McGill students vote to change Redmen sports teams' name

McGill University students voted in favour of changing the name of the school's varsity men's teams, called the Redmen, increasing pressure on the university to respond in kind.

78.8% of nearly 6,000 students voted in favour of replacing name of varsity men's teams

Dozens of students gathered outside of McGill University's James Administration Building to protest the men's varsity Redmen name on Oct. 31. The student union has voted in favour of changing it. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

McGill University students have voted in favour of changing the name shared by the school's varsity men's sports teams, the Redmen, in a move they hope will pressure the university to respond in kind.

On Monday evening, students voted 78.8 per cent in favour of a change.

The non-binding referendum, organized by McGill's student union, collected 5,856 votes — one of the highest participation rates for a vote of its kind at the university. 

"Today, as students, we are defending values of respect and inclusion on campus," a statement by the union said, adding it was thrilled by the result. 

Tomas Jirousek, a third-year political science student at McGill from the Kainai First Nation in Alberta and a member of the men's varsity rowing team, has been lobbying to remove the name.

He launched a petition that was signed by more than 10,000 and, on Oct. 31, organized a demonstration to protest against the use of the name.

"It was a really amazing turnout, and I'm really proud of the work we did to get out the vote, but also in educating so many people that we were able to get 80 per cent of students voting yes," Jirousek told CBC News Tuesday morning. 

Tomas Jirousek is from the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta and has been a varsity athlete on McGill’s rowing team for three years. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Next, Jirousek says, a letter of support signed by more than 100 professors at the school will be released publicly. He's hoping to release more examples of public support in the weeks to come.

The university has said the name stems from the colours worn by its team since the 1920s. However, Indigenous symbols, connotations and unofficial nicknames were propagated by the press and fans in many circumstances.

Usage of the name "Indians" to refer to men's teams began as early as 1938, and in the mid-1960s, women's teams were sometimes referred to as the "Squaws" or "Super Squaws." 

Images of Indigenous people also found their way onto the jerseys and helmets of the McGill football and hockey teams between 1981 and 1991.

University 'tends to drag its feet' on Indigenous issues, student says

The school created a task force to look into the issue last year, in response to a call to change the name by another task force on Indigenous studies and education.

Jirousek said the university has told students it would wait to take action on the sports teams' name until the working group releases its report in December.

"I would like to say I'm surprised that the university hasn't taken action yet, but after three years of studying here, I'm really not surprised," Jirousek said. 

"I think the university tends to drag its feet when it comes to taking action on a lot of issues pertaining to Indigenous people."

As an example, Jirousek said, students called on the university to recruit more Indigenous professors several years ago, "but we still see at this current moment not a single Indigenous tenured prof here at McGill."

However, he says, Monday night's referendum result encourages him to keep pushing.

"This Redmen thing is ... about giving a platform to Indigenous students and allowing us really to drive an agenda and for us to hopefully build a momentum in tackling other issues that the university has."

A name with 'very racist connotations' 

Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said the vote was a welcome step forward. 

"I'm so excited that [Tomas] led this, and a change happened," she said on CBC Montreal's Daybreak

"All these people that have gone to these games after all these years … they're learning that the term is acceptable and they're going to continue to use it in their lives and think that everything is fine, that it is OK to call our people 'Redmen.' It's not."

Nakuset, executive director of Montreal's Native Women's Shelter, says she was happy to see students voted to change the name. (CBC)

CBC spoke with a dozen students on McGill's campus Tuesday. Most were in favour of the name being changed. 

First-year student Rosalia Arcuri didn't vote in the referendum but said she thought it was a good idea to change the name. 

"We need to think about how Indigenous students feel at the school, and it's obviously a name that has very racist connotations," Arcuri said. "At McGill, it's like they preach diversity so I think it's really important that a majority voted to change it."

Victor Cameron is in the university's triathlon club, which does not call itself the Redmen. He said he abstained from voting because he is on the fence about the issue. 

"I understand why they feel it's offensive, but there's a historical value to the name. That's why I'm indecisive."

Darius Piecaitis didn't vote either but said he was in favour.

"If people were offended, it's good that [they voted] to change it," said Piecaitis."It would be a bad image for the administration not to take the overwhelming majority of students saying they want to change it and just ignore it."

With files from Radio-Canada's Laurence Niosi, CBC reporters Jessica Deer and Lauren McCallum


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.