Thousands of students, allies, and Montrealers have been calling on McGill to change the name of their varsity men’s sports teams. A petition on Change.org has garnered over 8,000 signatures as of press time, and a demonstration is taking place on Oct. 31, due in large part to the work of Students’ Society of McGIll University’s (SSMU) Indigenous Affairs Commissioner Tomas Jirousek. With coverage from CBC News and the Montreal Gazette, all of Montreal is watching McGill’s next steps. It’s time that McGill acknowledges that holding on to a racist team name disenfranchises its indigenous students. Changing it is only one step of many that the University must take in order to create a more inclusive campus.
McGill claims that the name originated in reference to the red jerseys worn by athletes, and in honour of McGill’s Scottish heritage due to the celts’ reputation for having red hair. Regardless of its supposed origins, the name has been used throughout the university’s history in association with stereotypes about indigenous peoples. For example, the word ‘Indians’ historically referred to the men’s sports teams, while women’s teams were referred to as the ‘Squaws.’ From 1982 to 1992, the team’s logo was a silhouette of an indigenous person wearing a headdress.
Other schools that once used the same name, such as Denis Morris and Arnprior high schools in Ontario, have adopted other team names, in 2016 and 2017 respectively. In 2017, then Ontario education minister Mitzie Hunter asked Toronto school boards to review their sports teams’ logos and names, and consider changing any that could be considered derogatory. Despite this momentum, McGill has been hesitant to change the name due to claims of tradition and athletic pride. These concerns, however, do not outweigh the arguments to rebrand. Changing the name will only benefit McGill, creating an identity that the entire student body can be proud of.
In an email to the McGill student body on Oct. 23, Provost and Vice-Principal Academic Christopher Manfredi announced that the administration would not make a decision regarding the name change until the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming submits their final report. However, none of the members or chairs of the working group are indigenous, although they did consult with an indigenous professor when constructing their draft report. Regardless of the working group’s stated intentions, it is important that indigenous students be better represented in institutional decisions like these, especially when those decisions ultimately influence their future on this campus.
A racist team name is only one of countless barriers that indigenous students face at McGill. For example, there are only two courses under the Indigenous Studies course code; the minor’s other course requirements are in other fields. McGill does not currently offer any undergraduate major programs in Indigenous Studies, or any indigenous language, except in the Faculty of Education. McGill is situated on Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg territory, and the university’s educational programs should reflect and honour the history of this land and the traditions of these nations.
Beyond diversifying academia, McGill must continue diversifying its student services. The First People’s House, which offers housing, events, student support, and other services for indigenous students, is an example of such a resource. McGill should continue and expand on services like the First People’s House, and offer more funding and educational opportunities for indigenous and low-income students.
Moreover, creating inclusive spaces is not a mandate reserved for the upper echelons of administration. All student groups on campus should seek to increase indigenous representation, and our own editorial board shares these disappointing gaps. It is crucial that student groups, clubs, and services take active steps in involving indigenous voices beyond just land acknowledgements.
The most important role students can play is that of an ally. The #ChangeTheName campaign and its positive reception are a result of student-led activism, including that of Jirousek and the Indigenous Student Alliance, and SSMU Indigenous Affairs. To ensure the campaign’s success, it is imperative that students demonstrate their support and allyship by signing the open letter, signing the Change.org petition, and most importantly, physically showing up to the demonstration on Oct. 31. Moreover, student involvement should not be limited to a single protest: Indigenous exclusion persists far beyond the name of the men’s varsity teams. Students must continue holding McGill accountable after the protest—whether that’s by attending working group meetings, or getting involved with SSMU’s Indigenous Affairs Committee—to ensure that McGill takes substantive steps toward fostering a more representative institution. Changing the name should be the first of many developments regarding McGill’s indigenous community, and the first step toward a more inclusive campus.
The #ChangeTheName demonstration will take place on Oct. 31 in front of the Milton Gates from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.