MONTREAL — McGill University is dropping the Redmen name for its men's varsity sports teams, effective immediately, the university announced Friday.
Principal Suzanne Fortier said in a statement that the Redmen name has caused pain and alienation for Indigenous students at the university.
Even though the name was not initially adopted as a reference to Indigenous peoples, that association was made in the 1950s when men's and women's teams came to be nicknamed the "Indians" and "Squaws." Some teams later adopted a logo with an Indigenous man wearing a headdress.
"Today, 'Redmen' is widely acknowledged as an offensive term for Indigenous peoples, as evidenced by major English dictionaries," Fortier said. "While this derogatory meaning of the word does not reflect the beliefs of generations of McGill athletes who have proudly competed wearing the university's colours, we cannot ignore this contemporary understanding."
She said the name "is not one the university would choose today, and it is not one that McGill should carry forward."
Her decision comes after the release of a working group report in December that revealed deep divisions between students and alumni who defend the nearly century-old name and those who found it offensive.
One unnamed Indigenous student was quoted saying that seeing Redmen jerseys in the gym "felt like a dagger" and that being called a "Redman" made him sick, while another told the group she didn't feel accepted in the university and "felt like a ghost."
On the other side was a group of alumni who reported feeling such strong attachment to the Redmen name that they said they would never again donate to McGill, would discourage their children from applying to the school and would "consider McGill dead to (them)," if the name were dropped.
"I have learned about the true depths of the pain caused by the Redmen name," Fortier said. "I have heard from Indigenous students at McGill who feel alienated by the name. They feel disrespected and unconsidered. They feel conflicted over their rightful pride in being Indigenous people, and their pride in being McGill students."
The Indigenous student who led the fight against the Redmen name said he was "ecstatic" at Friday's news.
"I had expected the name change," Tomas Jirousek said in an interview from Prague. "I think if the principal had been actually listening to Indigenous community members and students, I think it was the only possible option after, as she said in her email, 'the depth of pain' we feel as Indigenous students at the Redmen name."
The third-year political science and economics student is a member of McGill’s rowing team from the Kainai Nation in southern Alberta. He was one of the leaders of a campaign that saw 79 per cent of students vote to abandon the Redmen name in a referendum last November.
"Walking through McGill Athletics facilities, it can feel incredibly isolating, it can be insulting to see a slur like the Redmen printed on jerseys and printed on shirts and to see people proudly wearing this slur," said Jirousek. "It can make you feel as you don't belong in the space."
Jirousek, who said his rowing teammates were supportive of his opposition to the Redmen name, expects some backlash to the decision.
"Reconciliation, I think, will merit these type of difficult moments, these moments of critical self-reflection that will have plenty of people uncomfortable with the necessary steps we need to take in order to address the grievances of the past," he said.
Fortier said a committee will be formed to choose a new name in time for the 2020-21 season. For 2019-20, the men's varsity teams will be known simply as the McGill teams, she said. The women's teams are called the Martlets.
Fabrice Labeau, the interim deputy provost who will lead the name search, said the university wants a unifying name that everyone will be happy to cheer for.
"This is a decision we've taken, there's no question of going back," he said. "Everyone in our community will understand the reason for this change, even if they don't agree with it right away.
The Redmen name, originally written as Red Men, dates back to the 1920s. The school has said it was a tribute to the team's red uniforms and possibly a nod to university founder James McGill's Celtic origins.
As part of the name change, McGill Athletics said signs, banners, flags and branded merchandise with the Redmen name will be removed from campus by next fall. But as teams compete under a new name, the former name will remain in the McGill Sports Hall of Fame and on items of historical significance such as plaques, trophies and championship photos.
"We need to be aware of the damage that has been done by the Redmen name, so I don't believe in getting rid of these artifacts," Jirousek said. "I think they should be preserved in a way that we can learn from the sins of our past."