Media Sports

Don Cherry

Let me frank right off the bat and allow that I am an unabashed Don Cherry fan. He, more than anyone, understands what hockey means to people in Canada. Let me capture that for just a moment.

Hockey is a game of total commitment. As the saying goes, you leave it all out there on the ice. You go in, play your 45 seconds as hard as you can, then let someone else take over. You play hurt. You sacrifice yourself for the team. It’s a hard, difficult, sometimes violent sport that sometimes rewards you with the silverware and where everyone’s career ends the same way.

It’s Bobby Baun scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal on a broken leg. It’s a concussed Maurice Richard facing down goalie Jim Henry – himself playing with a broken nose – to score the series winner. It’s Bobby Orr flying through the air to score a Cup-winner in overtime. It’s Paul Henderson and Phil Esposito getting up off the mat to face down the Soviets in 1972.

I love baseball – always have, always will – but it’s hockey that’s in my blood, hockey that defines my ethos as a Canadian, and hockey that defines for me what it means to play the game. You play hard, you play hurt, and you leave it all on the ice. I hope that that’s what they’ll say about me when I’m done, and I know that that’s what they’ll say about Canada.

That’s what Don Cherry understands, and what has made him over 37 years in the game one of the most powerful voices not only for hockey but for Canada as a whole.

Don Cherry was also conservative to the core. At 85 years old, coming of age up in the 1950s, he could hardly be anything else. The 50s were a gritty decade, but also a beautiful decade, an era rife with suspicion and mistrust, but effused with the heady fruits of victory in a hard-fought world war and ongoing conflicts to hold the communists in check.

As society changed, and as hockey changed, through the 70s and 80s and even now into the late 2010s, it was pretty easy to see this image of Canada and the victories won by our parents beginning to fade. Cherry, the hockey commentator, could see it in the stone-cold emotionlessness of the Soviets, the smooth-skating but non-contact mode of the Swedes, the tic-tac-toe tactics of the Czechs. None of this was real hockey, and to the extent that this was influencing the game, it was diluting hockey, and with it, diluting what it means to be Canadian.

That’s why he railed against the use of face-masks. It’s not that he wanted hockey players to lose an eye, but that he felt it encouraged cheap shots and attacks with sticks, rather than the direct confrontation you would see in the old days. That’s why he promoted fighting and rock-em sock-em hockey. He felt you should face the opposition directly instead of doing something behind his back. In Don Cherry’s world – and, for that matter, in mine – you respect your opponent, you respect the game, and you respect the outcome.

Now despite Don Cherry’s best intentions, hockey has changed, and it has mostly changed for the better. After all, it’s no longer acceptable to celebrate a sport that requires its participants to beat each other senseless, nor should it be. I remember after the lockout one year the NHL came back with a renewed emphasis on speed and skill and respect for the players and for the game and it was (for a time) a lot better, showing it could be done, and I guess, eventually would be done.

The same, maybe, could be said of Canada. We’re evolving into a faster and more skillful version of ourselves, which means that some of the grit from previous eras is lost. For many of us, getting along in the world is no longer a matter of staring down our opponents with steely-eyed determination, but instead, of finding ways of living with them.

This is also true internally. It brings to mind some of the Don Cherry tropes of the past – opposition to the RCMP wearing turbans, opposition to women in the dressing rooms, dismissal of women generally,  attacks on left-wing pinkos, criticism of David Suzuki, and of course, criticism of Russian hockey players. He railed against the metric system, offered to bring back the last for domestic abusers, criticized Canada’s decision to stay out of Iraq. He complained about “some French guy” carrying the national flag at the Olympics, attacked Bloc Quebecois members removing Canadian flags, criticized multiculturalism and even railed against ballet.

But none of that is who we are. I’m not sure it was ever who we are, not even in the 1950s. It’s a vision of Canada that has become smaller and smaller over time, even as we as a nation have embraced the wider world to become faster, more skillful, and indeed, stronger. I love Don Cherry, I love how he understands what hockey means to us, but I could never love a the small narrow-minded vision of Canada he has come to embrace over the years.

And, at a certain point, his sort of rhetoric becomes dangerous. Look at what’s happening in the United States, where the faltering privilege of the white and powerful is leading to a backlash that threatens American democracy itself. Look at the United Kingdom, a nation that is tearing itself apart over the question of whether outsiders can be allowed to challenge their status quo of a society based on elitism and privilege. We have to be smarter than that.

