How Don Cherry resisted Canada's brownface

Erica Ifill: Canadian hockey and Don Cherry walked hand in hand for 40 years without noticing that they lost an entire generation of highly diverse viewers

Erica Ifill is the co-founder and co-host of the Bad + Bitchy podcast, which discusses politics, pop culture and social issues from an intersectional feminist lens.

Don Cherry is the Canadian, conservative version of Colin Kaepernick. His comments on the evening of Nov. 9 have positioned him as a martyr for right-wing zealots, proof of political correctness run amok. We know this song; we’ve heard it on repeat. Frankly, it’s tiresome.

The difference, however, is that Kaepernick held a quiet protest, taking a knee during the American national anthem prior to his football games in demonstration against police brutality and the killings of unarmed Black men. Don Cherry is, well, a bigot. His ramblings were not in protest. They were the angry rants of a white man, well past his prime, who felt that immigrants owed Canadians, and that their debt of gratitude could only be demonstrated by wearing a poppy. Cherry’s views about immigrants (read: Canadian immigrants of colour) leave one wondering why he received such fanfare and an unrestricted platform to spew his hateful bile.

MORE: Twitter reacts to Don Cherry’s poppy rant

Enter the CBC.

Before landing at Rogers’ Sportsnet, Cherry had the blessing of the CBC for 34 years. There, Cherry had a national platform for his bigoted views, backed by taxpayers’ dollars. In a way, the CBC, as a national broadcaster, downloaded the funding of Cherry’s derision onto the very people he derided. In 2004, CBC actually ranked Don Cherry as the seventh greatest Canadian of all time in their mini-series, The Greatest Canadian (he even out-ranked Wayne Gretzky, who barely cracked the top 10). The CBC established the rankings by asking Canadians to vote.

Welcome to Canada.

Immigrants may be the backbone of our country, as goes one of the platitudinal phrases politicians throw around these days, but not all immigrants are treated equal. White immigrants are assumed to espouse Canadian values, while immigrants of colour are thought to be threats to the national fabric, needing to be regulated by the state through tip lines for barbaric practices or having to scrub their identities through secularism bills like Quebec’s Bill 21. In fact, a 2016 Angus Reid Institute study in conjunction with the CBC stated that 68 per cent of Canadians believed that newcomers should do more to fit in with mainstream society rather than keep their own customs and languages. Through Cherry’s comments, many immigrants—and children of immigrants like me—were reminded that we still aren’t Canadian enough.

MORE: Don Cherry fired by Sportsnet following offensive on-air comments

What makes a Canadian?

That’s the question at the heart of this controversy. Throughout his rant, Don Cherry echoed the dog whistles of the far right: “you people” is code for “the other,” meaning people who don’t belong. It’s a constant reminder that no matter how long we are here, or how “Canadian” we become, we are still just visiting in the eyes of the white majority in Canada. Make no mistake: when Cherry mentioned people in Mississauga and downtown Toronto, it was code for non-white.

Support for Cherry has largely been divided along political lines, despite the fact that many believe that Cherry’s views on hockey and his value as a talking head were increasingly outdated, which points to Canada’s increasing political polarization. Rebel Media promoted a #ProtectOurPoppies campaign on November 7th, just two days before Don Cherry’s outburst. After the news of Sportsnet’s decision to fire Don Cherry broke, #Trudeaublackface started trending on Twitter. The hashtag has become a Conservative argument against the left, and in this case an expression of “whataboutism.”

Most Don Cherry supporters believe that their “way of life”—their whiteness—is “under attack.” In reality, the browning of Canada has been happening slowly for decades. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, 19.1 per cent of Canadians identified as Canadians of colour; in 2016, that number rose to 22.3 per cent. Hockey, a traditionally white sport, has failed to capture this demographic.

Supporters of Don Cherry believe their own persecution complex and have found a symbol to prove their confirmation bias. From the Islamophobia and xenophobia of the Yellow Vest movement in Canada to Wexit, (its founders have been known to promote white nationalist talking points), there have been waves of sympathizers who have flocked to these viewpoints, making them prime candidates for radicalization. And that’s what Don Cherry is—a tool for white nationalist radicalization. Therefore, it’s only natural that Cherry appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News a day after he was axed. It’s a sympathetic network where his opinions are welcomed.

Enter damage control.

The NHL and Sporstnet condemned Don Cherry in such a swift manner because the Canadian viewership of the NHL is declining. And although the NHL says it espouses diversity and inclusion, the evidence is scant. The league is losing a generation of Canadian viewers, a viewership that is increasingly diverse and social media savvy, two things missing from hockey. While other sports have been able to capitalize on this generational transition, hockey, like Cherry (the proud digital neophyte who once complained about having to answer emails), refused to modernize.

Hand in hand, Canadian hockey and Cherry resisted the evolution of this country. Cherry, who positioned himself as hockey’s anti-immigrant mascot, turned off an entire generation of diverse fans who could have grown to love the sport. If I were a kid of colour contemplating playing hockey today, instead of wading through the bigoted muck that is Coach’s Corner, I would pick up a soccer or basketball where at least I’d know I wouldn’t have to defend my existence as a true Canadian.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.