Kusi-Appiah: Don Cherry: Settler colonial legacy?


Andy Kusi-Appiah

Don Cherry: another manifestation of the settler colonial legacy?*

by A. Kusi-Appiah, QE scholar, 2019/2020, Carleton University.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt:

I want to give Don Cherry the benefit of the doubt as he is an icon of this country, the country I have willingly chosen as mine based on my God-given free will (my ancestor Matthew da Costa, originally from Edina Kotoko in the place currently known as Ghana, built this country from scratch starting in 1598).

Don Cherry is an institution in this country; his name is a brand, it is a brand that creates jobs and makes money for the Canadian economy. Suffice it to say that an attack on Don Cherry is an attack on the ‘hand that feeds me’.

Who is Don Cherry?

Don Cherry is a proud Canadian of Irish descent and a legendary NHL ice hockey player and coach. On March 15 2008 Don Cherry appeared on “Coaches Corner” wearing the *green and gold* colours of County Kerry in Ireland and claimed ancestry from Ireland (and there is nothing wrong with that for we *settlers* are all from somewhere!). You may be wondering: “So how did Don Cherry become an ‘institution’ and a ‘brand’ in a settler colonial country like Canada? Well, Don Cherry is emotionally attached to this settler colonial country’s game (those who think Lacross is Canada’s game will dispute this assertion but let’s just go along with it). Yes, His Majesty the Rt. Honourable Don Cherry has become the “chief priest” of the game loved by all settler colonialists on the Turtle Island. Don Cherry can be referred to as the face of the miracle on ice right here in this settler colonial country. In 2004 Don Cherry was voted as the 7th greatest Canadian of all time by viewers in the CBC’s mini-series: ‘The Greatest Canadian.’  In March 2010 his life was dramatized in a two-part CBC movie, *Keep your head up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story*, based on a script written by his son Timothy Cherry. In March 2012, CBC aired a sequel, *The Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story II.*

Every Saturday evening, in this un-ceded territory once inhabited solely by Indigenous peoples from coast to coast to coast, Don Cherry holds court and virtually all settler colonialists (including yours truly) tune in not only to enjoy the miracle on ice, but also to listen to the icon of ice hockey pontificating on all things Canadian – from how to play the game the macho way to politics, geopolitics, socionomics, econometrics, healthographics, how to deny climate change, and everything in between.

Unfortunately Don Cherry has been controversial in his statements throughout his storied career as a sports journalist and a god of Canadian patriotism. He has waded into debates that are beyond his own comprehension: he has denied climate change without any knowledge about how climate works other than the fact that winter follows fall and which gives way to spring; Cherry has made fun of professional athletes of foreign extraction who wear visors on their helmets even though visors are supposed to support athletes from eye injuries. Don Cherry was out of his depth when he waded into the debate about Canada’s support for our troops during the 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq (I am glad PM Jean Chretien, following the advice of his “Women’s caucus” decided not to join this unjust war, but I digress again).

Comment not meant for “us”:

On November 9, 2019 Don Cherry ‘bit’ more than he could chew when he said:

“You people that come here….you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can lay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that….These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

In an act of predictable cowardice, Don Cherry came out the following day to deny that he was referring to new Canadians from the global South. When he made those outrageous and unsavory statement on national TV where the majority of Canadian youth had put their iPhones aside to listen to a living legend. So who was he referring to?: a) Was Don Cherry referring to the first people of the Turtle Island?; b) Was Don Cherry referring to Western European settlers of this land?

Of course not! Don Cherry was referring to those people known as ‘immigrants’. As a demographer and a social scientist I find it very disturbing, at the minimum, that the word immigrant has now come to mean ‘brown/black/yellow/mixed’ or people who speak English/French with an accent that doesn’t sound ‘Western’ (the other day someone asked me: ‘how is it possible for you to have lived in this country for a quarter of a century but you still have ‘an accent’? Am like: Is there ‘THE accent’? – I digress again).

‘You people’ is a derogatory (emphasis mine) term that refers to all those settlers who settled here from Africa, the Caribbean, South East Asia, Eastern Europe, Central/South Africa and Mexico. In this country, some settlers from Western Europe (not all of them, e.g., Peter Kitchen & John Rossiter are not part of this group) consciously or unconsciously consider people from the above mentioned places as “outsiders”. In an article that appeared in the QL Journal of Queen’s university, Sophia Spenser said it better:

“By labelling immigrants as ‘you people’ Don Cherry [O]thered a large portion of our population. He verbally separated certain Canadians from those, like him, who identify as white, male, and privileged. The tendency to [other] a group…like new immigrants, is a psychological phenomenon founded in realistic conflict theory.”

(Spencer, 2019)

Ubiquitousness of the ‘you people’ syndrome:

If you did not settle here from any of the above mentioned places you maybe oblivious to the things you say that hurts people, even those who you claim to love and respect. For most Don Cherry fans, the mere fact that you mention that something hurts you implies that you are playing the ‘race card’, and this is because in their ‘unwritten rules’ which state that such things cannot constitute abuse. Hence the pervasiveness of comments like the one Don Cherry made on that fateful day.

