So here’s a thing that happened…
The lead up to Remembrance Day is always a time that puts me into a contemplative mood. The Day itself is usually a stressful rush given that I’m part of the ceremonies. So I end up focussed on doing my job right, rather than taking a moment to reflect. The reflection, the remembering, those quiet solemn moments usually come before and after.
That’s one of the reasons I get really annoyed when controversy erupts around this time of year. Especially when it’s in the form of some kind of performative patriotism that will make me second guess how I’m conducting myself on what should be a very private day.
See, for example, this stupid Rainbow Poppy controversy.
The problem is, Don Cherry isn’t just some random knucklehead on TV. For the non-Canadian readers, Don basically is hockey for a huge part of the population. The man gets a five minute segment every Saturday for Hockey Night in Canada, and there’ll be more people tuning in to watch him than might watch the game itself. And while all kinds of people will line up to argue that his brand of hockey is outdated, brutish and crude, the fact that they’ll line up to argue kind of makes the point that he’s an institution in Canada.
He’s also a loyal friend to the Canadian Armed Forces.
I’ve said it before, but the CAF as an institution isn’t always in good standing with the general population. With our involvement in Afghanistan over, we usually end up in the news only when something goes wrong. And since (outside of official channels) we’re not allowed to publicly respond to criticism, we depend on friends and allies to speak up on our behalf. When something serious happens, and our usual defenders start ghosting away…well, it can get pretty fucking lonely.
Except there’s always going to be Don Cherry.
Whatever your opinion about the man, Don’s the sort of guy who takes loyalty seriously, and he wears his heart on his (gaudily patterned) sleeve. He supports the troops, and he will come out swinging on our behalf for any occasion. The man’s actually been fired a couple of times, only to be brought back later (and he still might get dragged out of this mess too) so he is not afraid to speak his mind when it’s something he cares about. These facts all combined to make him a beloved figure to a large percentage of the Canadian Forces.
…and then, this past weekend, as he was speaking out on behalf of veterans, he had to go and suggest immigrants weren’t wearing Poppies because they didn’t appreciate Canada.
So…for the record…
Yeah, so there’s fewer people wearing Poppies these days in Canada, and that’s pretty disappointing. I’m not going to claim any kind of demographic omniscience, but as far as I can tell it’s pretty much even across ethnicities and class. The Afghan War’s over (or at least, Canada’s role in it is over), and without that constant reminder, people without a direct connection to the CAF are going to lose track. It sucks, but that’s life.
It’s a subject that’s open to a rigorous debate, but here’s my opinion: The best way to fix stuff like this is to educate and invite. Explain where you’re coming from, why it matters, and invite someone to join you in a gesture of remembrance. Invitation is the key. It has to be an invitation, because a gesture of respect is meaningless unless it’s offered freely. You might be able to browbeat or harangue someone into wearing a poppy, but it won’t actually mean something even if you succeed. Worse, you’ll undermine the gesture made by people wearing the poppy voluntarily.
Among those who aren’t ignorant, there’s some people who worry that wearing the poppy is a sign that you support a particular war effort. For example, when the war in Afghanistan was on, a large part of the population associated that war with PM Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party (which Harper encouraged). This association made some people uncomfortable.
There’s also people who point out that even the Second World War (arguably, the good war) still involved bombing cities and leaving tens of millions of people trapped under Communist tyranny as the price for defeating Nazism. The First World War and the Boer War had us acting as an arm of the British Empire, which brings its own baggage along for the ride. Apparently there’s even been a controversy in the UK over the famous Canadian poem ‘In Flanders Fields,’ given that the second half of the poem (exhorting the listener to ‘Take up our quarrel with the foe’) seems to contradict the mournful tone of the first half.
These are all worthwhile arguments. And while I disagree with them, they’re certainly worth having.
***For the record, there’s also people who wear the poppy for the wrong reasons too. If the first thing you’re thinking when you pin on a poppy is ‘This’ll show those liberals!‘ then you’ve probably missed the point.***
So general ignorance, honest disagreement, or some other personal conviction. There’s lots of reasons why people aren’t wearing poppies. Specific immigrant communities might have a slightly different spectrum of reasons, but for the most part if a new Canadian isn’t wearing a poppy, I suspect it’s something similar to this.
