'Not your Redmen': Students hold rally to protest McGill University team name

Students at McGill University in Montreal who want the name of the school's sports teams to change expressed their discontent on campus with a rally Wednesday.

Name that stemmed from colours worn by team spurred 'Indians' nickname and Indigenous symbols on jerseys

Dozens of students gathered outside of McGill University's James Administration Building on Wednesday to protest the men's varsity Redmen name. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Students at McGill University in Montreal who want the name of the school's sports teams to change expressed their discontent on campus with a rally Wednesday.

Since the late 1920s, the varsity men's teams have been known as the Redmen.

"This issue for me connects to everything that I have a problem with at McGill, in Canada," said Ella Martindale, a student from the Cowichan nation in British Columbia.

"It connects to identity. Who am I? What am I doing here? Do I really belong here at McGill?"

The demonstration was organized by Tomas Jirousek, a third-year political science student on the men's varsity rowing team and a member of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta.

Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, spoke about the realities she sees Indigenous people face in the city through homelessness, youth protection and rough relationships with the police.

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)

"The struggles we go through are not what this university really wants as a team name," she said.

"We need more mobilization and we need more people to see what the reality is for Indigenous people. We are struggling and you are wearing our name like it's some kind of badge and it doesn't belong to you."

History of the name

According to the university, the name stems from colours worn by the team in the 1920s. However, Indigenous symbols, connotations and unofficial nicknames were propagated by the press and fans in many circumstances.

Usages of the name "Indians" to refer to men's teams began as early as 1938, and in the mid-'60s, women's teams began being referred to as the "Squaws" or "Super Squaws."  Images of Indigenous people also found their way onto McGill jerseys and helmets of the football and men's hockey teams between 1981 and 1991.

Isabelle Prevost-Aubin is a Mé​tis student at McGill and said she wants the Redmen name to change. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"The Redmen name has had negative implications and racist implications in the past. Although it may not be seen as the case today, the fact that it is still associated with those racist implications," said Isabelle Prevost-Aubin, a mechanical engineering student at the university.

Prevost-Aubin, who is Mé​tis, said Wednesday's demonstration had her feeling optimistic.

"It's raining, and yes we're a little bit damp and a little bit cold but we're getting a lot of support from a lot of different types of people and a lot of students," she said.

Response to Call to Action

The university's task force on Indigenous studies and Indigenous education released a report last year in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) calls to action. The task force issued its own calls to action including to change the varsity teams' name within one to two years of the report.

In response, the university launched a working group on principles of commemoration and renaming with the aim of defining principles to guide the university in its decision-making in any future commemorative or potential renaming initiative. It's expected to be completed in December.

Students chanted 'change the name' and 'not your Redmen' while carrying signs. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

"While it is not the task of this Working Group to initiate any renaming process, including for the Redmen name, I wish to emphasize the moral and practical stakes for McGill, a highly visible national and international public institution, in taking responsibility for this name and moving forward by changing it," said Prof. Hudson Meadwell, a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at McGill University in an email to CBC.

Meadwell was was one of three co-chairs on the task force. He said in the area of symbolic representation of Indigeneity at the university, the Redmen regularly came up during consultation meetings.

"There is no moral equivalence between removing an historic indignity to Indigenous people by changing the name of men's sports teams and retaining the name, and thus deferring to those McGill alumni, as influential, powerful and wealthy as they might be, who cannot imagine memories of 'their' McGill without the Redmen name," said Meadwell.

About the Author

Jessica Deer

Journalist

Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. A former staff reporter for the Eastern Door, she works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at jessica.deer@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.