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Cherry picking white nationalism

Left JAB by John Bell

November 12, 2019

It says a lot about a country that the firing of a hockey commentator dominates the news for days, and polarizes the nation. And most of what it says isn’t very kind.

Full disclosure: I don’t like hockey. I think it is a stupid, thuggish sport and find it unwatchable. And most of what I hate about it is encapsulated by Cherry. His “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” ethos encourages the goons on and off the ice. 

When the NHL expanded and imported the best players from Europe, where skills and finesse were emphasized, there was a golden opportunity to improve the sport. But Cherry’s weekly rants, ripping European players in barely veiled homophobic attacks over their reluctance to fight, helped drag the sport down to its lowest common denominator. 

For years Don Cherry has been weaving the rope he used to hang himself. The strands are racism, sexism and militarism. It is no wonder the self-destruction came on Remembrance Day, a celebration fraught with undercurrents of all the evils Cherry personifies, all in the name of Canadian nationalism.

Not to defend Cherry, but much of the blame must fall on his corporate bosses – most recently Rogers Sportsnet, but for decades the CBC – who allowed him to get away with increasingly reactionary, sometimes downright hateful, rants.

At some point this has-been coach, hired to analyse play on the ice, came to believe he had a soapbox to declare his ugly, small-town, old stock Canadian biases. He attacked immigrants. He insulted women. He insulted aboriginal players. He mocked the Quebecois. And he never met a war he didn’t like.

Through all this the networks and his TV co-star Ron McLean – Sherman to this prejudiced Mr. Peabody – would occasionally “tut tut” him, but not seriously rein him in. He was click bait before there was click bait. They profited from his notoriety.

And so the guy who is basically your embarrassing drunk uncle who ruins holiday meals ranting about Maxime Bernier got elevated to a national icon. When the CBC ran a contest to name history’s greatest Canadian, Don Cherry came 7th. What an admission and what a disgrace.

Remember, he was the special guest speaker at coke-head Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s inauguration, giving an oration attacking “pinkos who ride bikes” that was certainly incoherent and possibly psychotic. 

His identification with “Ford Nation” is neither casual nor innocent. One only has to scan Cherry’s social media defenders to witness a parade of far-right, out-and-out racist trolls. And the worst of them, in my opinion, are the ones who say: “That’s just Don being Don. He’s always been that way.”

That’s precisely the point. He’s always been a bigot, and the nation – with some honourable exceptions – always snickered and secretly agreed with him. 

So when he went on his Remembrance Day rant because “you people” aren’t loyal enough to wear poppies, he thought it was just another opportunity to boost his brand of thinly disguised white nationalism.

But something is different now, and I think we have to look back to the just concluded election campaign to understand why, this time, Cherry got axed. The relative success of Jagmeet Singh, the first person of colour to head a major party is one factor. Another is the outrage over Justin Trudeau’s scandalous blackface photos, that almost cost him the election. Another is the rejection of Andrew Scheer by new Canadians living in the suburban GTA ridings.

And a big part of the equation is the rise of Indigenous militancy. I would argue that there are more people questioning the nature of this settler state, as they become allies with Indigenous land and water defenders.

Add that all together, and you have an increasingly polarized country: on the one hand a vocal minority of bigots who are more confident to organize and speak their tiny minds openly; on the other a growing number of people who refuse to put up with the dog whistle racism any more.

The corporations that fired Cherry didn’t do so out of any moral consideration. This was a business decision. Cherry was given an opportunity to apologize, and I’m willing to bet that if he had given one of those “sorry, not sorry” speeches he would still be on the air. Instead he stood on his lack of principles. We can be grateful he is basically a stubborn, stupid man.

Are we rid of Cherry? Of course not. We’ll never be rid of Cherry until we are rid of the racism and white nationalist assumptions that he spoke to and spoke for. Look for him to appear, or be invoked, at upcoming “western alienation” meetings. Ezra Levant’s Rebel has already taken up the cause, spearheading a petition drive to get the bigot rehired in the name of “free speech”.                                                                                                       

But I take heart in the fact that this time a critical mass of voices said: “Enough!” Let’s organize to make sure it keeps happening. Whether it is a big mouth hiding their bigotry behind sports, a hatemonger attacking trans folk at a public library, or the RCMP smashing the rights of Indigenous people to get a pipeline build, let’s link arms and raise our voices and say: “Basta! Enough!”

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