A diverse group including McGill alumni, professors, varsity athletes, and campus groups representing racialized students met on Sept. 12 in New Chancellor Day Hall to give feedback on a draft report suggesting principles for future commemoration and renaming initiatives on campus.
The report was published by the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming. The group was formed last January under the recommendation of the Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Education and out of an acknowledgment of the need to reconsider inappropriate names for teams, buildings, scholarships, and other university structures.
While most attendees had come for specific debates over renaming, such as the controversy over the men’s varsity teams being named ‘Redmen,’ the co-chairs of the Working Group continually reiterated that their responsibility was only forming principles and not to make concrete decisions.
“The mandate we have from the Provost is not to consider any particular case,” Robert Leckey, Working Group co-chair and dean of the Faculty of Law, said. “It’s always interesting to hear what people bring to a meeting, but we’re fundamentally trying to move forward with our job to put forward the draft we have in December to the community.”
However, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Indigenous Affairs Commissioner and Vice President of the McGill rowing team Tomas Jirousek pointed to the need for urgent changes.
“As I can personally attest to as an Indigenous varsity athlete, the continued usage of [‘Redmen’] creates immediate discomfort, anxiety, and anger,” Jirousek said. “The continued dragging out of the process only further serves to alienate and isolate Indigenous peoples and Indigenous students [….] While you are debating and launching these working groups and all these further studies, the students are being hurt.”
Meanwhile, the varsity athletes argued that their perspective was not being sufficiently taken into account.
“It’s been brought up that the Aboriginals haven’t been fully incorporated into the discussion here, and I understand that they should have a say in it,” varsity hockey player Nathanael Halbert said. “I […] would also hope that the other side, the students, alumni, varsity players who wear the actual colors would get a say in how it would make them feel.”
Other attendees, including SSMU VP External Marina Cupido, raised questions about the representativeness of the working group’s composition. Of the six Working Group members present at the meeting, five were white faculty and staff, while one was a black undergraduate student representative. While an Indigenous professor was consulted in the creation of the report, she was unable to attend meetings consistently. The Working Group has yet to meet with any Indigenous or racialized off-campus groups.
“I was interested in [where] the report says the Working Group ‘regretted that the invited committee groups supposed to represent the interests of racialized or Indigenous groups off-campus did not follow up on its invitations,’” Cupido said. “I was wondering if […that] suggests a problem with the way consultation was done.”
Debate also extended to the language in the draft report about “rehabilitating formerly problematic names.” While many in favour of keeping ‘Redmen’ claimed that the name referenced McGill’s Scottish heritage and should be interpreted as such, other parties argued that problematic names cannot be rehabilitated or reinterpreted. Both the participants in the town hall and the members of the Working Group found common ground in reflecting on the significance of how names and commemorative practices at McGill are perceived both by its community and the outside world.
“I use [the name ‘Redmen’] as an example to show people how backwards McGill is, still, when I’m back home in my Indigenous community,” Denzel Sutherland-Wilson, U3 Arts, said. “People don’t believe me that our sports team is called the ‘Redmen’ [….] I hope you know that when you say ‘I’m really proud to be wearing this and supporting this.’”
The Working Group is still accepting suggestions for changes to their draft by email until the end of September.