We can learn from Don Cherry’s poppy attack on immigrants

Don Cherry is wrong to attack immigrants for not wearing a poppy.  Cherry has a long history of supporting Canada’s first responders and military. He tarnishes his work by saying immigrants don’t show enough appreciation for Remembrance Day.

But we can learn from what he said. 

The NHL and Sportsnet have since apologized for Cherry’s “divisive” remarks on Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday, after Cherry, 85, told the Canadian hockey segment known as Coach’s Corner he was upset because he didn’t see enough people wearing poppies for Remembrance Week.

You people… love our way of life, love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada,” he said.

It would be nice if Cherry was ordered to read the amazing web exhibits on the Veterans Affairs Canada’s website about the military contributions made by the tens of thousands of immigrants to Canada, who Cherry called “you people”. Canadian immigrants and ethnic minorities have served with honour — including the heavily immigrant wartime Jewish Canadian community, who sent 22,000 people to fight in WWI and WWII. (I helped write that exhibit.) 

Cherry would learn that there was no lack of patriotism by the Jewish immigrants, who were grateful to Canada for their new lives here. Indeed, he would learn that it was Canada’s military that discriminated against eager immigrants or persons of colour who wanted to enlist during WWII.  The story is documented in my book “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII” published by the University of Toronto Press.

He would learn about the historic widespread racism they faced, including lack of promotions. He would learn why Flt. Lt. Sydney Shulemson, a Montreal Jew whose father had immigrated from Romania, and who was Canada’s most highly decorated WWII Jewish RCAF Ace, remained a Flt. Lt. despite winning a D.S.O. and the D.F.C.

The Canadian army even rejected the application of one of the Commonwealth’s greatest WWII war heroes, Captain Dr. Jacob Markowitz, of Toronto, because he was of Romanian Jewish descent, despite being one of the world’s most skilled and famous medical surgeons. He volunteered instead for the British Army

But Cherry’s message shouldn’t be lost because of his ignorant choice of words.
According to Jewish tradition, there are passive ways to remember, and also active remembrance. And we have to do both to properly fulfil our obligations.

It is important to never forget Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass in Germany and other parts of Nazi controlled Europe on Nov. 9, 1939. It was 81 years ago this past weekend. Never forget that it was the start of the Holocaust.

It is also important to never forget the Canadians who put on a uniform, helped defeat Hitler, and rescued the survivors of the Final Solution. Or Canadians who go in harm’s way even now, to make the world a safer place.

But we have to also actively remember them, and in my view, that means more than just clicking on a post on your Facebook feed, and even more than wearing a poppy.

It requires doing a good deed for someone, doing an act of kindness, giving charity, reaching out to someone in need. 

And in the context of this weekend, that could mean making a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion’s fund for homeless veterans, or in support of the True Patriot Love organization, who work with military families, and veterans with PTSD. How about actually going to your local veterans’ hospital, such as Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, and visiting one of the veterans? Or writing a postcard to a serving Canadian forces member? Look for an address on the Veterans Affairs Canada website.

Or when you travel, make it a point to find and visit the grave of a fallen soldier: take a photo, learn who he or she was, reach out to their family. Say thank you. Leave a pebble on the grave. Say some prayers.

Most of all, actively work for peace, justice, tolerance, and freedom in this world that is so full of problems.

Our active remembrance is a debt we owe — to the victims of the Holocaust, and to the Canadian troops, including the 44,000 from WWII who didn’t come home. So they won’t have died in vain.

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