A Surrey, B.C., historian says Don Cherry parting ways with “Hockey Night in Canada” over televised remarks implying new immigrants don’t wear poppies or support veterans doesn’t address the need for broader education of immigrants’ contributions to Commonwealth forces.
Sportsnet, which airs the long-running hockey program, announced Monday they had “decided it is the right time for (Cherry) to immediately step down” following the 85-year-old’s divisive comments during his “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday’s broadcast.
But Steven Purewal, a historian who has long researched the contribution and sacrifice of Indian soldiers during the First World War, said his immediate reaction to the news that Cherry was stepping down was one of disappointment.
“As an educator, that’s not necessarily what will serve the overall purpose of what we’re trying to do, which is to educate people,” he said Monday.
“Firings and apologies don’t always work, because what they don’t do is tell the whole story…. What we need to be telling Canadians is that many, many diverse communities fought in the Great War and the Second World War. Without their contributions, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we have today.”
Cherry’s remarks sparked fierce condemnation from the public, politicians and the National Hockey League, leading to calls for Cherry to be fired.
“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 Saturday. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”
Cherry has not responded publicly since the comments were made. He did confirm to the Toronto Sun on Monday that he had been fired, saying “no problem,” but later saying he felt hurt over no longer doing “Coach’s Corner.”
Purewal said it was wrong for Cherry to suggest immigrants don’t support Canadian veterans, noting the broadcaster has no way of knowing who’s an immigrant and who was born in Canada.
“It endorses a stereotype that the immigrant is somehow unpatriotic, is thankless about the sacrifices it took to build the country,” he said.
He also highlighted the more than 73,000 Indian troops he says died while they fought alongside Canada under the British crown during the First World War, including in the very fields that inspired John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields poem.
“If we associate the poppy with Flanders Fields, then the Sikhs and the Punjabis in particular have a stronger association with the poppy than the Canadian Expeditionary Forces by virtue of being in Flanders Fields five months before the Canadians even got there,” he said.
History like that is why Purewal created the At his Duty, Honour & Izzat exhibition, which was showing at the Museum of Surrey on Remembrance Day to highlight the major role Indian troops played.
It’s a story Purewal wants to be spread as much as possible, which is why he said Cherry stepping down was a missed opportunity.
“To my mind, the best possible thing that could have happened was for him to have invited someone more informed on his show, and use his platform to correct what he said,” he said.
“We can lose those opportunities for education if we have these knee-jerk reactions.”
Other members of Surrey’s South Asian community had similar reactions to the news.
“I don’t think that by firing someone it changes anything,” Harleen Dastur-Randhawa said. “I think it just stokes fires of divisiveness and I think it doesn’t allow us to change the course going forward.
“By continuing to be argumentative and casting blame, without addressing what’s underlying all that, I think it’s problematic for all Canadians.”
Dastur-Randhawa and Farhad Dastur attended Purewal’s exhibition, and Dastur said it even educated him. He’s hopeful Cherry and others will also get the message not just about India’s contribution, but that of other immigrant communities as well.
“This was a real moment when we could have said, let’s turn this around, let’s take this guy who has a very big following and presence, he’s a charismatic guy, bring him on side and get him to say, ‘You know what, I was wrong, I’ve educated myself, now let’s understand this country’s true history,'” he said.