Hockey, Sports

Don Cherry is a symptom of a larger problem

Don Cherry is known for many things: His wacky suits, strong opinions, and unfortunately, over the years, a series of racist remarks. On Nov. 9, Cherry added to the list of reasons why he should no longer have a public platform with a rant claiming that immigrants do not wear poppies around Remembrance Day. 

“You people [who] come here, 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,” Cherry said on Hockey Night in Canada. “[Canadian service members] paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price.”

These comments were widely criticized across social media for being distinctly xenophobic, and this is not the first time Cherry has made racist, sexist, or xenophobic comments. Cherry was finally dismissed by Sportsnet on Nov. 11. But, Canada has forgiven him time and again, treating him like a quirky TV character rather than a human being expressing his own, very-real opinions. 

Canadians love to talk about how great we are, particularly in terms of welcoming immigrants and especially in contrast with the United States. Canada also has a tendency to tie our national identity to hockey. Here lies an undeniable contradiction, because hockey and its culture are hugely lacking in diversity, as well as having prohibitively high costs for participation. This was evident during the Toronto Raptors 2019 postseason en route to the NBA Championship. Vinu Selvaratnam, a sports researcher at the University of Waterloo, pointed out that basketball has wider reach globally, making it more accessible to recent immigrants. The Conference Board of Canada has found that visible minorities earn an average of $0.87 for every dollar that their white peers do. As such, financial barriers push hockey further out of reach as the more expensive equipment and higher costs for rink time make free basketball courts more accessible.

Hockey in Canada is declining as the proportion of landed immigrants in the population increases. According to Maclean’s, the last generation of Canadians for whom hockey was simply a given in life were the baby boomers. Growing up in Canada, learning to skate may feel inevitable, but anyone who did not grow up here or whose parents did not grow up here may not have learned the skill that is essential to hockey. 

McGill is not exempt from the consequences of older generations gatekeeping hockey either. A representative of the Working Group on Renaming and Commemoration, who wished to remain anonymous, described the events of a town hall meeting on renaming McGill’s men’s varsity teams that took place on Sep. 12, 2018. 

“There were [a few] white men who came to represent McGill hockey teams of the past,” the representative said. “They brought old [McGill] hockey uniforms […] that had the R*dmen [sic] name on them [….] [One white man] stood up with this uniform and started talking about the tradition and history of McGill’s hockey team.”

There is racism at every level of hockey in Canada, and Cherry’s most recent display of vitriolic racism is just another in a long list. He accuses immigrants of loving the life that they have in Canada without contributing to the country, but immigrants cannot be expected to fully participate in a society that ties itself so closely to a sport and culture that continue to be xenophobic and racist. Cherry is merely a symptom of a much larger issue, and while he should certainly have lost his platform a long time ago, taking him off the air will not be a quick fix to the problem. 

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