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Opinion McGill shouldn’t need a vote to do the right thing – and change its team name

When I was an impressionable undergraduate at McGill University in the 1980s, I never thought the name of the school’s football team referred to anything other than Indigenous peoples who inhabited the land centuries before it became a campus dominated by privileged white folks like me.

Maybe it was the stylized Indigenous headdress on the football helmets that influenced my thinking. But it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who was confused.

I had already graduated by the time the McGill Athletics board dropped the logo in 1992, clarifying that the Redmen name referred to the colour of the team’s uniforms, rather than the colour of anyone’s skin. For decades, cohort after cohort of McGill students had simply been mistaken in using a string of words now widely considered Indigenous slurs to refer to university sports teams and players.

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Of course, back then, we didn’t know they were slurs. The image of the brave Indigenous warrior did not have pejorative connotations in the history texts we studied.

Indeed, it seemed like a perfect image for any sports team to appropriate. Countless professional franchises did. We had grown up watching the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Blackhawks, after all.

Luckily, we’ve matured since then and know better, now.

The supremacy of U.S. trademark law, and obstinacy on the part of some owners, means that some truly offensive team names have survived. The Indians may have stopped using the Chief Wahoo logo, but their name remains the same. The Blackhawks are still called the Blackhawks, apparently in honour of a great Illinois Indigenous warrior. And then there’s the Washington Redskins, whose owner Dan Snyder said he was “thrilled” in 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that trademarks are protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.

Hence, it was not unreasonable for people to assume the McGill Redmen name referred to Indigenous people even after the Athletics Board, drawing on the historical evidence, declared it didn’t. And since many Indigenous people still consider the name offensive, regardless of its origins, any reasonable person would agree that a name change might be in order in 2018.

What’s more, you shouldn’t need a referendum on campus to come to that conclusion. In fact, subjecting the issue to a majority vote sends exactly the wrong signal. The Students' Society of McGill University, which organized last week’s on-campus referendum, may assert that “students voted overwhelmingly” to change the name. But the results don’t show that.

In fact, almost three quarters of the student body chose not to vote at all. And among the 28 per cent of students who did cast a ballot, more than a fifth voted to preserve the Redmen name. Those in favour of changing it are a distinct minority among McGill’s 20,000-plus student body.

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“This vote demonstrates that our student body values the lived experiences of Indigenous students, and is willing to work toward the creation of a safe and respectful school environment,” the SSMU declared. “By voting ‘Yes’ to changing the Redmen name, we as a student body, have demonstrated leadership by beginning to address and tackle our collective obligation to reconciliation.”

Really? Because if you were to extrapolate from these results, you would conclude that campus politics is dominated by a small cohort of activist students, usually from the arts faculty, while everybody else seems perfectly ambivalent. Democracy on campus, then, is a relative term.

Not that it should matter in the case of the Redmen. Four McGill alumni penned an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette, stating that changing the name would be “a misdirected symbolic gesture, doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason.” But unless McGill teams put disclaimers on their jerseys – stating that “our name doesn’t mean what you think it means” – then most people will continue to associate it with Indigenous people.

In 2017, the McGill Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education recommended “moving forward under a McGill team name that breaks with the associations that ‘Redmen’ evokes in contemporary society." In the name of reconciliation, and basic respect toward Canada’s Indigenous peoples, that seems like the right thing to do.

Surely, there are any number of alternative team names available to McGill, which was founded in 1821 and has almost 200 years of history to draw on. What about the McGill Reds? Or Celtics, given founder James McGill’s Scottish origins? Or Martlets, as the women’s teams are already called, in a reference to the birds on the McGill coat of arms?

Reconciliation isn’t all about big gestures. Simple ones matter just as much.

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