McGill students gathered outside the James Administration Building on Oct. 31 to demonstrate against the continued use of the ‘Redmen’ name, which is currently used by all 28 of McGill’s mens’ varsity teams. Organized by Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)’s Indigenous Affairs Committee, the peaceful protesters chanted “Not your Redmen” and stressed the name’s racist invocation of indigeneity.
Speakers from the McGill and Montreal communities took part in the demonstration, including representatives from McGill Indigenous Affairs, McGill Black Students Network (BSN), and the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. Abdel Dicko, the BSN’s vice-president (VP) political coordinator, spoke about his organization’s solidarity with indigenous students and expressed the organization’s support for the name change.
“We, the BSN, firmly believe that the Redmen name and the very significant weight it carries does not have its place at this university,” Dicko said. “The idea that language and symbols can ever be isolated from historical, political, or racial implications is not only naive, but it is also highly dangerous.”
Other organizations have also voiced their support outside the protest. On Oct. 29, the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association, a labour union which represents the university’s non-academic support staff, sent a letter to Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier, urging the administration to change the name and criticizing their lack of action thus far.
While the controversial name has been debated among the McGill community for decades, the push to change it has gained traction in the past few years. In 2016, McGill’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education found that, in the past, McGill media and yearbooks have used racial slurs against indigenous communities in reference to McGill athletic teams, including uses of the terms ‘indians,’ ‘squaws’ and the phrase ‘redmen scalped.’
Tomas Jirousek, SSMU Indigenous Affairs commissioner and a McGill varsity athlete, organized the protest and is a driving force behind the initiative to change the Redmen name.
“The demonstration is meant to express that indigenous students are hurting,” Jirousek said. “The name is offensive and creates a series of psychological and sociological effects which are quite negative and have repercussions for indigenous students on campus.”
McGill Athletics, however, claims that the name has no connection with offensive stereotyping of indigenous peoples. According to their website, the Redmen name solely refers to the school and uniform colours as well as the university’s Celtic history.
Even if the original intentions were not racist, this claim does not sit well with many students.
“I don’t believe them,” Aneeka Anderson, an Inuk U1 Arts student who attended the protest, said. “There are so many articles—I see new ones everyday—that present our perspective and the evidence that we have, proving that these names, despite the original intentions, were really warped and used in a very harmful way.”
McGill Athletics declined to comment on the demonstration and its call to change the name, instead forwarding an email sent out to the McGill community on Oct. 23. The email had informed students that the future of the name will be guided by the final report from the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming, which is due to released in December. Ultimately, McGill’s Board of Governors has the final say in the decision.
Despite the uncertainty, the demonstration carried a message of optimism for the future and a belief that the name will be changed.
“I believe it will happen,” Anderson said. “Last year, in my first year, I said, ‘I want to do something to make this change,’ and at the time I didn’t know that other people were already doing those things and planning those things, so all I had to do was join them.”
The question “Do you endorse the immediate renaming of the ‘Redmen’ name and mandate the SSMU to work towards immediate renaming of the Varsity Men’s Team?” will appear on SSMU’s Fall referendum ballot. Voting will take place Nov. 9-12.