The Don Cherry Controversy: Where Do We Draw The Line?

The Canadian entertainment industry was sent into an uproar this past Monday, following an announcement that Don Cherry had stepped down from his position on Hockey Night in Canada. The decision followed an incident on Saturday night’s broadcast where Cherry, whose patterned suits have been an iconic symbol Canadian hockey for the past 40 years, went on one of his infamous rants— this time spewing hateful comments against immigrants.

It happened on Coach’s Corner, his segment with Ron McLean, as the pair were discussing Remembrance Day. Cherry had strong opinions, which he expressed while jabbing his finger at the camera: “You people… You love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price”. The “you people” Cherry was referring to were immigrants who, from his observation, often did not wear poppies. His comments brought so many complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council that the website crashed, and two days later, it was announced that Cherry had agreed to step down. Cherry, on the other hand, insisted that he had been fired, and did not offer an apology. 

As with most incidents of this nature, people took to Twitter to express their opinions:

For many people who were familiar with Cherry, his dismissal didn’t come as a surprise. Why?— because this is nowhere near the first time that Cherry has behaved like this on live television. From comments about everyone from women to Indigenous people, Cherry has a long history of sharing his outdated and insensitive opinions on live TV. In 2007, Cherry and McLean got into a heated debate about a hockey player of Ojibwa descent who had been hit with a hefty 30-game suspension. McLean asked him, “Why wouldn’t some kids feel like they haven’t gotten a fair shake in life?”, to which Cherry responded, “fair shake in life! Go out and get your own fair shake in life and work for it. Don’t give me that stuff.” He also thought that Rob Ford would be the best mayor Toronto had ever had, and shared some choice words with the audience at his inauguration: “As far as I’m concerned you can put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks”. Over the years, he’s made numerous sexist comments, and is blatantly skeptical of global warming. His controversial career goes to show that this was not a “slip-up”, or a one-off, poorly-worded comment; it is a trend of behaviour that is entirely un-Canadian coming from a star of one of Canada’s most-watched TV broadcasts. 

Cherry is not one to admit he’s in the wrong, either. He once told his co-host, Ron McLean: “I’m being ripped to shreds by the left-wing pinko newspapers out there — it’s unbelievable … This is what you’ll be facing, Rob, with these left-wing pinkos — they scrape the bottom of the barrel.” In fact, Cherry would argue that his honesty is what makes Coach’s Corner what it is. In a recent statement, Cherry said, “To keep my job, I cannot be turned into a tamed robot”, and “I would have liked to continue doing Coach’s Corner. The problem is if I have to watch everything I say, it isn’t Coach’s Corner”. He genuinely believes that his freedom to express any and all of his thoughts is what makes Coach’s Corner so great, and many Canadians agree with him. 

For a lot of people, when they hear Don Cherry say these things, it reminds them of someone they know; a grandparent, an uncle, someone who says some outdated things but “doesn’t mean anything by it”. They believe that firing him was too harsh a punishment, or that he should not have been punished at all. What they fail to acknowledge, however, is while comments like these may be borderline-harmless when expressed across the family dinner table, they are not harmless when expressed on live television. Calling immigrants “you people” implies that they are different from other Canadians, and it contributes to this xenophobic “us vs. them” mentality that fosters a fear of immigration in general. It sends a message to Canadian immigrants, who already face discrimination on a regular basis, that hockey is yet another place where they are not welcome. No, Don Cherry wasn’t directly harming anyone with his words, but for Sportsnet to sit back and let this behaviour go without any acknowledgment would have condoned this spread of hate. How were they supposed to accept this behaviour from a man who is supposed to be a symbol of Canada?

The truth is, we no longer live in a world where brutal, unfiltered, hateful opinions are accepted on live television. This isn’t because the world is suddenly filled with “snowflakes”; it’s because through the years we have learned from history, and we understand how allowing hate only encourages more of it; because the country we live in has grown to be more accepting of cultural diversity and of people who look different from ourselves. We know that the only way to combat the spread of harmful ideas is by encouraging those with a platform on national television to conduct themselves with a little bit of social consciousness; to have an awareness of how their words can impact the people who are hearing them. If Don Cherry, a symbol of Canadian culture, vehemently refuses to adapt to the changing definition of what it means to be a citizen of our country, then perhaps it was simply his time to go.