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'I cringed': How some former and current soldiers reacted to Don Cherry's poppy comments

How soldiers — retired and serving — heard Don Cherry's words about who wears the poppy.

Cherry appeared to target new Canadians for failing to wear poppies for Remembrance Day

Don Cherry says he has no intention of apologizing for the remarks he made about who is and isn't wearing poppies in Canada. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

When Shawn Stewart, a retired army major, heard Don Cherry's comments about the poppy and "you people" during the hockey game Saturday night, he says he cringed. 

"I cringed in the sense that, I totally understood his motivation and his devotion and support to the Canadian Armed Forces — fallen and alive. I just think there was a much better way to say it."

Stewart, who retired after 20 years in the military, including a tour in Afghanistan, is an unabashed fan of Cherry's, pointing to the 85-year-old's support for the Forces through the years.

Stewart says he's even choked up on occasion watching Cherry, hearing him speak about soldiers and veterans during hockey games.

He doesn't think Cherry made his point very well, but he says all Canadians — regardless of whether they are newcomers or born and raised here — could stand to learn more about the poppy and what it represents.

 "We're not doing a great job as a country ... educating everybody," he said.

Retired major Shawn Stewart served 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. (Charles McGregor)

A colleague of his is a new immigrant. Karan Rana only arrived in Canada three months ago from India. He said he kept seeing the poppy on people's coats but had no idea what it was for, so he didn't wear one. 

Rana says he would never do anything to disrespect veterans. "I have all the respect for any soldier who's lost their life," he said, but until recently he wasn't that well informed. 

Rana made a point of learning. He spoke to Stewart. He researched poppies and Remembrance Day online.  

Information about Remembrance Day is available to new arrivals to Canada who are preparing to become citizens. A section in the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada study guide for the citizenship exam describes the day and its history, why it is observed, and why the poppy is worn.  

Canadian Legion initiatives

The Royal Canadian Legion says it has no data on whether immigrants or any other particular group is wearing more or fewer poppies — it just doesn't track that kind of data. 

But communications manager Nujma Bond says the Legion continues to try to educate all Canadians about the significance of the poppy, including through new initiatives this year.

"We reached out to a wider youth audience," by partnering with the game Fortnite and the gaming site Twitch, she said in an email. "These initiatives also included elements of education about Canada's military past."

Changing military 

Sgt. Stephen Thomas, 37, is part of the military's present. He is first-generation Canadian, his parents came from Guyana. He joined the military on his 18th birthday and served two tours in Afghanistan. He said Cherry's comments shocked him. 

"I don't think he's realized how much military has changed over the last decade or two," he said, in terms of how many people of diverse colour and creed, both male and female, are serving in all branches of the military. 

"And not only [those] born in Canada but from abroad. Who've come to this country and have taken an oath to our country and [are] serving this newfound home of theirs."

Sgt. Stephen Thomas has been a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 19 years. (Cindy Thomas)

Thomas says when he is part of ceremonies and parades, he sees the respect from people. He hears the thanks. He doesn't even pay attention to people who don't wear poppies.

"People who pay their respect and say 'thank you' towards our country and the sacrifices made for everyone else in the world — those are the ones that I focus on," he said. 

Retired warrant officer Nathan Sylvester echoed that sentiment. He says if someone chooses to wear a poppy, great. And if not, that's their choice. But he did agree with part of Cherry's message. 

Retired warrant officer Nathan Sylvester served 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. (Submitted by Nathan Sylvester)

"There seems to definitely be a decline within the population of people wearing a poppy around Remembrance Day." 

Sylvester, 39, thinks Coach's Corner wasn't necessarily the right forum for Cherry to express his personal opinion about it, but he says, he also doesn't think Cherry meant to attack anyone.

"The message to me was more about, you know, wear a poppy show support. Not, you know, who is or who isn't wearing a poppy."

WATCH | Don Cherry talks to CBC News, says he regrets his choice of words:

Don Cherry speaks to CBC News after being fired for comments he made 3:05

Sylvester served one tour in Bosnia and two in Afghanistan. He, too, thinks education is key — and that it hasn't moved along enough in Canada in terms of informing people about the most recent missions in which Canada has been involved. But he doesn't think the wearing — or not wearing — of a poppy really proves anything. 

"Just because somebody is not wearing a poppy on their on their jacket or their shirt or wherever doesn't mean that they're not going to be at a Remembrance Day ceremony... it doesn't mean that they don't support veterans and soldiers." 

WATCH | Don Cherry talks to CBC's The Fifth Estate about immigration in 1990:

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story included a quote raising the question of whether Remembrance Day and the meaning of the poppy should be part of the Canadian citizenship exam. In fact, the subject is addressed in the study guide for the citizenship exam, provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, so that quote has since been removed.
    Nov 13, 2019 3:09 PM ET

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