Tomas Jirousek is an indigenous athlete from the Kainai First Nation, a nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy. He is leading the #ChangeTheName campaign and demonstration on Oct. 31 at McGill that call for the university to change the varsity men’s sports teams’ ‘Redmen’ name. When he’s not making waves on campus, Jirousek makes waves on the water as a member of the McGill rowing team.
Once an avid hockey player, Jirousek was forced to quit due to knee problems. He knew he wanted to stay active, though, so he picked up rowing when he came to McGill two years ago.
“I really did want to be in a sport,” Jirousek said. “My parents were both varsity athletes in university, so I’d always wanted to follow that, so I’m glad I could find [rowing].”
Jirousek’s rowing career has enjoyed plenty of highlights so far.
“In my first year, I was able to make Team Quebec and represent the province at the Canada Games,” Jirousek said. “We had a fourth place finish in the Mens 8 [….] To also be the stroke seat of the Mens Heavy 8 in my first year was really an honour.”
Like any invested athlete, Jirousek has his fair share of pre-game rituals, which start with a song.
“A little embarrassingly, I do love ‘Toxic‘ by Britney Spears before going on the water,” Jirousek said.
Aside from his athletic endeavours, Jirousek is the chairman of Indigenous Affairs Committee, the indigenous affairs commissioner at the Student’s Society of McGill University, and the special advisor on indigenous education to the director at the Social Equity Diversity Education Office. He also works at the First People’s House. Being involved with indigenous projects around campus is important to Jirousek, so he actively seeks them out.
“Basically anything indigenous, I typically like to get involved in,” Jirousek said. “I’m quite passionate about supporting the rights of my people.”
For Jirousek, the #ChangeTheName campaign is all about opening dialogue.
“Part of the reason why we’re launching this campaign and the demonstration is to first show our discontent,” Jirousek said. “[I want to start] an honest discussion where indigenous people can present their views because […] we’ve been cut out of the debate on the Redmen name [many times]. This is an opportunity for both sides of the debate to come together in a collaborative fashion.”
McGill men’s sports teams have used the name since the 1920s. Men’s sports teams picked up the nickname ‘Indians’, while ‘Squaws’ referred to the women’s teams. Up until 1992, the team logo was a stereotypical silhouette of a native person wearing a headdress.
Jirousek is adamant that the name, no matter its origins, is undeniably offensive.
“Denying the actual history of the Redmen name, regardless of whether the university is correct in its argument that the Redmen name comes from the school’s red colours or celtic origins, it doesn’t deny the fact that the Redmen name [has] become connected to indigenous people,” Jirousek said. “The fact [is] that we were known as the McGill ‘Indians’ and the McGill ‘Squaws,’ and the university willingly allowed this. That is difficult to reconcile as an athlete, and it’s difficult to reconcile as a student at the university.”
For many indigenous students like him, the name makes their experience as varsity athletes uncomfortable, and the indifference on campus leaves them feeling isolated and ignored.
“The first thing to understand is that indigenous people […] are the ones who are affected by this name,” Jirousek said. “Unless you are an indigenous student, you can’t really understand the pain and how isolated you feel because of the Redmen name. You can’t understand the pain [and] the history [that] the Redmen name continues to admit.”