Redbird name fails to bring unity to McGill Athletics

On Nov. 17 McGill announced a new name for the men’s varsity teams: Redbirds. The long-overdue announcement came more than a year after an initial email from the office of Principal Suzanne Fortier, sent in April 2019, which stated that McGill would be dropping the slur formerly used as the name for the men’s varsity teams. The message stated that the teams would be known as “McGill teams” for the 2019-2020 athletic season, during which time a committee would decide on a new name.

A summary of proceedings of the naming committee accompanied the announcement of the new team name, offering members of the McGill community a bare minimum level of insight into the decision making process. One notable section explained the reason behind the choice to maintain separate names for the men’s and women’s teams. 

During the consultations and in the submissions that it received, the Committee noted that Martlets was the name that generated the highest number of negative feedback (i.e., individuals asking explicitly that the committee not choose Martlets),” the summary read. “Several men’s varsity teams expressed that they were against the idea of choosing Martlets, citing a respect for and admiration of the Martlets’ history, and a desire not to encroach on that legacy.”

The summary does not mention whether any women’s teams objected to their male counterparts using the Martlet name, which is a notable omission, considering that it is their legacy that was supposedly under threat. 

In explaining how the name Redbirds, specifically, was chosen, the summary suggests that the school’s existing links to the name were a significant factor in its selection. 

“Red birds can be seen on the McGill coat of arms (as Martlets are mythical red birds),” the summary read. 

When it came time to select a specific name, however, the committee appears to have placed their careful respect for women to the side. Per the committee’s own statement, Martlets are a subcategory of red-coloured birds, which inadvertently positions the men’s teams as the standard or default for sports, and the women as a category within that. This problem is pervasive across sports and competition levels, with one notable example being the NBA and the WNBA. While it is unlikely that this was a conscious decision on the part of the committee, it certainly calls into question the sincerity of those who opposed a unified name for the mens’ and womens’ teams out of respect. 

Immediately following the announcement of the Redbird name, students took to social media to express their dissatisfaction with the new moniker, with several tweets highlighting the continued unnecessary gendering of the team names. Others pointed out that the Redbird name does not put much distance between the racial slur that the teams formerly used and the new brand that they are hoping to build.

The announcement also featured a complete lack of acknowledgement of the years of organizing and activism carried out by Indigenous students. McGill has never credited the #ChangeTheName campaign and the students who organized it, including the Students’ Society of McGill University Indigenous Affairs Committee, for their work. In 2019, when announcing that the university would no longer use the former epithet of the Redbirds, Fortier named the chairs of the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming, and even a past McGill principal whose speech she quoted in her statement. The message never mentioned student efforts or their organizers. 

McGill University’s administration has a habit of ignoring student demands until it is no longer convenient to do so. Years of organizing by groups like Divest McGill resulted only in a decision to “decrease the carbon footprint of investments,” and the university’s handling of the renaming has followed in this tradition of doing the bare minimum. 

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