For the six years that I attended Victoria School of the Arts in Edmonton, all athletic events were marred by our team name, The Redmen.
In 2005, when I started grade seven, I was horrified to see the “red chief” logo plastering the walls of the gymnasiums. At pep rallies and competitions, the cheer team and audience chanted the team name while clapping rhythmically. At international cheer competitions, the team spread the message that racism is a-okay as long as it’s just the name of a sports team.
When I graduated from Victoria School in 2011, the school made the painfully belated decision to change the team name and end the use of the red chief logo. In 2016, five long years later, the school finally altered the remaining red chief mural that decorated the old gym, after pressure from Indigenous students and the community.
I’m not Indigenous, and therefore don’t wish to speak for their communities. Like any community, not all of its members feel the same way. However, the amount of pushback from Indigenous groups on this matter is worth both recognition and consideration.
The groups and individuals pushing back against these names are pushing back against a legacy of colonialism. These team names represent centuries of colonial oppression and its intergenerational effects, trauma’s passed down over generations. These intergenerational effects are the product of cultural genocide enacted through institutions like residential schools, which attempted to eradicate Indigenous peoples through assimilative practices. The effects include disproportionate rates of poverty and challenges with mental health concerns like depression and addiction.
When we scream these names from the bleachers and plaster merchandise with them, we both affirm existing prejudice and feed into the normalization of casual racism against Indigenous peoples.
In 1992, nearly twenty years before Victoria School scrapped their red chief logo, McGill University ceased the use of their Redmen, citing its offensive nature. Yet, in 2018, McGill still uses the Redmen team name. Like at Victoria School, some people are resistant to the idea of changing the name, claiming that it’s merely a reference to the team’s jersey colour, or that it stems from Celtic lore. In a referendum organized by McGills’ Students’ Society, an overwhelming majority of 79 per cent of students who cast a ballot voted to change the team’s name, demonstrating that they don’t see the word as a reference to the team colours or the colour of a Celt’s hair.
In 2018, the Edmonton Eskimos faced backlash for their name. Ultimately, the team refused to change their name despite pressure from the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents 60,000 Inuit, as well as members of Yellowknife Inuit Association. On game days, fans scream out the slur and proudly wear it on jerseys. They normalize the use of the word that many Inuit people feel is unacceptable. They do what my school once did: contribute to the normalization of the casual racism that is endemic in Canada.
As individuals connected to McGill’s sports teams continue to stubbornly dig in their heels, they send the message that their feelings about the name are more important than the ongoing racism directed at Indigenous populations within Canada. As Ross Montour, a chief with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake near Montreal puts it, it’s about time we “move out of the colonial 19th century” and stop accepting the casual racism endemic in the names of sports teams. If my little Albertan school could finally muster the social awareness to bring themselves into the 21st century, then so should McGill.