Don Cherry’s Rock’ em Sock ‘em honorary degree

The front lines of Canada’s culture war have moved to, of all places, Royal Military College.


Its senate — comprising the chancellor (Defence Minister Peter MacKay), the commandant, the principal, the deans of the faculties, the director of cadets, the academic director of RMC St-Jean, Quebec, and a faculty representative — has, as a body, if not unanimously, proclaimed to Canada’s future military elite that the college is A-OK with gratuitous violence, calling people pukes, trashing multiculturalism and left-wing pinkos who ride bicycles, describing men with long hair as girls, speaking derogatively of francophone Canadians, labelling someone with a non-anglo name as “some kind of dog food” and supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.


CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry is celebrated for those views and RMC’s senate voted to grant Mr. Cherry an honorary doctorate at its November convocation, citing (in the words of principal Joel Sokolsky) “his work on behalf of the Forces, his charity work [and] his standing in promoting athletics in Canada.” All of which has created a fuss and an interesting outcome.


RMC’s faculty board immediately passed a resolution expressing “their dissatisfaction that Cherry will be a recipient of the degree.” Queen’s University doctoral student Catherine Lord, who teaches French to RMC officer cadets, sent an open letter to the Kingston Whig-Standard in which she wrote:


“On many occasions, [Mr. Cherry] publicly expressed his contempt for many groups of the Canadian population, notably for the French-speaking Canadians, for the [sexually diverse] community and for the immigrants. RMC is increasingly representative of the diverse society in which we live. RMC is a strong and unifying place; it makes Canadians proud and attracts year after year dynamic and intelligent young adults. These students certainly feel Canadians first, regardless of their spiritual beliefs, their political allegiance, their sexual orientation, their mother tongue or their cultural background. What message will RMC send, in celebrating Don Cherry, to the students coming from these groups? And what will the Canadian people remember from RMC, as a serious and prestigious institution?”


To which Éric Leroux, professor of information technology at l’Université de Montréal, added in a letter to Montreal’s La Presse: “Est-ce à dire que M. Cherry est un modèle à suivre pour les étudiants de ce collège? L’orientation militariste de cette institution n’excuse pas ce dérapage.” Dérapage, if your French is a struggle, means “skidding” or “side-slipping”.


None of which the RMC establishment gets. A spokeswoman for the college, Capt. Cynthia Kent, said: “People are entitled to their opinions obviously . . . .” Whether Capt. Kent was referring to Mr. Cherry’s opinions or Ms. Lord’s opinions is ambiguous. Mr. Cherry’s opinions slide by (dérapage) under the Charter’s Section 2(b) — “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” Tolerating bigotry is one of the obligations of a democratic society, although celebrating it — especially for young people being trained to kill for the state — is something else. Ms. Lord’s opinions are chiselled in stone in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian and Ontario human rights acts.


In any event, Mr. Cherry, who has been described as Canada’s most successful demagogue of the past quarter-century, suddenly rejected the degree offer. “I can’t accept the degree and I won’t attend the convocation,” he said in an interview with Sun Media. “I am sad because I was really looking forward to spending time with the 800 cadets.” Kingston — to be briefly tangential — once had an excellent community newspaper when the Southam family owned the Whig-Standard. It has been bought by Sun Media and now espouses Sun Media’s views: viz. a column by Sun Media writer Joe Warmington appearing in the Whig-Standard, praised Mr. Cherry’s unstinting support for Canada’s military, referred to Ms. Lord’s criticism as bizarre and vitriolic and quoted Mr. Cherry as saying: “When I was in Afghanistan in all the bases I visited I didn’t see Catherine Lord there anywhere.” Yup, don’t listen to her.


Un modèle à suivre? Although it’s hard to find an explanation for the RMC senate’s decision other than that they intended Mr. Cherry to be a model to follow, let’s be charitable for a moment and employ that hoary journalistic maxim: “Never rule out stupidity as an explanation.” The decision to grant Don Cherry an honorary doctorate is stupid. It is insensitive, as is Mr. Cherry’s mode of hockey commentary. It is beneath the intelligence of the Canadian armed forces leadership and Canadians should be grateful that the people who actually teach young officer cadets objected to it.


