On the 31st of October, dozens of protestors gathered around the Milton Gates to change the varsity men’s teams’ name: the Redmen. Attracting quite a bit of media buzz from both inside and outside McGill, the demonstrations had been planned weeks in advance. Banding together on a cold and rainy day for a cause which they believed was worth fighting for, with chants of “Not Your Redmen” and posters calling on the administration to take immediate action, the demonstrators were determined to change the name. But how exactly did this all start? And what lessons can be drawn from it in the context of other issues facing indigenous peoples in North America?
The Redmen Name, its Origins and the “Case for Intention”
McGill Athletics and Recreation provides a detailed history of the Redmen name on their website. They put forward two theories; the first argues that the name came from the school colours, starting as the “McGill Red Men” and evolving into the spelling: “Redmen”. The second theory, on the other hand, claims the name was related to Celtic peoples as reference to the Scottish origins of the university’s founder James McGill: “Celts were known as the Red Men because of their hair, still often observed among Highlander Scots”. In either case, the university administration is quite adamant in their claims that the name’s origins made no references to indigenous peoples.
That being said, they mention the use of a logo which was deemed inappropriate due to its depictions of indigenous people in the statement. Acknowledging that the logo (which was designed in 1947), when combined with the name, had come to be associated with racist connotations, the Athletics Board voted to remove it in 1992. In the same meeting, the Athletics Board decided to keep the name, pointing to its apparent banal, apolitical origins by saying:
We believe that the Redmen name and logo are quite separate issues," said Richard Pound, then chair of the Athletics Board, in a McGill Athletics press release dated March 6, 1992. "The logo, which was adopted in 1982, might possibly be construed as a stereotype. While this was never McGill's intention, we want to be sensitive to the concern that has been expressed. We are quite prepared to make a change so as to remove any suggestion that the traditional name of the Redmen was connected with a stereotype relating to native peoples. Unless we find historical evidence which establishes that the Redmen name came from other than the colour of McGill's uniforms. We intend to preserve the traditional name for our men's teams.
The face (and primary organizer) of the protests, Tomas Jirousek, has different views on this issue. In his interview with CRG, he stated that, while there were numerous stories about the origin of the name, the end result is the same. He argued that there are practical issues with the use of the name that have real-life implications on indigenous students, as the Redmen name has been used alongside phrases such as “the McGill Indians” and “the McGill Squaws”.
Combined with the logo, which depicted a hypermasculinized and stereotypical image of indigenous people, it is impossible to separate the name from its racist connotations. Resulting in sociological and psychological damages to indigenous students, the name makes it harder to bond and interact with non-indigenous students on campus. Tomas also argued that the logo, along with the name, creates misconceptions about indigenous people among non-indigenous students. He believes that the argument of the name being born out of school colours makes certain people less likely to support the name change cause. This appeal to history and tradition makes it harder to understand and appreciate the effects felt by indigenous students.
In the end, the debate comes down to the apparent origins and intentions of the name versus the negative connotations that were given to it. While this is an important topic of discussion, examining actions taken by the university, both in regard to the Redmen issue and other issues regarding indigenous people, might help shed light unto the history of the Redmen problem.
The Redmen Name, McGill Policy on Indigenous Issues, and the Provost’s Task Force
The background for the name changes protests, and to an extent many other issues related to the indigenous community, can be traced back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action. Written in 2015, the report was the result of “the largest class action settlement in Canadian history” in response to the residential schools which were operated by the civil government from 1830 to 1996. The aim of the Commission was to “facilitate reconciliation among former students, their families, their communities and all Canadians.”
As a response to the report, the Office of the Provost released a statement in which they promised to honour the calls to action with: “McGill will heed the call of the TRC by engaging and collaborating with Indigenous communities to identify, explore and advance ideas, initiatives and plans that will embed Indigeneity in the life and activities of the University while seeking to enhance the presence and success of Indigenous students, faculty and staff at McGill.”. This resulted in the creation of the Provost’s Taskforce on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, which aimed to “make specific, concrete recommendations for engagement, action, and innovation”.
Call to Action 21 states: “With a view to positioning McGill as a leader in post-TRC Canada, and in view of perspectives shared within the McGill community, the Task Force calls on our University to begin a process of consultation inside McGill, and with other relevant external organizations and communities, with the goal of renaming McGill male varsity teams.”
Finalized in 2017, the inaction by the university since the publication of this report has led some to believe that the name is to remain unchanged. This, however, has been denied by the Provost in a mass-email sent to McGill Staff and Students. Stating that “I recognize and am sensitive to the feelings expressed by Indigenous staff and students at McGill, as well as by Indigenous communities, as a result of the unfortunate, pejorative association of the word ‘Redmen’ to Indigenous peoples—an association that was regrettably further expressed in team logos used decades,” he refers to the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming, which had been tasked with “undertaking an examination of McGill’s relationship (past and current) with underrepresented groups, in the context of a broad-reaching reflection of our institutional history, with a view to recommending a set of principles by which the University may be guided in its decision-making with respect to any future commemorative or renaming initiative.”.
With a final report to be published in December 2019, the Provost has stated that the decision regarding the name will be guided by the principles set forward by the Working Group. The Redmen name change, however, has been seen as an issue that needs immediate action by some, such as Tomas Jirousek. It could be argued that the name had been a point of contention between the university administration and the students for years. In his interview, Mr. Jirousek claimed that the reason for such delayed reaction on the university’s part could be attributed to the large donor base providing funds for the administration. He argued that, due to its place in McGill tradition of sports and athleticism, some donors could see the name change as undesirable.
Whatever the reason may be, it is important to understand the Redmen name change movement in context of similar issues facing indigenous peoples across Canada and the United States. With the student body voting overwhelmingly to change the name in the Fall 2018 SSMU Referendum, one may say that this issue was caused by a lack of exposure. While the CRG will explore similar issues within and without McGill, it is important to recognize the value of introducing these issues to the general public. Mr. Jirousek has claimed to feel part of a large, historical movement. Shedding light on the issues facing indigenous peoples and spreading the words of the damages caused by issues of misrepresentation allows this historical movement to continue to pick up steam, making McGill, and Canada, more inclusive to indigenous peoples as a whole.