HHSS name change resulted from concern about Indigenous representation
By Darren Lum
Decades before other colleges, universities and professional sports teams such as the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, the Cleveland Indians of the Major League Baseball, the Washington Redskins of the National Football League changed their names in response to public outcry related to an understanding of the power of misrepresentation and misappropriating symbols in pop culture, small town Haliburton seem to lead the way without really knowing they were doing so.
When the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School (HHSS) changed their school team name from Redmen to the Red Hawks in 1998 it happened a few years after concern related to the harm it caused Indigenous students and their friends was raised, which was met with some initial resistance related to how the name wasn’t an issue.
The name change was decided by Haliburton County School Board of Education director Brad Saunders, who came to then HHSS principal Gary Brohman in the spring of 1997. It isn’t entirely clear if the raised concerns led to this action, but HHSS alumnus Katya Smith remembers lighting the proverbial match that likely contributed a few years earlier, questioning the name for its insensitivity to Indigenous students.
Smith, who now calls Yukon home, led the way with a letter to the editor to The Haliburton County Echo and would eventually sit in on a noon hour debate about issues related to the Redmen name. She spoke about how her friendships and close relations with the First Nations people during her childhood because of her father’s work with Indigenous communities, as a naturopath and homeopath motivated her to speak out as a Grade 10 student in 1993.
“I was a social justice kind of girl, so there was that. I didn’t like it. It made me uncomfortable. I spent my entire childhood with First Nations people, so it just was like … I remember being uncomfortable about it, but it became more uncomfortable when I got the solidarity from my friends, who were like, ‘Thank you. Thank you for saying something. I didn’t think they would change it. I remember being surprised when my dad told me they changed it.”
The name and relevant uniforms were changed in 1998, years after Smith left.
The Red Hawks, the HHSS athletics teams were known as the Redmen, which has its origins dating back to the 1970s until 1998. She remembers getting the news from her dad.
“‘Look what you did?’ I think I was like, that’s pretty awesome. Then I think I had a couple of my football friends even say we’re sorry we made fun of you. I feel like Haliburton is far more progressive than you actually think a small hockey town would be, considering I kind of strong-armed them into changing a name,” she said.
She adds that she was regularly visiting the area most weekends, so was familiar with what was happening.
Smith clarifies her position with the name change should not be solely attributed to her
“I feel like I started a fire and then someone else put it out,” she said. “By the time they changed it I was already gone. Whatever happened with the debates and the stuff that came after I don’t get to claim credit for it because [my part] was the original bringing up. ‘Hey, this is pretty racist’.”
Former HHSS principal Gary Brohman, who held his position from the 1990s to the early part of the 2000s, offered this response related to Smith’s perspective.
“I believe we (all the HHSS school population) handled it in a manner that was true to her concerns. It was done quickly and transparent,” he wrote in an email.
Before Brohman’s response to Smith, he said Saunders came to him and said the Redmen name needed to be changed to something else and it wasn’t up for debate.
“It was never meant to be anything demeaning. I don’t want to talk about the political part about it. What’s right. What’s wrong. It was just time for change, spearheaded by the director,” he said.
He said there wasn’t any resistance to the change from within the community, but he did recall there was a segment of students that did express a loyalty to the Redmen name because of how they had competed with it across their chest.
“The Redmen tradition was proud, but it was time for change and it was the way our society was going and Mr. Saunders I have to give him all the credit. He saw this was important to our community in moving forward. We were ahead of all pro teams and most of the university teams,” he said.
He adds there were various U.S. Colleges and Canadian universities such as Guelph University who changed their name from Redmen to the Gryphons.
Coincidentally, Haliburton’s Mike Bradley is a retired CFL player, who played for the Edmonton football team and played as a Redmen.
Mike Bradley said in an email he couldn’t remember when the Redmen name was changed except it was after he left high school.
“I understood the need to change the name, but do remember being somewhat disappointed. I was asked for a statement when the Eskimos changed their name. I share a lot of the same feelings for both. I have pasted the original statement below [in an email] for your information: First of all I apologize if the Eskimo name ever offended you. But here is what it meant to me …
For me the name was never a sign of disrespect. To me it meant being the consummate professional. It meant showing up early day in and day out ready to work, ready to get better. The name was synonymous with loyalty, dedication, hard work and a winning tradition. Winning wasn’t only celebrated, it was expected. For those of us that were fortunate to wear that uniform and call ourselves an Eskimo came an obligation, an obligation to be better everyday and leave it all on the field at any cost. We believed we would win every time we took the field, and would not be outworked. We did things differently and set the standard across the league. I never once heard the name used in a derogatory manner inside the organization but only representative of the words and mindset mentioned above.”
