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Former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion defends Don Cherry, says ‘he’s not a racist’

WATCH ABOVE: Hockey fans gathered outside of Rogers Communications with placards in hand, calling on Sportsnet to re-instate co-host and hockey commentator Don Cherry. As Morganne Campbell reports, fans think Cherry should've been given a chance to explain his rant on live TV.

Former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion is defending Don Cherry, saying “he’s not a racist” and that he “could have used some better words” after the hockey commentator was fired from his position as co-host of Coach’s Corner over controversial comments he made on-air.

“He should have said all Canadians are not paying attention to Armistice Day or wearing the poppy. That’s what he should have said,” McCallion told Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

McCallion said she is just as concerned as Cherry when it comes to what she called “the lack of respect for the poppy” in supporting Canada’s veterans.

“I attended many functions in the past couple of weeks and I’m surprised when I don’t see the poppy on the coat or clothes of people,” McCallion said.

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“The attendance at Remembrance Day services is going down,” McCallion continued. “I wish it could be the type of rally that occurs at Scotiabank when the Maple Leafs are playing or the Raptors. And weather means nothing. They show up in the thousands to support the Leafs and the Raptors, but Armistice Day services are going down the hill.”

A recent survey suggests the percentage of Canadians who plan to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies has climbed to 41 per cent this year, a boost of two per cent over last year and 14 per cent over 2016.

READ MORE: Don Cherry defends Hockey Night in Canada comments but says he would have ‘used different words’

The controversy started on Saturday night, just days before Remembrance Day, when Cherry made televised comments that appeared to suggest new Canadians did not buy poppies and imply they don’t support veterans.

“You people … that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy,” he said on Saturday.

Don Cherry criticized for comments on immigrants, poppies
Don Cherry criticized for comments on immigrants, poppies

On Monday, the 85-year-old was fired from Hockey Night in Canada by Sportsnet due to his comments.

“Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down,” Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley said in a statement on Monday. “During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.”

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READ MORE: Why Don Cherry’s ‘you people’ rant on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ has such an impact

In a sit-down interview with Global News on Tuesday, the former co-host of Coach’s Corner said if he could do it again, he would have used different words.

“I think the closest I’ll come to apologizing is I wish I had used different words,” Cherry told Global News.

“I do believe to this day that everybody in Canada should have a poppy on out of honour and respect of the fallen soldiers that have fallen in the Second World War, Korea and the whole deal.

“Those people who gave their lives, at least we can buy a poppy.”

Don Cherry gone from Coach’s Corner amid controversy
Don Cherry gone from Coach’s Corner amid controversy

McCallion agrees that Cherry should have used different words and that the point he was trying to get across got muddled and was not what he intended to say.

“He’s not racist; he’s a great Canadian. He’s a great supporter of our soldiers, he’s a great supporter of veterans,” McCallion said.

“I think Sportsnet … [and Rogers] has made a very bad decision. I think they should have given him the opportunity to explain,” she added. “I would say to Sportsnet, reverse your decision on behalf of Canadians.”

READ MORE: Hockey players weigh in on Don Cherry’s comments, firing: ‘Disappointing on many fronts’

Current Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said she was “very disappointed” when she heard Cherry’s comments.

“I am calling offside. Mr. Cherry, you were offside in those comments. It’s very unfortunate, and we’re calling icing on this one,” Crombie said on Sunday.

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“I think he should walk back those comments. I think there should be an apology. I think he should be a little bit more thoughtful and careful when talking about our new Canadians.”

When asked about her successor’s position, McCallion said she disagrees with the current mayor’s comments.

“I do not agree with the mayor. I’m not sure she is aware of the great work that Don Cherry has done. And so I’m sorry, I completely disagree with the mayor’s comments,” McCallion said.

A small support rally for Cherry occurred outside Sportsnet on Mount Pleasant Road. They called for Cherry to be reinstated. Despite a small scuffle, the protest itself was rather peaceful as men and women carried placards and Canadian flags.

Mississauga mayor calls Don Cherry’s comments ‘very disappointing’
Mississauga mayor calls Don Cherry’s comments ‘very disappointing’

McCallion didn’t attend the rally in person due to her schedule, but she said that she would “be there in spirit.”

A Change.org petition titled “Bring back Don Cherry!” has almost 175,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

— With files from Morganne Campbell