Good Riddance, Redmen

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Tomas Jirousek is a third-year athlete on the rowing team at McGill and a member of Kainai First Nation in Southern Alberta. Supported by hundreds of students, he has led the coordination of an upcoming demonstration to challenge our school’s historically contentious team name, the McGill Redmen. Jirousek’s recent activism on campus has shed new light on a decades-long debate in the McGill community.

Coined in the 1920s, the Redmen name is supposedly inspired by McGill’s red school colour. McGill Historian, Dr. Stanley Frost, maintains that the name is an homage to the Celtic roots of the school’s founder, James McGill. However innocent its derivation may be, the Redmen title has long been criticized for its evocation and abetting of racist Indigenous imagery.

In the 1980s, our men’s hockey and football teams donned Redmen uniforms emblazoned with a logo of a man in a headdress. In the early 90s, the McGill Athletics Board responded to concerns about the derogatory nature of the logo, steeping outrage by stating, “unless we find historical evidence which establishes that the Redmen name came from [somewhere] other than the colour of McGill’s uniforms, we intend to preserve the traditional name for our men’s teams.” And, so, with no new evidence emerging to definitively prove the offensive origins of the name, it has been allowed to remain affixed to our athletes’ jerseys, including to the jersey of rower Tomas Jirousek.

While there is uncertainty about the context in which our team name was derived, what is more pertinent to the ongoing debate is the Redmen’s undeniable overtones of cultural appropriation and racialism.

While there is uncertainty about the context in which our team name was derived, what is more pertinent to the ongoing debate is the Redmen’s undeniable overtones of cultural appropriation and racialism. By mobilizing the McGill community and sharing his own negative experience with the Redmen team name, Jirousek has presented the McGill administration with an opportunity to begin reconciling the alienation of Indigenous staff and students on campus. Rather than quibbling over the original conception of the Redmen, proponents of changing the name are prioritizing fostering  a new sense of solidarity and inclusion within McGill Athletics.

As an educational institution, McGill preaches a culture of tolerance and respect. McGill’s failure to adequately address this cultural insensitivity leaves an unmistakable gap in logic, particularly in regards to a stated commitment from the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal in 2016 “to 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.” There seems to be a disconnect on campus when it comes to the attainment of this goal. On one hand, many student groups have made Indigenous Territorial Acknowledgements customary at the beginning of meetings, while on the other, McGill Athletics continues to be branded by a name that disparages Indigenous cultures. The continued use of the Redmen team name has proven to be injurious to members of the McGill community, as Jirousek can attest, and serves as an obstacle to the administration’s own stated aims.

The re-emergence of this debate on campus reveals a striking discrepancy in McGill’s values with a glaringly obvious solution. It is time for McGill to retire the Redmen team name. The title may carry a sentimental history of athletic achievement and school pride, but its legacy is simultaneously muddled by instances of racial prejudice that continue to harm McGill students.

It is time for McGill to retire the Redmen team name. The title may carry a sentimental history of athletic achievement and school pride, but its legacy is simultaneously muddled by instances of racial prejudice that continue to harm McGill students.

The wheels are slowly moving. Just last week, the McGill Provost issued a statement regarding the progress of a task force assigned to working towards renaming the men’s varsity teams. This process will no doubt require a great deal of time and care, reaching agreement on a name that McGill can wear proudly and without offensive connotations. Perhaps the renaming will serve as an opportunity to consolidate the Martlets and the Redmen, the traditionally gender-divided team names, under one name to form a unitary body of varsity athletics. In any event, the prospect of a new name should respect the diversity of our students and faculty and represent the culture of inclusivity that McGill thrives to emulate.

Though born out of outrage, the McGill administration should view this moment as an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with Indigenous staff and students. They should pursue a cohesive policy towards inclusivity and equity on campus, and re-imagine the future of McGill Athletics as an unequivocal source of McGill pride for all of us. A resolution to this controversy has been long overdue; it’s time settle this enduring debate and change the name.

1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    This accomplishes nothing. Glad our tuition is being spent on a useless task-force so everyone can feel good about themselves.

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