McGill students vote overwhelmingly for change to Redmen team nickname

McGill students vote overwhelmingly for change to Redmen team nickname
McGill University students vote overwhelmingly to ditch Redmen team name
The Carleton Ravens Mitch Wood, left, looks to pass before going out of bounds in front of the McGill Redmens Noah Daoust, centre, and Dele Ogundokun in the bronze-medal game of the U Sports mens basketball national championship in Halifax on March 11, 2018.

Pressure is growing on McGill University to shed its sports teams Redmen nickname after students voted overwhelmingly in favour of the change in a referendum.

In a statement announcing results of the vote Monday night, the Students Society of McGill University said it will continue pressing the university until it acknowledges the damage that the Redmen name has done, and addresses those damages by, first of all, changing it.

The vote followed a campaign by Indigenous staff and students to drop a name they consider derogatory. They gained the support of 79 per cent of students who cast ballots.

The Redmen name, originally written as Red Men, dates back to the 1920s. The school says it is a tribute to the teams red uniforms and possibly a nod to university founder James McGills Celtic origins.

In ancient times, Celts were known as the Red Men because of their hair … our own Red Men were no doubt Celts in honour of James McGills Scottish descent, McGills official historian, the late Stanley Frost, is quoted stating on the McGill Athletics web site.

But in the 1950s, the name took on a different sense, with mens and womens teams colloquially referred to as the Indians or the Squaws. In the 1980s, several McGill teams used a stylized logo with an Indigenous man wearing a headdress.

Tomas Jirousek, the student societys Indigenous affairs commissioner and a member of McGills varsity rowing team, explained before the referendum why the Redmen name is hurtful. Indigenous student athletes feel isolated within McGill athletics, and Indigenous students feel isolated within McGill more generally, he said.

Students society executive members said that keeping the name would amount to oppressive and racist behaviour, and they congratulated the student body for showing leadership.

Today, SSMU members stood behind Indigenous students on campus who have called on McGill to address their feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and isolation on campus, the executive said in a statement. Today, we as a student body, stood for the values of respect and inclusivity on campus.

Twenty-eight per cent of eligible students voted in the non-binding referendum. The final tally was 4,616 in favour of changing the name and 1,240 against.

In an Oct. 24 message to the McGill community, provost Christopher Manfredi acknowledged the feelings of those who consider the name pejorative as well as those who feel pride in past Redmen achievements.

In this particular instance, any decision about the Redmen name must emerge from a process that engages all relevant stakeholders in conversation, drawing us together while building on a sense of shared community and dedication to McGill University, Manfredi said.

He said a working group on commemoration and renaming will address the issue of the Redmen name in its final report, to be submitted next month. The university will rely on the report to guide its decision, he said.

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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.

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. 

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.

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."

"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."

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."

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."

"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."

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.

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