Tomas Jirousek, 22, was named valedictorian for the school’s faculty of arts, making him one of the few Indigenous students to receive the honour.
While convocation was shortened and moved online due to COVID-19, Jirousek said he used his short speech to reference the Black Lives Matter movement and other fights against injustice.
“I think McGill students in particular are well-situated to challenge systemic racism and systemic oppressions which persist in our communities,” he said in a phone interview.
He said that while he was thrilled to be chosen, he also felt sad to think about all the other bright students who never got the same recognition.
“A couple of decades ago, the Indian Act wouldn’t have allowed an Indigenous student to go to McGill without losing their status,” he said.
Jirousek, a member of the rowing crew, was at the forefront of a student campaign to get McGill to drop the name “Redmen” for its sports teams, which Indigenous students described as offensive and alienating.
McGill announced last year it would drop the name after a fierce debate that revealed deep divisions between students and alumni who defended the nearly century-old name, and those who opposed it.
Even though the team name was originally meant to refer to team colours, an association with Indigenous people was made as early as the 1950s, when team members were referred to using derogatory terms.
“‘Redmen’ is widely acknowledged as an offensive term for Indigenous peoples, as evidenced by major English dictionaries,” Principal Suzanne Fortier wrote in a statement announcing the decision.
“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.”
The men’s varsity teams will be known simply as the McGill teams until a new name is chosen.
Jirousek, who is heading to law school at the University of Toronto in the fall, said his experience taught him that racism is still very much alive — but also that there are good people willing to fight it.
During his campaign, he said it was jarring to receive messages containing racial slurs and saying he only got into McGill because he was Indigenous.
“That kind of undercutting — not only of me and the stance I’ve taken on the Redmen name, but a personalized attack on my intellect as an Indigenous person, the ability of an Indigenous person like myself to get into McGill — that hits home,” said Jirousek, who is a member of the Alberta-based Kainai First Nation.
But just as importantly, he said he was encouraged by the massive support he and other Indigenous students received from non-Indigenous allies, without whom, he said, the name change would not have been possible.
“We’ve come a long way towards reconciliation, and that makes me proud,” he said.
He said McGill is planning an in-person convocation next year, which will give him the chance to deliver his full speech.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2020.