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‘I wish I’d handled myself differently’: How bystanders can challenge unacceptable comments

WATCH: Canada's history of immigrants who served and why we wear poppies

UPDATE: (4 p.m. ET, November 11) Don Cherry has been let go as co-host of Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada.

While there have been calls for Don Cherry to be fired over recent remarks, his co-host is also facing backlash for not challenging him.

“There’s a lot of men like Don Cherry in our country and there’s a lot of men like Ron MacLean who stand beside them and don’t check them on their bull – -,” rapper Cadence Weapon wrote on Twitter.

‘We were wrong:’ Ron MacLean apologizes for Don Cherry’s comments on Hockey Night in Canada
‘We were wrong:’ Ron MacLean apologizes for Don Cherry’s comments on Hockey Night in Canada

READ MORE: Ron MacLean apologizes for not challenging Don Cherry’s ‘hurtful and prejudiced’ comments

MacLean nodded along during the Coach’s Corner segment of Hockey Night in Canada Saturday as Cherry lamented how he doesn’t see enough people wearing poppies, particularly in downtown Toronto or his home of Mississauga, Ont.

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Both cities have some of Canada’s largest immigrant populations.

“You people … you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

In an apology on Sunday evening, MacLean said he was upset with himself for how he reacted.

“During last night’s broadcast, Don made comments that were hurtful and prejudiced and I wish I had handled myself differently,” he said.

But his initial silence has brought a larger issue into focus — the role of observers in speaking out when prejudice rears its head.

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Don Cherry faces backlash over comments on Remembrance Day, poppies and immigrants
Don Cherry faces backlash over comments on Remembrance Day, poppies and immigrants

How bystanders can ‘make it awkward’

Everyone has a role to play in making Canada a better place by challenging unacceptable remarks, said Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

One of the most important things people can do is “make it awkward” and have those difficult conversations, he said.

READ MORE: Racial slur captured on video in Edmonton spurs #MakeItAwkward social media campaign

He was referencing the #makeitawkward initiative from actor and anti-racism activist Jesse Lipscombe. In 2016, he launched the campaign after he faced racial slurs while filming a PSA in Edmonton.

Farooq said it’s critical to engage in dialogue when, for instance, you’re sitting around the table and a family member “spouts something that’s just fundamentally untrue.”

These conversations, he added, can be approached from “a place of love” rather than harsh judgment.

Sportsnet, Ron MacLean issue apologies after Don Cherry controversial remarks on immigrants and poppies
Sportsnet, Ron MacLean issue apologies after Don Cherry controversial remarks on immigrants and poppies

If we really love our neighbours, if we really love our family members, I think it’s our duty to strive to help them understand where their prejudices are coming from and to show them that there’s a better way of understanding things,” he said.

Noting a rise in hate crimes against Muslims and religious institutions in particular, Farooq cautioned that in cases where racist incidents involve criminal acts, his organization recommends calling authorities when necessary.

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READ MORE: Racism can become a political flashpoint — advocates say it needs to be a conversation

Farooq also highlighted the power of knowledge. Bystanders can educate themselves so they are better equipped to challenge intolerance.

In this case, Cherry’s comments prompted criticism that he was suggesting that relatives of immigrants and racialized Canadians never fought in wars.

Many sought to debunk that perception — it was a key element of the dialogue that rose from Cherry’s remarks.

“Don, let me introduce you to #youpeople,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wrote on Twitter. He shared an image of his great grandfather who served in the first and second world wars under the British.

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One man decided to confront Cherry in a totally different way, however — by issuing a challenge.

Philanthropist Mohamad Fakih, the CEO of Toronto’s Paramount Fine Foods, pledged $10,000 to a Calgary food bank that serves veterans.

“Instead of insulting those of us who have chosen Canada as the place we want to build our lives, perhaps Don Cherry … should consider matching my commitment. That is the sort of action that honours the valour and the memory of our veterans,” Fakih said in a tweet Sunday.

Farooq said Fakih demonstrated that “sometimes the most beautiful way of bystander intervention is not even to necessarily engage, but is to show a higher level of character and excellence.”

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Why prejudiced remarks go unchallenged

Research shows there are many reasons why people choose to avoid — or confront — unacceptable behaviour.

A group of Australian academics led by Kevin Dunn conducted a study on the topic in 2014 as part of a Bystander Anti-Racism project,

They found people don’t intervene for lots of reasons, including fear of provoking violence, wanting to avoid conflict and not knowing how to step in.

Also on their list are gender norms — for example, the idea that confronting unacceptable comments would be perceived as unfeminine for women.

READ MORE: Bystander training to combat sexual harassment, violence becoming more common in workplaces

The researchers also pointed to tolerance for racism. One of the reasons why some don’t take action is that they see the victims “as belonging to a different group that (they) are not responsible for.”

On the other hand, the researchers found that factors such as education — knowledge of what constitutes racism and understanding of the harm it causes — helps people address hate when they witness it.