This behaviour manifests itself subtly in everyday dealings and on many levels. For example when I am with my colleague of Irish descent (a very valuable/capable member of our Canadian community who I have had the privilege of working with on numerous projects for the benefit of people in this country and beyond – we also love beer together!) no one dares to ask him the question:  ‘where are you from’, because it is already assumed that my good friend is from here! I get asked that question all the time (don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of my African ancestry, but I also give people a lecture on why my friend is not asked that question – do you call that racism Canadian style?). Imagine a settler in Canada from Botswana who has worked so hard to become a senior advisor to the premier of Ontario being asked at an event by the host of said event: “Are you the premier’s driver?”, as if to say that this is the only job that can get you close to the premier of the most populous province in this country.

Who is defending Don Cherry?

As fate would have it, Don Cherry was fired on November 9 2019 for another ignorant rant.  He suggested that ‘settler colonialists’ from the so-called developing world (some people call them immigrants to differentiate them from people of Western European descent) pay lip service to the sacrifices of veterans (most of them are of African/Caribbean/SE Asian descent). To be sure, his rant has sparked swift condemnation from politicians the public and all well-meaning Canadians. But there were a few who held out for Don Cherry; they held out because they felt that there should be a different rule for an icon. But one person who came out to categorically condemn Don Cherry is Ron MacLean, Don Cherry’s partner at “Coaches Corner” for the last 30 years. MacLean described Don Cherry’s comments as *”hurtful and prejudiced.”, and he went on to say that:

“…..It was a divisive moment and I am truly upset with myself for allowing it……we both love hockey. But last night, I know we failed you.”

(MacLean, 2019).

What are we dealing with?

Colonialism/settler colonialism operate on both written & unwritten laws. The written laws are easy to deal with; One can easily pin down an unjust law and have it repealed to be replaced by a more just one. However, unwritten laws are really slippery, and these are defined by the people who live in a particular place over a period of time (this could be as brief as a year to over a period of 20 years or more). There is also a period of transition where resistance occurs and some people try their darnest to preserve the status quo. Sally Armstrong, the 2019 Massey lecturer, eloquently traces the history of women’s rights and how it has been subtly and not so subtly resisted by the people who benefit from women’s subordination until now when most women’s issues have become mainstream. As Sophia Spencer (2019) puts it, there is a level of “embedded prejudice” that can be inferred from two simple words – ‘you’ and ‘people’, and it quickly “exposes the inequities of our own thinking and the inaccurate bias that founded them in the first place.” (Spencer, 2019)

All those who have come to the aid of Don Cherry are not defending Don Cherry per se, they are defending an institution,  an icon, a brand, a neoliberal ideal, an unwritten cultural truth/narrative that defines other settler colonialists as less than what they are worth!  I don’t blame Don Cherry’s defenders, this is their unwritten truth. But I say to Don Cherry’s defenders: ‘how dare you?’ (borrowing from Greta Thunberg) and ‘where have you been’? The hand that feeds all of us is “you people.”  If you do not believe me go to the GTA and see who is actually doing all the jobs that matter? Let all the ‘you people’ stop working for a week and see what will become of Ontario’s economy! It will grind to a halt!

A little edge-mucation

This country is at best a Métis nation as described by John Raulston Saul in his best seller: “A Fair Country……” In this book  John Raulston Saul (himself a settler from Britain) argues that Canada is a Métis nation, heavily influenced and shaped by Aboriginal ideas of ‘egalitarianism, a proper balance between individual and group, and a penchant for negotiation over violence, and these are all Aboriginal/Indigenous  values absorbed by Canada.’ Saul argues that the main obstacle to progress is that Canada has an increasingly ineffective elite, a colonial non-intellectual business elite that doesn’t believe in Canada. He concludes that it is critical that we recognize these aspects of the country in order to rethink its future.

This country is a better one when all of us (we the settlers from the 14th century to date) respect each other and work together to make this pace a better place.  There are global challenges confronting us to today (e.g., transforming this world into a just one and working together to deal with climate change through adaptive and mitigating strategies based on local knowledge everywhere) and we need to put all our hands on deck to solve these challenges. In this regard, this country does not need people who denigrate other ‘settlers’. Yes, we are all settlers on Indigenous land and we need to work together to make things better for all of us, and to bring justice to the first people of this land! There is no doubt that settlers and Indigenous people have built this country.

Remembrance day is a time to honour our troops who put their lives on the line to make our freedoms possible. During this remembrance period (and thanks to our troops, some of whom are my ancestors spread all over the world – Sergeant Adjetey was my great grandfather who fought on behalf of the Brits in the first world war and my good friend from the Caribbean also has a grandfather who fought in the second world war on the side of the our troops in Canada) our troops were honoured colourfully and I found myself proudly wearing a poppy each day from October 25 2019 to November 13, 2019. I will not even talk about the number of times my poppy fell off and I had to buy a new one (I am not bragging but I contribute my quota to this economy).

Gurpeet Singh Dhillon, a regional councilor at Brampton in Ontario, is sick and tired of always trying to explain to people at “Coaches Corner” that we “you people” are also Canadians, and that “you people” also “….sacrificed for the same freedom for all, side by side with other brave soldiers, even though we ourselves weren’t afforded the same opportunities or freedoms.”



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