It is also immoral, bringing us to the case of Capt. Robert Semrau with which it resonates.


Capt. Semrau shot dead a severely wounded Taliban fighter in Afghanistan in 2008.  He was charged with second-degree murder, attempt to commit murder, behaving in a disgraceful manner contrary to the National Defence Act and negligently performing a military duty.  At his court-martial, he was acquitted of all charges except disgraceful conduct. He was demoted to second lieutenant and dismissed from the Canadian Forces without severance pay. Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Guy Perron, the military judge who sentenced him,  described Capt. Semrau as a courageous soldier and leader “probably caught between his moral values and his duties as a soldier”. But he added: “How can we expect our soldiers to respect the rules of engagement if our officers don’t?”


There, that’s the point. If RMC’s leaders choose someone with the views and utterances of Don Cherry to honour, how can they expect the cadets to behave differently.


The point is about moral values: it is morally wrong to establish prejudice, bigotry, demeaning treatment of those with whom one disagrees and the employment of unjustified violence as a model to follow. The point is about what kind of moral cultures Canadians tolerate for those who are given guns and allowed to use them. The point is that police who beat, abused and unjustifiably detained Toronto citizens last summer at the G20 demonstrations worked in a wrong moral culture — as did their commanders and governing politicians who refused to call a public inquiry into their actions. The point is that RCMP officers who tasered to death Robert Dziekanski worked in a wrong moral culture, as did the Ontario Provincial Police who were responsible for the killing of unarmed protester Dudley George.


The baby boomers and the Conservative government they elect have given Canada a new military culture.


The military marches around Ottawa today in combat fatigues when, little more than a decade ago, they didn’t. They have become the heroes of middle Canada, celebrated at sporting events, remythologized as the new icons of nationalism and lionized by people like Don Cherry, Rick Mercer and Wayne Rostad (both Mr. Mercer and Mr. Rostad have been appointed honorary colonels, along with former journalist and now Conservative senator Pamela Wallin, chair of the Senate’s defence committee, and a clutch of some of the country’s wealthiest business tycoons).


Former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier has been hugely successful in recasting the image of the armed forces into a portrait that fits Canadians’ imagined community –ordinary men and women from next door carrying out dangerous work with professionalism, decency and fair play.


He also has been an indefatigable apostle of Canada’s military as warriors. Warriors were the centrepiece attraction at a black-tie dinner titled True Patriot Love held in Toronto two years ago (and again this year), organized by some of the city’s super-wealthy with $750-a-head tickets. Soldiers in battle dress rappelled down ropes from the ceiling. Retired captain Trevor Greene, who survived an axe blow to his head in Afghanistan, was brought to the stage. Gen. Walt Natynczyk, Canada’s current top soldier, pointed out Leading Seaman Stephanie Russell in the audience, one of four women submariners: “This lady is a strong woman warrior,” he said, “and I am proud of her.”


Prime Minister Stephen Harper, all living former prime ministers, the provincial premiers, the national party leaders, Toronto’s mayor and a notable clutch of aspiring politicians were listed on the dinner’s tribute committee. Many of the city’s backroom political movers and shakers were on the fundraising committee. The dinner’s co-chairs were drawn from the cream of Toronto’s business community, and the event had corporate sponsorship.


That’s us, that’s who we’ve become, and if you don’t Support Our Troops you’re a bad Canadian. Which is all well and good. We wish to Support Our Troops.


It’s a question of what kind of military culture Canadians are being asked to support. Less than two decades ago members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment’s Two Commando beat a Somali teenager to death, an act initially covered up by top military commanders. An investigation subsequently revealed that Two Commando’s base at CFB Petawawa was a hotbed of white supremacist racism, employed brutal and humiliating hazing rituals, had adopted a U.S. Confederacy flag as its unofficial symbol and that its commanding officer was relieved of his post when he said the “rogue commando” he led was unfit for overseas service. That was Canada’s Abu Ghraib.


It was an issue of moral values. The men and women of the Canadian Forces do dangerous and difficult work in the name of all their fellow citizens. It is essential that they hear a clear message on what moral standards their fellow citizens expect them to follow.




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