Some students from Denis Morris Catholic High School are allowed to continue wearing Redmen sweats, shirts and jerseys for the next four years during a transition period as the school changes its team name to Reds. Photo courtesy of Danny Di Lorenzo

School boards measure up to minister's bid to end offensive team nicknames

  • January 24, 2017

When it comes to ridding sports teams of offensive nicknames, it appears that most school boards in the Toronto area are ahead of the game.

Ontario's Minister of Education, Hunter Mitzie, wrote to he chairs of all boards of education in mid-January to review the names of school teams to ensure they are not discriminatory, especially toward First Nations.

She cited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as motivation for the memo which aims at “ensuring student safety and inclusive schools.”

In November 2015 Justice Murray Sinclair, who spearheaded the TRC, spoke out against the use of offensive brands in school sports. Sinclair also pointed out that only those referring to First Nations have persisted in both amateur and professional sports.

And while some consider the call to action well overdue, many of the province's Catholic schools and boards have already been proactive in stripping offensiveness from sport.

In 2015, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic school board collected information from each of their schools regarding the name, logo and mascot being used in association with the school's sports teams.

“We sent out essentially a survey to all of our administrators asking them to let us know what their logo was, what their mascot was and to send us a copy of their artwork,” said Michelle Coutinho, principal of equity, diversity and inclusive education. “We had done that a couple of years ago and we found that there actually were not any indigenous-inspired logos or names or mascots in our schools.”

Courtinho praised the minister's memo.

“Human dignity, that is what all of our work, especially our equity work, is rooted in and so this memo further serves to support us in that work,” she said. “It's really calling on people to look at practices that have been in place for a long time and how we address them.”

More recently, Dufferin-Peel students at St. Simon Stock Elementary School in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic school board were visited by First Nation Eddy Robinson, parent rep on the board's First Nations, Metis and Inuit Educational Advisory Council, who spoke about use of offensive brands in professional sports.

When a conversation regarding Chief Wahoo, the red-faced logo and mascot of the Cleveland Indians, began, Robinson, who is of Missanabie Cree decent, said “Indigenous people are now standing up and saying 'That is not okay.'”

His presentation was part of the board's acknowledgment of Ontario's first Treaties Recognition Week, held last November.

The York Catholic District School Board also conducted a review of their own accord.

“Last year all schools were reviewed with respect to mascots, logos and sports team names, and we had no issues in this regard," said board spokesperson Sonia Gallo.

At the province's largest Catholic school board, Toronto, board spokesperson John Yan said offensive team names or logos are not an issue.

“This has not been an issue at our board for over 30 years if ever,” said Yan. “The TCDSB is fully compliant and has been for a long time.”

Some Catholic boards say their re-branding efforts were done more recently.

Niagara's Catholic school board, for example, recently supported one of their school's re-branding efforts – albeit the transition took place months before the minister's memo.

Students at Denis Morris Catholic High School in St. Catharines started this school year sporting the nickname Reds instead of Redmen, a name which dates back to the school's first wrestling event in 1958.

"We had no jersey so a father of one of the students donated some red t-shirts and there we became known as the Redmen because we were wearing red t-shirts,” said Danny Di Lorenzo, principal of the school.

He continued by saying the move towards changing the team name, despite it's innocent origins, came as a response to Justice Sinclair's remarks.

“We talked to all the stakeholders and got everyone's opinion,” including an indigenous perspective from those at Niagara On The Lake Friendship Centre said Di Lorenzo. “When we gleaned all of that information basically it was unanimous that it was time to make the name change.”

This isn't the first time Denis Morris underwent a re-branding of their sports team. In the early 1990s the school discontinued their use of the Washington Redskins logo which the school adopted in during the mid-1970s or early 1980s according to Di Lorenzo.

But such changes don't come without a cost.

“There's a cost definitely because around the school things needed to be repainted,” he said. “The board assisted with the repainting of certain areas of the school. On all our sports teams we won't see Redmen anyway (because) they have all new jerseys with Reds – again that's a cost factor that we had to adsorb.”

Costs that are entirely justified by the need for students to feel respected, safe and included in their school, said Di Lorenzo.

“You always have to weigh at the end, was the juice worth the squeeze and in this situation it definitely was because our students here are coming out on top,” he said. “You can't put a price tag on the effect that something has on an individual or a group of people or a culture.”

(An earlier version mispelled Michelle Coutinho's name. It is "Coutinho" not "Courtinho")

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