As I see it, the answer is to educate, argue and debate. And to accept the fact that, whatever your arguments, people still have a right to not wear a poppy if they don’t want to. What Don Cherry did turned the wearing of a poppy into an Us vs Them situation, which is not just ineffective but wrong.
And for the record yes, Don was talking about immigrants and naturalized Canadians when he made his rant. If you listen to the whole thing, it’s not just him saying ‘you people’ instead of ‘everybody.’ In the course of the rant, he draws a comparison between downtown Toronto and Mississauga (both with large immigrant populations) versus small towns and rural Canada (still heavily ‘white’ and Protestant) and how the latter was full of ‘good Canadians.’ He also talked about ‘you people’ who ‘come here’ and ‘love our milk & honey.’ This was a shot at immigrants. Specifically immigrants and people of colour.
I’m embedding this video in particular since it’s posted by a supporter of Don’s, and it includes the whole rant instead of just the ‘you people’ part. It also has a second clip patched in at the end from a few years back where Don Cherry visited one of our First World War Cemeteries in Europe. I think the point was to show how much Don supports the troops (and imply that anyone who criticized him didn’t) but here I think the contrast works against the purpose. If Don Cherry’s rant in the first clip had been more like the second clip, nobody would have objected (even though it was also a lot more confrontational then it needed to be).
But that’s not the case here. He said what he said and that’s not cool. As much as I love and appreciate the work he’s done on our behalf, I can’t get behind comments that divides us into ‘good Canadians’ and ‘you people.’ That would set me apart from troops I’ve served with and even deployed alongside. If he’d backed off of his rant right away and apologized, it might have been a different story. But he stuck to his comments for days and even when he did sort of back off, it was a pretty weak performance.
So yeah, I can’t behind this. He was in the wrong, and I’m not going to blade my fellow soldiers (or fellow Canadians) by standing with him. At the same time, I’m not going to rejoice that he’s off the air. He may have been a problematic friend to us but he was still a friend. Seeing him go down like this really sucks for a lot of people in the CAF. And this is a time of year when a lot of CAF members are hurting to begin with.
So, not the best news for a Day of Remembrance, but I’ll leave you with a story to end things on a better note. It may only be a sample size of one, but it’s still something.
After the ceremonies were all over, we all retired to our respective Messes for a couple of pints. But since friendship crosses rank barriers, after a while various groups of Junior and Senior ranks (plus an officer or two) slipped away to the local bar to hang out together.
The end of the night saw me making my way home on foot in full dress uniform, as an unseasonably early November snowfall came down. I was almost home when a car pulled up, and the guy inside offered me a ride. I thanked him and declined. At that point I was literally a hundred meters from my house and it would have been embarrassing to accept a five second car ride. After a few moments of protest (he seemed genuinely concerned that I would get home safely) he wished me the best and drove on.
It was after midnight, so I couldn’t really make out the guy’s face. But his accent came through pretty clear. One of ‘you people.’ A good Canadian.
***Featured image from the Globe & Mail of Don Cherry’s visit with Canadian soldiers deployed to Kandahar, in Christmas of 2010.***
 For those not familiar, the answer is yes. Yes, he wears suits like that all the time. He literally has new ones made on a weekly basis to keep up the variety. If you pause Coach’s Corner with him on the screen for too long, his image will be permanently burned into your TV screen after you turn it off. It’s part of the brand.
 I get where people are coming from on this. It does seem contradictory. That’s because things get contradictory in war. You hate the war. You hate the harm it’s caused and the people it’s killed. At the same time, you feel that much more resolved to end it properly. Cognitive dissonance: Soldiers are more comfortable with it than civilians.
 After all, how else can you tell – just by looking – that a person not wearing a poppy is a recent arrival to Canada? So now we got people taking off their poppies, because they don’t want to be associated with anti-immigrant bullshit. Lovely.
 If there’s one person in all of Canada who could legitimately use the ‘My mouth got ahead of my brain,’ excuse, it’s Don Cherry.