The documentary More Than a Word touches upon the football team known as the Washington Redskins, not for their playing history but their name’s. “Redskin” is, simply defined, a term for an American Indian, but it’s not just a term; it’s a nickname, and “redskin” has been defined by numerous prestigious dictionaries as a contemptuous word. Yet it’s still the name of the team. Those opposed to the name say it allows people who have disregarded the rights of Native Americans to paint whatever picture they want of them and normalize an insult, indulging in celebratory racism. Those for the name say it is not a big deal in the sports world and the name allows the NFL to have a significant acknowledgment of their culture to keep it alive.
I do feel both sides have validation, but in 2014, when a judge ruled, in a case brought forth by Native Americans, that the team name was, in fact, disparaging, and the US government decided to cancel federal trademarks for the Redskin name, the other side acted menacingly. Those who were involved in the name acknowledgment and who were known for it received backlash from sports fans to the point of death threats. That is never not too far, and does not help the case the side opposed to the name change tries to push.
A similar event happened at McGill University of Montreal, Quebec last spring, except the outcome was very different.
Since the 1920’s, McGill’s male athletes were known as the McGill “Redmen”. Sound familiar? It’s the same meaning as the Redskins. Tomas Jirousek, a McGill student from Alberta, spent the previous school year, beginning on October 31, 2018, trying to get the “Redmen” name removed.
Jirousek organized a campaign set to begin on that day, shouting “Change the Name” and “Not your Redmen!” After that, his cause didn’t stop. In a referendum the university put forward that next month, 79 per cent of students approved having the name changed. Then on April 12, 2019, the administration officially announced, it would drop the name.
“McGill Redmen” was a name put forth in the late 1920s, making the name present in the school for almost a century. The Redskins was made a proper team in the late 1930s. Both dates are from a time period where people were represented differently and often quite offensively.
The Redmen name had been controversial for decades before Jirousek’s campaign was put in place. The administration had seen resistance but never changed the name, deciding its benign origins were defensible. When it was first chosen, the Redmen name did not refer to North American Indigenous peoples. It originated from the colours traditionally worn by the team and possibly referred to founder James McGill’s Scottish heritage. However, over the last five years, pressure mounted. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published a report asking Canadian institutions to “honour the past and reconcile the future”, and the report heavily focused on harms inflicted on Indigenous communities by Canadian schools.
Jirousek said he likened the name to any other slur, and as an openly gay young man, “I’ve been called all these other words that hurt me and isolate me as a queer person. The Redman name does the exact same thing. It has become associated with problematic ideas of Indigenous people.” This is an instance where I feel the name change is completely justifiable, the university deciding the feelings of their students are more important than consistency in a world of changing norms.
As of today, no name other than “the McGill teams” represent McGill’s varsity teams, and principal and vice chancellor Suzanne Fortier wrote in a statement, “The University will announce a new name in time for the 2020-2021 season.”
Agrba, L. (2019, October 2). The long campaign to change McGill’s varsity name. Retrieved November 18, 2019, from https://www.macleans.ca/education/the-long-campaign-to-change-mcgills-varsity-name/.
Fortier, S. (2019, April 12). Decision about Redmen name. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from https://www.mcgill.ca/principal/communications/statements/decision-about-redmen-name.