As Canadian Studies scholars, our job is to reflect on the work of people like Don Cherry and his Coach’s Corner broadcast. We consider what he says, who he is speaking to, and how people respond to him — and how they respond to us when we discuss him.
What Cherry brings to the Anglo-Canadian imagination is an uncomplicated, nostalgic sense of masculine expression. It fits nicely with the cultures of both hockey and the Canadian military, two of Cherry’s biggest loves, largely celebrating the same kinds of values: hard work, violent aggression and physicality, wrapped in the bodies of seemingly straight, working-class, white everymen.
Cherry’s nostalgia was paradoxically ahead of its time. It was a precursor to Trump, to the Ford brothers, and to others like them, seemingly ubiquitous today. His attitude produced crisis masculinity, or a belief that “real men” (i.e., working-class white men who avoid showing vulnerability, solve problems with their fists, and work with their bodies) are under attack from “left-wing pinkos.” As the spokesperson for the Canadian “everyman,” Cherry leant voice to a group who felt that their often-invisible privilege and sometimes problematic gender expressions were under attack by academics and those in the media. However, Cherry’s unwavering support of these “regular Canadians” often left others, including Francophones, newcomers, women, racialized minorities, and Indigenous peoples, in opposition to his imagined Canada.
For years, Cherry has attacked those who question or challenge the forms of masculinity and Canadian identity that he holds dear. He viciously condemned those asking the NHL to implement measures to reduce head injuries amongst players. In one of his many anti-gay and misogynist outbursts, he called out the league for “the pansification [sic] of the game.” He lamented the apparent demise of Halloween at the hands of new immigrants. He reminded children each December that they were celebrating the “birth of baby Jesus.” And of course, this past Saturday night he bemoaned an imagined indifference to Remembrance Day amongst immigrant Canadians, complaining that “you people . . . love our way of life, you love our milk and honey,” but refuse to wear the poppy.
As a result of these invectives, many rightfully understand Cherry as racist, xenophobic and misogynist. However, not everyone shares these attitudes. Cherry has been a divisive figure in Canada — scorned as a racist yet celebrated as an important Canadian, even placing highly in the CBC’s Greatest Canadian contest. His Coach’s Corner broadcasts drew important sponsors to the Hockey Night in Canada franchise. Rogers Media recently reaffirmed this when they purchased the broadcast and maintained his position as Coach’s Corner host during their 2014 inaugural season.
If Cherry’s relationship with the public is complicated, so too is academic and media engagement with him. In spite of his significance to many Canadians, academics and reporters have done little to take Cherry seriously. We ignore why his remarkably problematic critique of Canadian culture resonates and what his popularity might tell us about the attitudes and prejudices of certain segments of the Canadian populations.
Cherry offends not only because of his racism and xenophobia, but also because of the way he positions himself as a spokesperson for the working class. Along with his age, Cherry’s performance of working-class masculinity is often the first thing that people mention when they talk about him — his lack of taste, bad pronunciation, and celebration of violence. While this offends some, for others it makes it easy not to take Cherry seriously. In contrast, the middle-class Ron MacLean, as we saw the other night, was often either silently complicit in Cherry’s views or encouraging of them. MacLean often seems above reproach, avoiding criticism even when supporting or echoing similar ideals.
True, some people become more close-minded with age. But others become more progressive, more radical, more educated. One need only look south, where the most progressive contenders for presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are both in their 70s. Retirement offers many the time and the status to advocate for change, protest, and work towards a better world. Indigenous Elders are at the forefront of all sorts of land rights and environmental protests.
And many — if not most — of the world’s most progressive revolutions began with the working class. To claim that Cherry represents the “common man” suggests that straight white males constitute the core of the working class, and makes invisible the many women, racialized people, and queer people who are over-represented in the working class. It is also an insult to working-class folks, who hold nuanced, complex moral and political beliefs, and are not, by virtue of their class position, automatically jingoistic, chauvinistic, racist, and mired in problematic gender norms.
After receiving many complaints, Rogers Sportsnet has announced that Cherry would be stepping down. This will satisfy many, including one tweeter who called for him to “get gone old man.” But in critiquing Cherry, we need to watch out for own prejudices. We need not fall into the trap of Cherry’s divisive nationalism. Instead, we can promote a Canada that is meaningfully inclusive of difference, including differences of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, class position, and age. And because of Don’s disrespect for so many of these differences, it was past time for Rogers and the CBC to stop granting him a national audience.
Kristi Allain is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Thomas University who has studied Don Cherry and analyzed the Coach’s Corner broadcasts. Stephanie Dotto is a Canadian studies scholar based at Trent University.
This article was first published by Hockey in Society.