McGill men's sports teams to be named Redbirds after lengthy process

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MONTREAL — McGill University's men's varsity sports teams will be known as the Redbirds going forward, the university announced Tuesday. 

The Montreal school settled on the new moniker more than a year after doing away with the old Redmen name that the university said caused pain and alienation for Indigenous students.

In April 2019, the university announced it was dropping the Redmen name effective immediately.

Fabrice Labeau, the university's deputy provost of student life and learning, said several names emerged as potential choices, but Redbirds, checked all the boxes, including some historical links to the institution.

"It strikes that balance between being a new name, being part of our tradition and being the kind of name everyone will be able to rally around," Labeau said in an interview.

The Redbirds name was used by ski teams in the 1920s and 1930s and more recently by the school's baseball team, as well as for a fall basketball tournament dubbed the Redbird Classic.

The name change follows a lengthy debate over the former Redmen name, which 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."

Originally written as Red Men, the name dated 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.

Tomas Jirousek, a former McGill student who led the name change fight, said the new name is another step toward recognizing Indigenous students.

"It's not racist, the name doesn't offend anybody and that's something to celebrate," said Jirousek, who is Indigenous. "I don't think it represents the end of this discussion at all."

He said there are other steps toward reconciliation, including investment in Indigenous support services and outreach to Indigenous communities.

"We saw for decades Indigenous students feeling ostracized, isolated on campus. We saw Indigenous communities withdrawing from McGill," Jirousek said from Toronto.

"I think if we really want to put the Redmen name behind us once and for all, that means reaching out to Indigenous communities, overcoming the legacy of the Redmen name, not just changing the name itself." 

A committee considered 1,200 submissions with 230 proposed names, referring the more popular ones back for a second consultation with the community. Consideration was given to going with a single name -- the Martlets, the name of the school's women's teams -- but ultimately the idea was dismissed.

Hubert Lacroix, co-chair of the naming committee and a former head coach of the women's basketball team, understood the tradition and importance of the Martlet name, which also refers to a bird.

"Redbirds works because it connects with the Martlets name," Lacroix said.

Dimitrios Sinodinos, a fourth-year McGill engineering student and football team member, said he is excited to be a Redbirds player next season, and he said teammates have moved on from the Redmen name.

"That name in particular, initially when I started I wasn't aware of the cultural insensitivity," Sinodinos said. "Now that I am, I realized it's now time for a change." 

Lacroix said a robust process took place to ensure community members were involved in the discussions.

"Once you understand this is a name that we could no longer use, then you move on to the next chapter and try to find a name that works," Lacroix said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press