Commentary  A Call for the McGill Administration to Change the Varsity Teams’ Name

Dear Principal Suzanne Fortier, Provost Christopher Manfredi, Interim Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Fabrice Labeau, Executive Director of Athletics and Recreation Marc Gélinas,

My name is Tomas Jirousek, and I am a member of the Kainai Nation, a nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and a McGill varsity athlete. I, with the support of the undersigned, am writing this letter to call for the immediate renaming of the McGill Redmen.

With this letter, I wish to express concerns over the continued usage of such an offensive name for the mens’ varsity teams. Indigenous students, staff, and community members for years have clearly conveyed the desire to change the Redmen name. This was reiterated most recently in the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, which was part of McGill’s reaction to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015.

As noted in Call to Action 21, the Indigenous community has openly questioned “the credibility of the University’s efforts in relation to Indigeneity given the pejorative connotation of our mens’ varsity team name.” It is impossible for the University to position itself as a leader in affirming the Calls to Action in the TRC, while also continuing to brand itself under the Redmen name. By remaining silent, the University continues to condone and perpetuate the psychologically and socially damaging effects the Redmen name inflicts on Indigenous students and athletes like myself and others on this campus.

The Provost’s Task Force notes the past use of the name “Indians” to refer to McGill’s mens’ teams, and “Squaws” or “Super Squaws” to refer to its womens’ athletics teams, as well as the appearance of phrases such as “Indians on a Warpath” and “Redman Scalped” in McGill media.

Stereotyped images of Indigenous persons were used on McGill jerseys and helmets until a 1992 decision of the McGill Athletics Board ended the usage of the offensive logo. But in a decision that whitewashed and actively sought to rewrite the racist and violent history of the Redmen, they chose to not change the name.

Former McGill professor of history, Allan Downey, writes “whether the ‘Indian’ portrayals are ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ they have adverse psychological consequences for Indigenous youth and for relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.” Professor Downey offers that the “individual reclamation [does not] negate the larger societal impact that these images had. The intent [does not] negate the effects.” I, and many others, argue that an ‘endorsement’ by any singular Indigenous individual, group, or team, does not negate the larger societal effects that the Redmen name continues to reproduce for Indigenous athletes, students, and community members. The University’s tokenization of Indigenous people and initiatives to “Indigenize” in order to defend the continued usage of the Redmen name is morally reprehensible at best.

Through use of the Redmen name McGill continues to promote stereotypical and hyper-masculine depiction of Indigenous peoples. This has actively contributed to a University that historically has been, and often continues to be, hostile to the presence of Indigenous students. The usage of the Indian, Squaw, and Redmen names have contributed to feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and isolation amongst Indigenous peoples at McGill for many years. It has also led to the institutionalized ignorance of the lived reality of Indigenous peoples at McGill. No individual, or even team, ‘reclaiming’ the name can undo both the historic and ongoing damages inflicted by the Redmen name.

Competing for McGill as an Indigenous varsity athlete has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life. In addition to having to struggle with the added everyday stress that we student athletes all go through, I have to constantly deal with the internal struggle between competing for a team I love, and my own disgust at the continued usage of the Redmen name. I have faced increased isolation since starting a call to change the name, and speaking out in support and inclusion of Indigenous people competing at McGill. I did not choose to go to McGill to be degraded in such a manner.

I choose to compete for the McGill that my team represents. My teammates and coaches have never failed to support my inclusion as a varsity rower. I have been made to feel supported and valued in my work towards a more inclusive McGill.

That is the reason why I call on McGill to change the name. I know that athletics can play an incredibly positive role in a student’s experience at McGill, and every Indigenous student should have access to that same support. Every Indigenous student should be made to feel included, welcome, and supported at McGill, and changing the Redmen name ensures that more Indigenous students will benefit from the same experience I have had on the rowing team.

#ChangetheName. It’s the only respectful and appropriate course of action.

Signed, Tomas Jirousek, SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, Indigenous Varsity Athlete.

With the support of
Carlee Loft, SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, 2017-18
Christian Quequish, SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, 2016-17
Leslie Anne St. Amour, SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, 2015-16

In addition to
SSMU Indigenous Affairs Committee
Indigenous Students Alliance