Inside McGill University’s Decision to Withdraw Varsity Redmen Name

Weeks After the School Dropped Its Team Name, McGill Student Athletes Tell Their Stories

McGill University has announced that they will be changing their mens varsity team name due in large part to activism done by students like Tomas Jirousek and Joshua Archibald. File photo Elaine Genest

For three years, Tomas Jirousek has been a part of the McGill men’s rowing roster. But outside his rowing family, he says he’s struggled to feel like he belongs at McGill because of a controversial name the university has used for decades: Redmen.

Three weeks ago, after Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier announced McGill Men’s Varsity teams would no longer carry the name, Jirousek couldn’t help but enjoy a moment filled with optimism for change.

“Obviously I was very happy,” said the rower on his initial reaction to the news. “I had expected the decision […] It was my opinion that if the principal was legitimately listening and interacting with Indigenous people with an open mind, there was only one opinion you can form and it was that the Redmen name was extremely problematic and extremely hurtful.”

Originally intended to reflect the colours of the McGill athletes’ uniforms in the late 1920s, the Redmen name and its history since then has been deemed racist and discriminatory by the Indigenous community.

Evolving with time, the name then was used to refer to Indigenous men as “Indians” and women as “Squaws” in the 1950s. Despite both nicknames holding racial and derogatory meanings, in 1980, teams opted for a logo portraying an Indigenous man with a headdress.

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Raised in Whitehorse, Yukon and now heavily implicated in student politics as Chairman of the Indigenous Affairs Committee at McGill, Jirousek was the spearhead of the movement demanding to change the name. He said the successful campaign reflected a common belief for most people on and off campus.

“So you had over 200 professors come up and support. You had multiple members of the Board of Governors coming out and supporting, you had senators, you had external media and visualizations from outside Montreal coming out and support. I think it was this external pressure that showed this wasn’t just isolated to the student body,” said Jirousek.

For defensive lineman Joshua Archibald, it’s clear what comes first: inclusivity.

“I feel like it’s not fair for other people who may be Indigenous, who are at McGill, especially who are playing as a Redmen, to feel excluded,” said the second year athlete.

Voicing his opinion during the school protests on behalf of the Black Student Network at McGill, Archibald expressed his discomfort regarding the name, given its past history. The lineman feels what’s most important is to “stand up for them, stand up for the minority groups.”

Though he believes the name doesn’t really define a team, he explains the change is a good step forward.

“We’re starting to realize everyone is human and you can’t judge a book by its cover. There’s no room for that. We’re moving into that age and it’s coming fast,” he said.

First year goalkeeper on the men’s soccer team Christopher Cinelli-Faia also admits the school is headed in the right direction.

“I think to a certain extent, everyone saw it coming, we expected it. It’s 2019, we’re all moving forward, we wanna be on the right side of history. Everyone came to terms with it. It was just a matter of time before they announced it,” said Faia.

Faia, like Archibald, stands firm on the idea that athletes represent McGill’s tradition and identity, which go beyond the name.

They play to win, and despite the immense scrutiny and tension involved in these trying times, the goal remains the same.

However, with Interim Deputy Provost Fabrice Labreau set to announce a permanent name only by spring 2020, student athletes have a full year to wait before officially closing this chapter.

In charge of the committee in place to establish this new name, Labreau made it clear in an email that the board “wants to ensure the full participation of [McGill] students in the process,” which would value a name all students can wear, represent and support with pride and joy, he continued.