Big mouth, small mind
Canada's much prized multi-culturalism is challenged by the blunt remarks of a "politically incorrect" national icon, writes Aziza Sami from Montreal
The discriminatory remarks uttered on 24 January by Canada's most popular television presenter -- 70-year-old Don Cherry -- have the government and a sizeable portion of the public up in arms. His comments are seen as an affront to the country's hard-won maxim of "cultural diversity and acceptance of others".
The outspoken former hockey player, who for 24 years has presented the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) popular hockey slot, "Coach's Corner", has never, in fact, stopped making jibes at French Canadians -- the Quebecois -- denigrating by implication, say his critics, all those who are not WASPS (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants).
In a country which every year receives some two million immigrants, and only barely avoided fragmentation less than decade ago when the Quebecois voted in a referendum on whether to remain part of Canada, matters appear to have become edgy. The patriotic Anglo-Saxon Cherry -- a man whose hero, incidentally, is Lord Horatio Nelson -- recently topped his ongoing negative commentary on "French" hockey players in the Canadian National Hockey League by pointedly saying that only they chose to wear protective visors while playing, which makes them into "sucks" (sissies). A week before, he judged that it would "not be surprising" if the use of drugs were found to be widespread in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Now, the matter appears to have reached the epic proportions of a nationally divisive issue, inducing a reprimand of the commentator by the government-owned CBC, as well as by Minister of State for Multiculturalism Jean Augustine. Politicians are demanding a debate in parliament. An investigation to ascertain whether the CBC has violated Canada's Official Languages Act has been launched by Federal Official Languages Commissioner Dyane Adams. Authorities allege that such jibes directed to a sizeable portion the population, some seven million French-Canadians, and aired on a publicly-funded broadcast, is a violation of the Languages Act which was passed in 1985 to support the development of French and English minority communities. The CBC will now air Cherry's broadcast on a seven- second delay system, which would give "supervisors" time to censor out any words or commentary deemed offensive to the audience.
For advocates of free speech, and Cherry's thousands of fans, this "smacks of censorship" and appears an exaggerated reaction to jibes which, however provocative, should not be taken too seriously. Montreal's daily, The National Post, characterised the reaction by the government as "an oversensitivity when it comes to bi- lingualism and tolerance -- a storm in a teacup".
But in equal proportion to those who raise concerns over free speech, are those -- and many of them not French- Canadians -- who feel that discriminatory remarks against a certain culture or group aired on a government broadcast is an "assault", as one reader put it in a letter to the Montreal Gazette, "on what it means to be a Canadian".
The issue poses a paradox for a society that prizes itself on its "multi- ethnic" tolerance in an increasingly xenophobic world following 11 September 2001. Even prior to 11 September, Canadian society -- through specific institutions and laws created for this purpose -- made a self- conscious effort to uphold as a fundamental principle, "multi-ethnicity ... and acceptance -- not assimilation -- of the differences between communities which make up the country".
Hence the strong reaction to Cherry's rhetoric: not only on the part of the public, but also the government and its agencies.
But Canada is also a country which boasts a largely "progressive" record of individual liberties, attested to by the legalisation of same-sex marriages, and the current debate on legalising drugs, when compared, for instance, to the more conservative US. In such a context, "free speech", however controversial, is a holy cow.
Conservative opposition leader Grant Hill says that what is at stake here is "vigorous debate versus political correctness". Hill and many others allege that the government, in pandering to political correctness, is instigating an "Orwellian clampdown" on the freedom of expression. But in a country where immigrants from Asian countries, and the Middle East, have come to outnumber European immigrants, many can relate to the outcry against Cherry's denigration of the Quebecois.
Amongst the scores of letters sent to newspapers, one signed by Gerry Tsuji and published in the Montreal Gazette gleaned in Cherry's rhetoric "racism ... subtle and insidious". "When he says things like, 'Darcy Tucker, now here's a hockey player's name', what is he saying to the kid named Mohamed or Wong? He's telling him: 'this game's not for you, the brown kid, the Asian kid, the foreigner'."