Don Cherry’s comment usually appear with ellipses in the news media, but let’s quote his remarks in full:

You know, I was talking to a veteran, I said “I’m not going to run the poppy thing any more, because what’s the sense, I live in Mississauga, nobody wears… very few people wear a poppy, downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears the poppy, and I’m not going to…” and he says, “Wait a minute. How about running it for the people that buy them?” Now you go to the small cities, and you know, those… you know, the rows on rows…  you people love, you know, they 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 poppies or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys pay the biggest price.

In explaining his remarks, Cherry says he meant “everyone” by “you people”, and that he didn’t think the remarks were that bad. But they were that bad, as not only his history, but the full version of the quote makes clear.

Cherry is clearly talking about immigrants – people who “come here” and enjoy “our way of life”. But more, he specifically references Mississauga and downtown Toronto, two regions known for large populations of visible minorities. Maybe he just meant immigrants in general, but the clear statement here is one that references people not like us.

But it’s Don Cherry, and by “not like us” he probably includes Europeans and pinkos and environmentalists and feminists and the French and all the rest of them. Which means he is not a racist Properly So-Called (so Bobby Orr is probably right), because he has grounds in addition to race for his attacks. But that was never the question. The question is whether this view of Canada – narrow, exclusionary, elitist, belligerent, militaristic – is one deserves a platform any more.

And – of course – it does not. It’s not about whether Don Cheery is a bad person, or about whether he deserves to be fired, or about freedom of speech. No, it’s about whether we, as a nation, are willing to continue to allow ourselves to be defined in such terms. And – peripherally – it’s about whether we are willing to allow hockey to be defined in such terms. And we’re not. Because they’re not what’s best about us. They’re not what’s best about hockey. They’re what’s worst.

You see, Don Cherry really did capture the best of us, which is why we love him so. You play hard, you play hurt, and you leave it all on the ice. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve thought about that, and thought about a Doug Gilmour playing through enough pain to make a grown man cry, and pulled up my socks, and carried on. Because this does define what it means to be Canadian. We’re not afraid of hard work, we’re not afraid of sacrifice, and we’re willing to commit everything.

But, like the game, we’re so much more than that. Everybody‘s on the team, including the newcomers. People contribute in different ways, drawing on their different strengths. We don’t need enforcers any more. We’re smart, we’re fast, we’re skillful. We can play with the best in the world, because we’ve drawn from the best in the world. We not only face adversity, we learn from adversity.

So while Don Cherry has our thanks and our love, it’s time to move on. There’s a whole new hockey game out there, it’s beautiful, and it’s time to let it in.

Economy Energy

Alberta’s Fair Deal

I lived in Alberta for a long time – more than 20 years. I worked in the oil patch, doing seismic processing. I went to university there. I split my time between Edmonton, Calgary and the north. Alberta was very good to me.

So I want the best for Alberta. The people were open to me as a newcomer, embracing my contributions to their growing economy and thriving western culture, and I in turn worked hard to make the communities in which I lived better places.

I cut my teeth in Alberta. It was here I learned computer science, learning as I worked for a division of Texas Instruments, taking night courses at SAIT, developing my skills and building applications. I also became an ink-stained wretch in Alberta, honing my skills as a journalist working with the Gauntlet for six years.

There’s more, but you get the idea. And I preface this post this way because I want to warn Alberta against making the sort of mistake it has made in the past.

I lived in Alberta in the 1980s, and for Albertans, that date means the (Pierre) Trudeau government and the hated National Energy Policy (NEP). Spurred by successive provincial governments, Albertans saw the NEP as a raw deal, and never forgave the Liberals for trying to implement it. And, of course, when the Conservatives were elected in 1984, that was the end of the policy.

Now this is important: what the NEP attempted to do was to establish a Canadian market for Alberta oil, building a coast-to-cost network, and stabilizing the price to protect Canadians – especially eastern Canadians – from another oil price shock as was seen in the 1970s.

Albertans – rightly – saw the NEP as an attempt to define Alberta oil as a national resource and as an attempt to help all of Canada benefit from the bounty found underneath Prairie soils. What they didn’t see was what it would do when the other shoe dropped. Which it did. Which it always does.

