A year after Don Cherry was fired for his ‘you people’ rant, it’s clear we’re better off without him

It was never really about a poppy.

No, Don Cherry’s tirade a year ago was directed toward ethnic minorities, otherwise known as “you people.” And whether we wore a poppy across our hearts or not, in Cherry’s mind, we would never be good enough to be considered authentic Canadians.

When I first heard the last infamous Cherry rant, I was a CBC reporter in Winnipeg, the same network that aired the weekly segment of the now former hockey broadcaster best known for his outlandish suits and hardcore hockey takes. This time, he decided to opine on how immigrants living in big cities don’t pay respect to veterans by wearing a poppy leading up to Remembrance Day. Honestly, I was not necessarily surprised to see such brazen racism surrounding the sport of hockey.

For the record, I grew up on hockey. It was the sport that I loved and ultimately, as my friends love to remind me, the sport I wanted to cover as a journalist. I used to show up every morning at school and talk about the games from the night before. Those days are long gone, but not by choice. Hockey made me feel like I never belonged and that I would always remain an outsider. Even now, some of my friends, all of whom are people of colour and very capable of analyzing the game, talk about how uncomfortable they feel inside a hockey rink.

As I watched the “you people” rant last year, I saw Cherry use his entire segment to eschew the decisions of the diverse people of Mississauga and Toronto, and publicly deride them with unsubstantiated claims of not wearing a poppy. I felt a pit in my stomach when I heard him go after people like my sister-in-law, a newcomer from Pakistan who had been in Canada less than nine months and was experiencing her first Remembrance Day.

“You people … that come here, whatever, 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,” Cherry said on Coach’s Corner, his long-time “Hockey Night in Canada” segment. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.”

My sister-in-law didn’t have the faintest idea of why Canadians wore poppies, but was open to learning and understanding. Instead she was belittled on national television. And for the record, she wore a poppy while at work every day during the month of November.

This was not the first time Cherry had used his platform as a hockey commentator to belittle others, but it was definitely the one that broke the camel’s back. At the time, I remember feeling both enraged at Cherry’s actions, but also sorry for him that he did not and seemingly may never identify with minorities in this country. This was not the first time I’d heard the “you people” euphemism, which is often used in a denigrating manner toward minorities, but it was the most significant.

For decades, our parents had been taking racism on the chin to be able to provide us with opportunities to succeed and create a life in Canada, but when BIPOC people did speak out about Cherry’s comments, it showed they were no longer timid when it came to talking about racial injustices and inequalities. They feel a responsibility to protect their racial identity during a time in Canada where hate speech and racially motivated attacks have become more common.

After Sportsnet cut ties with Cherry on Remembrance Day a year ago, it was clear that Rogers would need to feature some more diverse and progressive voices. Part of the panel that would eventually replace Cherry’s Saturday night airtime included former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who has been one of the most progressive voices in hockey for a long time. Burke is on the board of the You can Play Project, co-founded by his son Patrick, which works to ensure the safety and inclusion for all who participate in sports, including LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches and fans. He’s also spoken in favour of the social justice movement that erupted following the police killing of George Floyd.

Sportsnet cut ties with Cherry on Nov. 11, 2019, after the veteran hockey commentator called new immigrants "you people" on his "Coach's Corner" segment while claiming they do not wear poppies to honor Canadian veterans.

“People realize that systemic racial injustice has to stop, it’s an evil that has to stop. The climate has changed … athletes have loud, big voices and they can use them effectively,” the Harvard-educated Burke said on a broadcast.

Alongside Burke is a trio of former NHLers who provide a breath of fresh air on the network. Anthony Stewart, a Black Canadian, has been able to provide much-needed context to how it feels to play a sport that isn’t diverse and can be uninviting at times. Kevin Bieksa’s lightheartedness and ability to have fun on the screen has been a welcome change. Kelly Hrudey played a big part in putting Harnarayan Singh, of “Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi,” on the network’s radar and has been supportive of the Punjabi iteration of the show for years. More recently, Hrudey called out the failings of the NHL, which has been criticized for being slow to take a stand for social justice following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis., which led to protests from athletes across the world.

Loading…

Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…

Every time athletes, especially BIPOC athletes, speak about race, you can often hear the groans in some people’s voices, wishing they’d just “shut up and dribble” — or something of that ilk. But when racist assertions are being extolled, the same groans go quiet.

Instead of opting to talk about the symbolism and why wearing a poppy matters to him, Cherry used his airtime to attack immigrants and those who look and act differently than him. At no point did the former broadcaster try to understand the challenges of trying to learn a new country, or coherently explain why this matters so deeply to him; rather, it was an unfettered attack on people with little opportunity to speak back.

Ironically, one year after his firing, it is Cherry’s voice that is inconsequential within hockey, and the people who’ve been tapped to fill his shoes are making the game a more accepting place and helping hockey become more enjoyable for once-disenfranchised fans like myself.

All the while, I’m still enjoying milk and honey in my tea.

Ahmar Khan is a journalist based out of Toronto who writes about everything from politics to race, sports and inequities within society.

TORONTO STAR