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McGill University has announced that effective today, its sports teams will no longer be called the Redmen.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

McGill University has dropped the use of “Redmen” from varsity men’s sports teams after the head of the school acknowledged “the depths of pain” the name has caused Indigenous students.

Principal and vice-chancellor Suzanne Fortier announced the move on Friday in a note to McGill students, faculty, staff and alumni, saying she had consulted with them, along with Indigenous people who had asked that the name be retired.

“I have learned about the true depths of the pain caused by the Redmen name," Dr. Fortier wrote. "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. This tension is even stronger for Indigenous student-athletes.”

Tomas Jirousek, a rower, third-year political science student and member of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta, led recent efforts to drop the name. He said the small-but-growing population of 320 Indigenous students on McGill campus helped provoke change, as did increased awareness among others of the need for reconciliation.

“I am quite proud of the work we put in, of the fact people managed to rally and push past feelings of discomfort, to find the courage to get past it,” he said. "'Redmen' is a slur, that’s a fact. Recognizing that is not an attack on any student, administrator or alumnus.”

Schools and sports teams across North America have wrestled with the legacy of team names that reference Indigenous stereotypes, which many find offensive. The name was dropped by New York’s St. John’s University in 1994 and the University of Massachusetts in 1972.

McGill adopted the name in the 1920s in reference to its red uniforms. In the 1940s and into the 90s, racist and derogatory images and nicknames were associated with the team. Some uniforms and other material had logos depicting stereotypical Indigenous people. Women’s sports teams dropped Indigenous references in 1976 and took the name Martlet, from a mythical bird in the family crest of university founder James McGill.

Dozens of McGill alumni had signed petitions to keep the name. Some threatened to stop donating.

A January submission signed by Montreal lawyer Richard Rusk and 50 other alumni urged the university to keep the name, adhere to and explain its original meaning, and push harder to welcome and support Indigenous people.

“The process very flawed and biased," said Salim Brahimi, an engineer who played soccer at McGill in the 1980s and wanted the name to stay. "The decision that was made was expedient and politically correct, but doesn’t really do anything to improve the cause of Indigenous people. At the same time, it’s creating a huge amount of division.”

Dr. Fortier said she had heard about the pride many alumni and student athletes had in the team name. Finally, she said, the current meaning of the word made it impossible to keep it.

“Today, ‘Redmen’ is widely acknowledged as an offensive term for Indigenous peoples, as evidenced by major English dictionaries,” she wrote. “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.”

McGill archives show some students objected to the racist Indigenous imagery as far back as 1953, according to historian Suzanne Morton. Activists pushed the school to eliminate all official references to Indigenous people in its sports teams in 1992. Students voted 79 per cent in favour of dropping the name in a referendum in November. Dr. Fortier made the final decision.

Catie Galbraith, a first-year history student and Chickasaw from Fort Wayne, Ind., said family and friends advised her against going to McGill because of the name and the school’s reputation as an isolating place for Indigenous people. (The self-identified Indigenous population of McGill is less than 1 per cent.)

“It’s quite alienating for a lot of people,” she said. “But we have a lot of hope for the future with the name change. I hope to make McGill a better place, a place I’d tell my baby sister to go to.”

Dr. Fortier said the decision is effective immediately. A committee will lead a search for a new name in time for the 2020-21 academic year. In the meantime, the men’s teams will be known as “McGill.”