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Fallout from the Don Cherry debacle has been fast, furious, and at times more than a little foggy.
It has been particularly difficult for me to follow the zig-zag paths of many self-identified conservatives as they’ve rushed to support Cherry following his weekend firing by Hockey Night in Canada.
I have written from a largely Burkean conservative (though never partisan Conservative) perspective for about 40 years. That’s two years longer than Don Cherry played his role of “the coach” on HNIC’s Coach’s Corner between period segments. I’m not about to do a full Michael Coren. This is not a political Corenary, a startling change of a conservative heart.
Au contraire. My bafflement at conservatives who’ve taken up Cherry’s cause comes from them seeming to forget the very conservative ideals we share. One of those ideals is the principal importance of history and memory as essential political guides. If we look to those guides, we see that on any ground, but particularly conservative grounds, Cherry’s use of the phrase “you people” was justifiable grounds for his dismissal as a broadcaster.
True, he now says he offered to apologize and was rebuffed by the network. That full tale may one day be truly told. Equally true, no one with a functioning human heart could take a shred of joy in an 85-year-old man being bounced out on his keister from the million dollar a year job he clearly lived to perform.
But it is not just those I’ve seen described as a cabal of “hysterical white progressives” or “woke urban hipsters” or zany social justice warriors who should deem the words he used unconscionable. The test? Who among settled Canadians would, while of sound mind, spit the phrase “you people” directly in the faces of any group of newly arrived Canadians? Indeed, who even witnessing such an unacceptable insult being delivered, would not wish consequence for the person responsible, perhaps even offer hospitality to those insulted? If that is our natural civic reaction in a face-to-face encounter, why would we defend it just because the same spittle is flying in a television studio? Do we really support Don Cherry acting as our proxy for ranting meanness that we would never tolerate publicly, much less speak ourselves?
From a position of conservative prudence particularly, the answer can only be no. Why? Because the “you people” phrase Cherry used links directly to a myriad of sordid dimensions in Canadian history and memory. It is not one that should ever be taken to represent the country as a whole, or even in part. By calling new Canadians “you people,” he took us all back to the time when:
“You people” were the Ukrainian and Poles and other Eastern Europeans demeaned and discriminated against as mere sheep-skin coated half-wit primitives incapable of speech beyond unintelligible guttural utterances
“You people” were the Jews legal forbidden by deeds from buying property in the Laurentians north of Montreal, one of many anti-Semitic outrages inflicted on them
“You people” were the Italians rounded up and placed in internment camps out of assumed disloyalty to Canada during war time, leading even those who remained free in cities such as Hamilton to literally burn their Italian-language books and documents to escape suspicion
“You people” were the Japanese in Stevenson, B.C. and elsewhere who had their homes and fishing boats stolen from them by government agencies, and who were then forced into internment camps for assumed treachery
“You people” were the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims forced to remain aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver harbour for two months in fetid conditions because of a prohibition against allowing them safe refuge in the city
“You people” were the 6,000 Irish whose bodies were dumped in a mass unmarked grave in Montreal, or Catholics whose barns burned to drive them out of rural southern Ontario, and employment closed to them in Toronto because of their faith and heritage
“You people” were members of the African Canadian community in Halifax fined, as Viola Desmond was, for daring to sit in the “whites only” section of local theatres
“You people” were the Germans obliged to change their names to anglicized variants to avoid verbal and physical abuse from neighbours before, during and after, the World Wars
“You people” were the French-Canadians told to stop speaking French, to “speak white” and mocked, and ridiculed, and humiliated when they tried to speak accented, imperfect English
“You people” were those of different sexual orientation driven from jobs and homes and in some cases to suicide for fear of discovery and criminal prosecution
“You people” were the First Nations stereotyped as drunks and beggars and shiftless incompetents unable to care for themselves without the paternalism imposed by federal laws that, paradoxically, have left them without clean drinking water for decades
This, and a far longer list comprising infinitely greater details afflicting a myriad of others, is the darkness emanating from the diminishment of the human implicit in the two-word phrase Don Cherry used. To be absolutely clear, these are only parts of our history. They are not the whole of who we are. They are certainly not what we aspire to be. But it’s precisely the conviction that Canada is a whole much greater than the sum of those parts – a belief I hold as fiercely as life itself – that must lead conservatives in particular to remember our history and therefore repudiate what Cherry said.
Fittingly, it was a conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker, who led the way more than 60 years ago when he devoted enormous energies in his political life to ending what he called the hyphenated Canadianism that feeds the habit of “you peopleism.”
As Diefenbaker, a Prairie populist of German ancestry himself, put it famously in 1958: “I am the first prime minister of this country of neither altogether English nor French origin. So I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration... I am very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin…” And he added this: “They are all Canadians."
Yes, they were. Yes, they are. It’s why even those who have not yet achieved full Canadian citizenship, who as yet are only visitors among us, remain welcome to our hospitality and our respect. If we are not prepared to stand fast and, if need be, furiously for that fundamental principle of being Canadian, then what pray tell, fellow conservatives, what is there left to conserve of what Canada is meant to mean?