Brohman remembers the Redmen name didn’t have an association to Indigenous peoples and that there wasn’t a mascot, he said. He said this name was first used either in 1972 or 1973 and before that there wasn’t even a name for the sports teams or even a mascot. He said “a big “R” was our mascot.”
He adds there was the usual marketing related to the school sport name with apparel, including buttons with the slogans like ‘Go Redmen’ or ‘Big Red’. He acknowledged the ‘Big Red’ slogan came from the well-known American Michigan University, who used the identifier, Big Blue.
Smith countered this notion about the disconnect with anything Indigenous with how some uniforms had Indigenous imagery such as the hockey team jerseys, which had a similar logo to what the current Chicago Blackhawks hockey team has.
She clarifies that she doesn’t blame Brohman for not being in favour of any name change at that time, particularly to the football program.
“I don’t blame Mr. Brohman. He was just trying to keep the school together, but at the same time I think my letter maybe stirred up some stuff. Not just in me, but other people in the community. Mostly the First Nations community of Haliburton, which at the time people think it didn’t exist and I found that very hard,” she said.
As a result of this fight by Smith, she remembers how she felt a stronger connection to the Indigenous students because of the cause she took up on their behalf.
“In my teenage mind, I really felt real solidarity with my friend Jaybird, who was a First Nations kid in that high school and he actually approached me after I had kind of brought it up publicly. ‘I just want you to know no one has ever bothered to ask me.’ Unfortunately, they said there are no First Nations kids in the school, which was unbelievable at the time … then a bunch of First Nations kids came forward and were like, ‘Um, well we’re here.’
Part of the name changing process necessitated a student committee to be formed, which included athletes and was chaired by then teacher Kit Pizzey, who has been retired now for 25 years.
She said the committee held a brain storming session and came up with close to 10 names. The list was narrowed down to two, the Red Storm and the Red Hawks.
“The kids all agreed we wanted to stay with red and of course our uniforms were already red. You know football helmets and everything were red. We wanted to stay with red. The idea of “H” in Hawks standing for the “H” in Haliburton,” she said.
A vote among students, who participated was held and the Red Hawks was selected. All of this coincidentally coincided with the construction of the school’s new wing, including the two-storey athletic facility. The Red Hawk on the outside wall, the Hawk on the gym floor and the two on the walls on each end of the gym with accompanying mottos such as Home of the Red Hawks, Pride of the Red, Go Hawks go were all added and ready for the 1998 school year.
Smith said she would eventually graduate from a high school in Toronto in 1994, but the move was unrelated to the “heat” she received from peers, which was mild and not at all concerning.
“They were all really good. You got to remember these are teenagers and this is the football team, so when I brought it up – this was a small town we know everybody. I think I had a boyfriend on the football team. He wasn’t too impressed with me – but the great thing is we all grew up together. So, even though I took a lot of ribbing for it, I never felt like I got bullied for it. I really didn’t,” she said.
After close to three decades, Smith is aware of the societal changes that have taken place since and how certain sports teams only recently changed their names, so she credits the school for being as open as it was at the time.
“I got to give them credit because that school has always been like very sport forward and to take a name that was their beloved name … I actually feel like they handled it pretty good,” she said.
Although now generally people don’t assume an ethnicity based on visual cues, back then that wasn’t the case, Smith said. She remembers on more than one occasion when some peers and faculty would say this was a non-issue because there wasn’t any First Nations students at the school.
It’s a real point of contention for her because it wasn’t true. “I’m 44 now and this happened when I was 15. It’s pretty wild,” she said. “It’s 2021 and maybe because it’s everything now. Like we’re really making a focus on it and that’s great. Worldwide we’re really trying to change this [crap]. Trying to change these perspectives, but I think in the early-90s it just was … I think lots of people were doing stuff, but probably not in Haliburton County. It definitely wasn’t a hot button issue like it is now. It would appear to be progressive because nobody else was doing it, but I don’t want take credit for the changing. I definitely didn’t have anything to do with that. Like I said, I lit the fire and someone else took the torch and ran with it.”
She continues and said, “[I remember] This wasn’t right and it felt weird when I was a 15-year-old kid because I didn’t really understand that people couldn’t understand that it was a racist term,” she said. “I remember that a lot. Now we are getting more educated. People now would understand it. Back in the 90s I remember people going ