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Autumn is considered McGill University’s finest season. The campus’ historic buildings rest at varying levels on the mountainside. The leaves have turned every colour from sunshine to rust. Returning students stroll through campus, not yet weighed down by deadlines, eager to see each other. It’s a harmonious time.
But last autumn, Tomas Jirousek was disrupting the mood. Jirousek is an Indigenous, third-year student and athlete who is part of the Kainai Nation, a nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy. He is also commissioner of Indigenous Affairs for the undergraduate student society and chair of McGill’s Indigenous Affairs Committee.
Fed up with task forces and working groups discussing the potential for changing the name of the university men’s sports teams to something less offensive than “Redmen,” Jirousek organized a campaign and demonstration to #ChangetheName.
He is featured prominently in photos of the event. In one, he is holding a red poster with three words on it: Indians, Squaws, Redmen. The first two are crossed out. We are meant to understand that Redmen is the next to go.
McGill varsity teams have been called 'Redmen' since 1920
McGill is known for many things—that mountainside campus, its Ivy League “North” status, impressive contributions to research, and many well-placed graduates. But it's not known for its volume of Indigenous students and professors.
This may be in part because, since 1920, most of the varsity men’s teams at McGill University have been known as the “Redmen.” The name’s origin story has two versions: one is that the name is simply a reflection of the University’s chosen color. The other links it to the Scottish origins of the university’s founder, James McGill.
But whatever the origin, the Redmen name affects people, especially McGill’s own small Indigenous community. According to Jirousek, the name hurts Indigenous students and makes them feel like they don’t belong.
Jirousek is not the first person to call for a change to the team name. For decades, Indigenous people at McGill have criticized the continued use of the name.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation report called for several actions relevant to post-secondary institutions. In 2017, McGill’s Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education conducted town halls and released a final report: the language was optimistic, and one of several “immediate” actions recommended was to determine a new name for the teams. In December 2018, the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming submitted a final report that described a process for renaming, but, in keeping with its mandate, did not specifically state that the teams’ name should be changed.
Not a name 'our community would choose today'
Universities tend to move more slowly than most organizations, so these rounds of meetings and reports are not atypical, but there has been a sense of frustration about the speed of this decision-making. In January, McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier indicated that a decision would be announced by the end of this term. On this, the final day of classes, it arrived.
“The Redmen name is not one that our community would choose today, and it is not one that McGill should carry forward into our third century,” wrote Principal Fortier. “Effective today, McGill University’s men’s varsity teams will cease to be called the Redmen.”
Jirousek was not the first person to call for a change to the team name, but his call has been heard loud and clear. Even before this official decision, there was an outpouring of support in favour of changing the name. In a fall referendum of the undergraduate student association, nearly 79 per cent of almost 6000 students voted for a name change. The professors’ association also stated their support.
Seeing how Jirousek, an Indigenous athlete and student, is affected, and that he has the support of other Indigenous athletes and students, has allowed the McGill community to actually see people who are directly affected by the derogatory significance of the name. Through Jirousek, we can understand that this name is a painful pejorative for members of our community.
A 'tiring' campaign
In media images, we see Jirousek’s face—an open, kind face that can be so sunny and carefree— grow very serious about this topic. Jirousek’s willingness to be the “face” of this campaign is the reason that so many people are engaged and supportive. But it was not without significant cost.
“Tiring” is the first word that Jirousek uses to describe last fall’s campaign. Because the number of Indigenous students at McGill is small, the work that each person took on was significant, “as much as 60-70 hours during the fall campaign.”
When Jirousek came into this role, because of his identity as an Indigenous athlete he realized that in terms of changing the Redmen name, “this was a unique shot—an opportunity that we hadn’t had before.” Jirousek credits Carlee Kawinehta Loft, his predecessor as Indigenous Affairs commissioner with teaching him how to engage fellow students.
Indigenous students built themselves a platform to be heard, and although non-Indigenous allies helped, the campaign relied on the Indigenous students repeatedly sharing their personal and difficult experiences with the Redmen name. Although many in the McGill community were in favour of a name change, a few who were not described Jirousek as a “snowflake” who was “looking for attention.”
“Looking back,” said Jirousek in an interview from earlier this week. “I don’t regret this, but it did leave me open.”
Jirousek felt confident that the name would be changed. He described the conversations that he and other Indigenous students were having with Principal Fortier as “productive, thoughtful, and open.”
Jirousek stood up and respectfully asked for a change to a century-old identity. And McGill’s leaders were listening.
“Today, 'Redmen' is widely acknowledged as an offensive term for Indigenous peoples, as evidenced by major English dictionaries. While this derogatory meaning of the word does not reflect the beliefs of generations of McGill athletes who have proudly competed wearing the university’s colours, we cannot ignore this contemporary understanding,” wrote Principal Fortier.
And what do you do when your name no longer reflects who you are? You change it.
This decision creates a “platform for McGill to take a leadership role toward reconciliation,” said Jirousek. “Changing the name may be painful, but this shows that reconciliation is more important.”
Letter from McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier
The full statement from McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier follows below:
Dear members of the McGill community,
In January, I committed to reaching a decision on the Redmen name before the end of the academic year. Today, I write to share my decision with you.
Over these past months, I have read and reflected on the McGill community’s varied perspectives on the issue. I have heard heartfelt and thoughtful views from students, faculty, staff, and alumni, including current and former athletes and Indigenous community members. Many people sent messages directly to me; others made their voices heard by writing to members of McGill’s senior leadership, or through open letters, votes, petitions, and other means. I have read all these messages, and I am grateful to the hundreds of people who shared their views.
I also sought and considered advice from across the university community—including students, staff and faculty, as well as key stakeholders, including members of the Indigenous and alumni communities—on how to address the matter of the Redmen name.
I considered the final report of the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming, and gave its principles and recommendations close consideration. I also consulted the working group’s co-chairs, Deans Anja Geitmann and Robert Leckey, specifically about the process for reaching a decision about the Redmen name. Their report recommends that an arm’s length committee consider matters of commemoration or renaming. In the case of the Redmen name, however, the co-chairs advised me not to establish such a committee, in light of the high degree of community participation in discussions organized by the Working Group and the Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, as well as other opportunities for expressing views and opinions.
The university’s principles and values— academic freedom, integrity, responsibility, equity and inclusiveness—are steadfast. They define who we are as a community. They must therefore ground my decision about whether to change the Redmen name.
The name of our men’s varsity teams has generated extensive debate in our community. Throughout, I have reminded myself of the wise advice of Principal emeritus Bernard Shapiro, who, in a recent talk on free speech, emphasized that the importance of debate is “not to win, but to learn.”
Over the recent months, I have learned about the true depths of the pride that our student-athletes and alumni feel for the rich tradition and history of varsity sports at McGill. They feel a rightful sense of achievement. They are proud, too, of the loyalty, resilience, leadership, teamwork and friendships that mark their time in varsity sports. Many of them feel a strong attachment to their team name. Our student-athletes and alumni are proud, with good reason, of achieving athletic success alongside academic success.
At the same time, I have learned about the true depths of the pain caused by the Redmen name. I have heard from Indigenous students at McGill who feel alienated by the name. They feel disrespected and unconsidered. They feel conflicted over their rightful pride in being Indigenous people, and their pride in being McGill students. This tension is even stronger for Indigenous student-athletes.
All these feelings come from lived experiences. These feelings are strong, valid and real.
Neither language, nor perceptions of language, are fixed; they change as the world changes. McGill did not adopt the Redmen name as a reference to North American Indigenous peoples. However, the name has been associated with Indigenous peoples at different points in our history. Today, “Redmen” is widely acknowledged as an offensive term for Indigenous peoples, as evidenced by major English dictionaries. While this derogatory meaning of the word does not reflect the beliefs of generations of McGill athletes who have proudly competed wearing the university’s colours, we cannot ignore this contemporary understanding. Intention, however benign, does not negate prejudicial effect. Inclusion and respect are at the core of our University’s principles and values; pejoratives run contrary to who we are as a community.
For these reasons, the Redmen name is not one that our community would choose today, and it is not one that McGill should carry forward into our third century.
Effective today, McGill University’s men’s varsity teams will cease to be called the Redmen. I have asked Prof. Fabrice Labeau, Interim Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning), to establish a steering committee to lead a consultative process for choosing a new name that everyone can wear, and cheer for, with pride. The committee will engage our varsity athletes, and the broader McGill community. Details about this process will be communicated in the months ahead. It will take time for our community to decide upon a new team name that honours our long history of athletic achievement, but we will get there. For the 2019-2020 athletic season, the men’s varsity teams will be known as the McGill teams. The University will announce a new name in time for the 2020-2021 season.
Just as the world changes, the McGill community grows and evolves. Evolution does not mean erasing history. McGill is, and will continue to be, proud of its history and tradition of athletic achievements and excellence. That history lives on, and the tradition will continue to thrive. Together, guided by our shared commitment to equity, inclusiveness and respect, we will determine our way forward.
Principal and Vice-Chancellor