What Will It Take to Fire Don Cherry?

Rogers, CBC, and Ron MacLean have all been complicit in allowing the 85-year-old commentator to nationally broadcast his xenophobia for years.
Don Cherry immigrants poppies
Don Cherry's xenophobic comments are nothing new. Chris Young/Canadian Press

Update: Don Cherry has reportedly been fired.

You people.

That's how Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry characterized immigrants in a gross yet not altogether surprising display of xenophobia Saturday night.

Cherry, 85, ranted about poppy-less Canadians during his “Coach’s Corner” segment, implying that immigrants who don’t wear poppies are ungrateful.

“Downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears a poppy,” Cherry said. “You people love, you that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.”

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It seems he’s forgotten about the many non-white soldiers who served Canada, often in spite of not receiving the same rights as other Canadians. He also forgot that whether or not someone chooses to wear a poppy is none of his goddamn business.

Cherry’s “Coach’s Corner” co-host Ron MacLean gave a thumbs up after the rant was over. But by Sunday, he had realized that was a pretty terrible reaction.

“Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong,” MacLean said at the outset of a Hometown Hockey broadcast. “I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond.”

MacLean is hardly alone in sitting idly by while Cherry performs the role of obnoxious racist uncle for millions of Canadians, typically donning an ugly suit and tie all the while.

Cherry’s greatest hits include describing progressives as “left-wing pinkos” and complaining about Canada’s failure to fight in the Iraq war. In a 1990 (!) interview with CBC’s Fifth Estate, Cherry condemned “foreigners coming over earning the dough.” He said he wanted to start a nationalist movement.

“I just say what I think,” he said. “You can say it’s bigotry if you want.”

Despite his brazenly xenophobic comments, Cherry has been given a national platform for decades. He started co-hosting “Coach’s Corner” in 1986, first on the CBC and now on Rogers-owned Sportsnet (although the CBC still airs it).

And on Sunday night, those networks, along with the National Hockey League, all released statements of their own, with varying degrees of lameness.

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Despite the fact that they originally hired him, CBC conveniently noted that it has “no purview” over the editorial choices of Hockey Night in Canada, which was acquired by Rogers in 2013.

Sportsnet President Bart Yabsley said Cherry’s offensive comments don’t represent the company’s values.

“We have spoken with Don about the severity of this issue and we sincerely apologize for these divisive remarks,” Yabsley said.

The NHL said “hockey is at its best when it brings people together. The comments made last night were offensive and contrary to the values we believe in.”

The statements are vague (the NHL one doesn’t even specify which comments) and make no mention of consequences.

Many are speculating Cherry will be kept on because he draws a huge audience; it wouldn’t be surprising if a lot of Canadians agree with his hateful nonsense. (As a side note, 85 years old seems like a great time to #retirebitch even if you aren’t an incoherent racist.)

This summer, there were rumours abound that Cherry would be forced into retirement by Rogers. But he and MacLean returned for another season, perhaps because Sportsnet has not been able to find a proper successor for him (Brian Burke being the closest loudmouth hockey dinosaur ready to go). Rogers is now halfway through a 12-year, $5-billion deal with the NHL that has not gone as well as the company would have liked. Its flashy rebrand after taking over for the CBC ended with George Stroumboulopoulos being let go in 2016, and viewership ratings taking a dip. Losing Cherry would permanently change Hockey Night in Canada, perhaps even prepare it for the future, but it seems no Rogers executive is ready for that scary thought.

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Meanwhile, it's looking more and more unlikely that Cherry will apologize, which is the bare minimum that you’d think would be required in this situation. He told the Toronto Sun, "I said my piece and I will leave it there."

As he wrapped up his mea culpa last night, MacLean suggested that rather than being “divisive,” this incident could be a “unifying event.”

“Last night was a really great lesson to Don and me. We were wrong, and I sincerely apologize.”

But if Cherry doesn’t get fired or face any notable consequences, the only lesson he’ll learn is that he can continue to get away with whatever he wants.

People of colour and other marginalized groups will learn something too—the same message that’s been reinforced again and again throughout Cherry’s career: our feelings, our dignity, and our contributions to this country simply don’t matter as much as maintaining the status quo.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.