OPINION | You people might want to think before you judge Don Cherry

When Don Cherry was fired earlier this month, most of my friends celebrated, taking to Facebook to announce a victory against xenophobia. 

However, my first reaction was indifference. It's easy to judge a celebrity, and it should be just as easy to understand that Don Cherry, 85, was being Don Cherry. 

During the first episode of his post-Sportsnet podcast, Cherry clarified that he tried to fix what has been broken: "I offered to explain. Not an apology, but I was going to smooth it over." 

In that comment, he spelled out the secret recipe for how to shirk responsibility for offensive comments or discriminatory speech: don't be blunt with your xenophobic comment, smooth it over and never apologize. 

This strategy — let's call it the 'smooth it over strategy' — saves many from the apology. I agree with Cherry that we all get to enjoy Canada's milk and honey, although I prefer maple syrup. We are different and we take pride in celebrating diversity. But our diverse communities are not immune from xenophobia and racism. Xenophobia is often dismissed because someone smooths it over. 

And that leads me to what came to mind when I saw this story break, and the subsequent reaction: you should not judge Cherry unless you rid yourself of xenophobia.


Walk the walk, or don't talk the talk

Let me take you on a journey through some real-life "you people" scenarios. A disclaimer: the following events happened in safe, progressive settings where, on first glance, you would not expect them to.

Let's begin with a question I have come to expect to hear from strangers: 'Where are you really from?' 

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Have you asked this question of people who look different from you? If your answer is yes, don't judge Cherry. 

Even the most progressive settings are beset with xenophobia. The following incident happened at a conference on women's rights in Toronto. 

I was having a conversation with a woman from a visible minority. Another participant interrupted our conversation: "You sound beautiful, what language are you speaking?" 

The only shared language between us was English. 

The participant, who happened to be a women's rights activist, insisted that we were not speaking English and asked both of us, "Where are you from?" 

There was no apology. 


It happens too often: the pigeonholing of people from visible minorities when it comes to politics and social values. Right, left or centre, it doesn't make a difference. Labelling yourself as progressive is of no value if that designation is not played out on the ground. 

An organizer of a rally invited me to their event assuming that it would be of interest. Beyond that, they invited me to hold signs and be at the front line. 

The invitation was based on a stereotypical assumption that the issue would be of interest to me as a woman from a visible minority. As it turns out, I was not interested in their cause, and declined the invitation. That same organizer held pro-choice rallies and events that I was never invited to attend in person, despite being vocal and supportive of that cause. 

On many occasions this group rallied against xenophobia, while disregarding its own version of xenophobia: ignoring voices of visible minorities and falling into the trap of casting stereotypes when it comes to politics and social values.   

Cherry's remarks reminded me of a former classmate who shared his anti-immigration essay on "what it means to be a Canadian" with the entire class. This sentence is engraved in my mind: "If new immigrants ever tried to play hockey and eat bacon, they would learn how to enjoy being Canadians." 

Being a Canadian is not about hockey or bacon. Being a good Canadian citizen must be about giving back to the diverse communities that make our nation strong. It's about celebrating our diversity and being kind to one another. 

If you've judged Cherry, look within and take the time to reflect on your words and actions.  

I have a little secret to share: I don't enjoy watching hockey games. But I love basketball and soccer. That doesn't make me less of a Canadian. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.