So long, Grapes

(Getty Images – Tom Szczerbowski photo)


It should have happened a long time ago, this cancelling of Don Cherry, the Seventh-Greatest-Canadian-who-happens-to-be-an-unreconstructed-racist-in-loud-suits. But it seems fitting that his long-awaited sacking from Hockey Night in Canada’s “Coach’s Corner” would occur on Remembrance Day weekend, of all occasions. Sour for “Grapes,” definitely, given his oft-stated dedication to veterans, but surely opportune for many of the immigrants he insulted: since his remarks aired on Saturday, the news cycle has featured a number of inspiring stories about veterans of colour, many of them immigrants, and their contributions to the defense of Canada’s way of life through their service in the world wars. So Cherry couldn’t have timed his final rant better. Can you say “poetic justice”?

I remember going a bit soft on the guy in 1994 when he playfully engaged with my published remarks about his campy wardrobe (and the homoerotic appeal of Pavel Bure) before giving my hockey team a free plug for the Gay Games tournament in New York. I mean, that was nice of him. But the warm fuzzies only went so far: in that same segment (Game Three of the Canucks-Rangers Cup Final), Grapes also argued that Sikhs should not be allowed to enter Royal Canadian Legion pubs unless they took off their turbans (as if turbans are hats).  My team, the Cutting Edges, issued a press release thanking Don for the free publicity but, of course, slamming him for insulting the Sikhs.

Here’s the thing that mainstream Canada is loath to admit: Cherry lasted as long as he did because a large portion of his hockey-viewing audience agreed with his political views and saw him as their champion. Even Canadians who disagreed with him were willing to shrug him off as a loveable redneck, an eccentric buffoon, a good ol’ boy curmudgeon whose crazy suits and colourful language made us more interesting as a country. Since his routine was money in the bank, senior executives at CBC and Sportsnet could afford to look the other way when things got racist—at least until it hurt their brand, which it finally did this weekend.

The truth is, Cherry has long been our national embarrassment: a pan-Canadian version of the drunken uncle who hogs the microphone at the wedding reception until someone finally cuts the power. Try to imagine any other Canadian public figure of Don Cherry’s stature spouting the same bigoted nonsense and keeping their job. Or try to imagine a video compilation of every racist thing he’s said since the first instalment of “Coach’s Corner.” (If you sat down and watched the whole thing, I’m sure you’d be hard pressed to call his critics “snowflakes.”) Although his audience was large for a weekly television segment, his appeal was strongest with white Canadians who don’t seem to spend a lot of time, if any, hanging out with non-white Canadians—a demographic better served in 2019 by Rebel Media than by Sportsnet.

Cherry’s free speech is still guaranteed—just no longer on a nationally televised soapbox where he’s supposed to be talking about the game on the ice.

He was actually pretty good—even entertaining—when he stuck to that script.

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