to accept newcomers to the point that we afford them the same social in-group status as anyone else. 
 
On the surface, this is unambiguously good. There are increasingly fewer Canadians advocating against greater acceptance for immigrants.
 
But beyond this achievement, I think the Cherry saga betrays a tragic reality about human nature: we only care about people in the in-group. Movements towards tolerance and acceptance (certainly things we should strive for) aren’t about our relationships with people far away. They’re about growing the circle of people we care enough about to make a ruckus. 
 
Growing the circle isn’t bad: the more people we care about, the better. But we need to do better to protect those outside the circle as well.
 
Rafi Matchen is a second-year Computer Science student. 

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.