An Open Letter to Don Cherry

Dear Don,

I watched the clip of your comment directed to “you people” on Hockey Night in Canada. Even if I don’t always like what you have to say, you’ve been a Canadian fixture for a long time, and I like that. And how could I not have at least grudging respect for the guy who came so close to knocking off my beloved Montreal Canadiens in 1979?

So I’m asking you to hear me out on why I think you were out of line on Saturday night. When you were a boy, a lot of Canadians didn’t like Jews. They thought Jews were of doubtful character, they wouldn’t fit in, and really just didn’t belong. Jews were often the butt of “you people” rants. You probably remember those days better than I do – you’ve got seven years on me. I guess you know that one of hockey’s icons, Conn Smythe, wouldn’t hire Jewish boys to sell programs at Maple Leaf Gardens.

When you were a boy, many Canadians predicted that Jews wouldn’t volunteer for military service, and wouldn’t make good soldiers even if they did. But Jews, most of them from immigrant families, did enlist in the Second World War, by the thousands. They volunteered in roughly the same proportions as other Canadians. Some of them earned DFCs and DSOs.

My maternal great-grandfather, who had come to Canada from Russia, was very proud that four of his five grandsons were serving overseas. One of them is buried over there, and one spent three years in Stalag Luft 3 – he kept watch for the tunnellers in the Great Escape and survived the long march in January 1945. My father’s cousin, a first generation Canadian, is buried in Shetland, as a consequence of a daring but failed raid on the battleship Tirpitz in Norway.

Today, unfortunately, some Canadians feel the same way about recent immigrants – many of whom are easily identified by their colour and sometimes their dress. To some Canadians, they are the “you people” of today, thought to be insufficiently grateful for their place here and insufficiently willing to become “real Canadians.” But you might discover that some of their fathers and grandfathers served and died for the British Commonwealth, if not Canada itself, in war, just as mine and perhaps yours did.

Yes, buying and wearing a poppy at this time of year is important. But more important is what sacrifices people will actually make for their country in its hour of need. Maybe the folks you addressed as “you people” haven’t yet been tested in that regard – and we should all be thankful for that, having lived in peace for so long. But you don’t really know how they might respond if so tested. Let’s wait and see who does what, should the time come. You might be surprised.

I’m not one to look for an apology – those are given out all too easily these days. But I’d very much like to hear from you whether you might agree that there are better and more positive ways of thinking about your concern. I’m sorry you have to go, but I think you do this time.

Yours sincerely,

Peter J. Usher