In the wake of Don Cherry’s divisive and hurtful statements, Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall asks, “Why is it that immigrants and people of colour have become the punching bag for some in our society?”

A photo of a Canadian flag on a flagpole apparently being found at the foot of a rainbow, against the contrast of a dramatic dark sky.
Credit: Krwoll, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Let me start by stating that I am a firm believer in freedom of speech. In the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” However, freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from accountability and responsibility. I have the right to say things and when I say them I must at the same time be willing to accept responsibility for my statements and any consequences which may arise from it. To have the right to speak without also accepting responsibility and consequences leads only to tyranny and abuse.

To say that the statements of Don Cherry recently on Hockey Night in Canada deeply disturbed me is to delve in the realms of the understatement. Yet I must also be clear that while the specifics of what he said are concerning, I believe that this is a symptom of a problem and not the problem itself. While I believe that Mr. Cherry, and every adult in this country, must be responsible for what they say, still I do not believe that his removal from broadcasting will move the needle on this fundamental problem in one way or another. It will not until we are willing to address the fundamental problem itself.

In the recent Federal elections, for example, two incidences point to what, in my mind, are the underlying problems. Yet again, these two cases are but symptoms. The first was the revelation of pictures of the Prime Minister, who some years ago was in “blackface.” There was great outcry about this and many accusations made of racism. However, many were willing to overlook the incident of a man telling the leader of the NDP that he needed to “cut off his turban and…look like a Canadian.” Somehow, we were so focused on the incident of blackface, done many years ago, that comparably little was said about the lack of tolerance and attack on diversity which was on display in the here and now. One could have gotten the feeling that the statement said to NDP leader was either acceptable or indicative of a normative worldview.

The second situation which occurred was the reality that one political party was lifting up the call for immigrants be assimilated into “Canadian ways of living.” That particular political leader pointed to a 2018 CBC report that the Angus Reid Institute found 49 per cent of surveyed Canadians want to see the federal government's 2018 target of 310,000 immigrants reduced. The report suggested a reduction in Canadians’ support for immigration and noted increased concerns about asylum seekers.

I would add to the above, reports which have been made throughout the year of persons being told to “go back to where you came from” or persons being ridiculed for the accents (this even happening in the Parliament of our country).

You see the issue for me is an apparent growing intolerance that is occurring in Canada toward persons who are not assumed to be Canadian. The problem is that an assumption continues to be made that a Canadian is a White person. It is only when this assumption is made that a statement which includes a phrase such as “you people” seems to make any sense to my mind. Why is it that immigrants and people of colour have become the punching bag for some in our society? What ever happened to diversity and the understanding of the Canadian society being a mosaic of many cultures? Is it that multiculturalism has become a convenient concept?

Recently, I sat in a meeting where I heard a member of The United Church of Canada state personal discomfort with diversity. The person indicated that diversity was felt, seen, and understood as marginalizing the White people of the church. The words spoken showed no understanding of the pain that was being felt by the racialized people in the church, some of whom where in the meeting. There was no acknowledgement or concern for the injuries felt by others. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I have heard that sentiment expressed and somehow, I knew it would not be the last. Is it that I, and all other non-White members of The United Church of Canada, am only being tolerated and offered a polite smile, but the hope is that we will take a back seat in the church, shut up, and give way to the “real” (i.e. White) members of the church?

So yes, I believe that we should honor the sacrifice of the men and women who served in the military. I agree that they fought to ensure the freedoms that are currently enjoyed. However, let us also remember that many of the men and women who served, and are still serving, are Indigenous and racialized people. Let us not forget, either, that these Indigenous and racialized soldiers who fought for the freedom, came back to their homelands after war only to continue fighting for the freedom to be treated with respect and dignity. The milk and honey that Mr. Cherry spoke about was available not only because of the hard work of White people. This milk and honey exists because of the hard work of all peoples in Canada which includes White, Indigenous, Black, Asian, Latino, etc.

I have said it before and I will continue to say that dialogue is urgently needed in this country, and in the church, to deal with the issues of diversity and race. This dialogue is not to make anyone feel bad or uncomfortable. It is a dialogue in order for us to gain understanding and to see how we can walk forward together. It is a dialogue that is needed if we care anything at all about the church having a prophetic voice in the current reality of our country.

If there can be no dialogue, then to me all the apologies now being made will be of no value. Apologies are made so that we can start repentance. Repentance means to change. If we apologize and are not willing to change, then the apology means nothing. Until we are willing to make a change, others will make just as, and even more, hurtful statements than those made by Mr. Cherry. I pray that a dialogue will occur soon. I live in that hope!

—Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall is the minister of the Fort Saskatchewan Community of Faith in the Northern Spirit Regional Council.