The NEP was not only a price ceiling. It was also a price floor. It would protect Alberta if the bottom ever fell out of oil prices. But this was a hypothetical benefit. Since the 1970s, oil prices had only ever gone up. And in any case, there was the Heritage Trust Fund to protect Albertans from the impact of variable prices.

So Mulroney was elected in 1984, the NEP was killed, and you know what happened next.


The bottom fell out of oil prices. A steady slide became a plunge, eventually reaching levels not seen since the 1950s. Alberta, instead of being able to rely on a steady Canadian market, fell victim to world prices. The economy plunged into recession.

Ralph Klein, Calgary’s popular mayor, governed through the worst of it, navigating the province through the severe cuts needed to survive. He also preserved what came to be known as the ‘Alberta advantage’ – a zero percent sales tax, low income tax, and generous corporate concessions, all in the name of preserving Alberta’s economy.

The effect was to gut the Heritage Trust Fund. Instead of being invested, and taking advantage of a world economy that boomed while oil prices plunged, it was spent keeping Alberta afloat during the hard times. Contrast what became of the Heritage trust fund in comparison with how Alaska and Norway managed their funds:


So, in essence, Alberta not only discarded income security at the exact moment it would have been most useful, it used its savings to take up the slack, squandering what could have been by now a 169-billion trust fund.

So why is all of this important?

Alberta’s new premier, Jason Kenney, is about to make the same mistake. He wants to jettison the security that comes with being a part of Canada’s social safety net, and throw the province under the fiscal bus.

He wants to renegotiate Canada’s equalization payments plan, wherein the rich provinces subsidize poorer provinces. He wants Alberta to collect its own taxes, to manage its own Alberta pension plan, and to ensure municipalities and school boards do not enter directly into agreements with Ottawa. Source.

He can do this, of course. It’s similar to what Quebec has done for decades. And Quebec – partially as a result – has been a net beneficiary from national equalization programs over the years. But the question here is whether he should do it.

What Kenney should be doing right now is asking “what if oil prices don’t go up?” What if the bottom falls out of the world oil prices as a combination of alternative sources and a global demand for zero-carbon energy courses takes hold? What if the bottom falls out of Alberta’s economy and there’s no floor?

The reaction from Alberta politicians suggests that the rest of Canada should be grateful to have it as a member of confederation and ready to bend over backward to support Alberta’s needs. After all, Alberta contributed $611-billion to Confederation between 1961 and 2017. Source.

But paying money is not by itself enough to generate a feeling of gratitude. For one thing, Ontario – the province where I grew up and where I live now – paid $723 billion in the same period of time – and even more between the years 1905-1961, when Alberta was a basket case. And Ontario made these contributions without the benefit of pool of oil sitting just under the surface.

And Ontarians (like Quebeckers, and the rest of the country) pay their fair share of taxes. Conservative news coverage depicts equalization payments as some sort of hypothetical ‘cost’ to individual Alberta families, but take no account of the free ride Albertans have granted themselves as a result of the oil boom, and take no account of the benefits Albertans could have accrued had the province not thrown away the opportunities offered by Canada in the past.

If Jason Kenney decides to cut the province out of the benefits of the Canadian tax system, pension system, health and education benefits, and presumably other benefits as well, it will be difficult to find a sympathetic ear when the province really needs Canadian support to make the Alberta-first approach work.

British Columbia, when being asked to support an expanded pipeline to salt water, cannot be faulted when it recalls that Ralph Klein’s solution to provincial poverty was to provide poor people with one-way bus tickets to Vancouver. Source. Provincial governments have been happy to export Alberta’s problems and to lay the blame at Ottawa’s feet, but in fact, most of their misfortune has been the result of their own short-sightedness.

Even so, the rest of Canada will still lend a sympathetic ear. That’s why Justin Trudeau spent $3 billion of our money to buy a pipeline project for Alberta, even though he probably knew it would not gain him a single vote in the west. And it’s why the rest of Canada continues to support economic basket cases in eastern Canada, not because they are particularly well-managed, not because we think that they will One Day become successful, but because they are part of us, and that’s what Canadians do.

Before they cut too many economic ties, I would recommend that the people of Alberta look at the benefits of being Canadian. It goes beyond what we have – and world – provide by way of support, and equalization payments, and a stable and prosperous home market. We have shared both the risks and benefits of prosperity, and even though it is an approach Albertan voters have mostly eschewed through the years, it has nonetheless served them well.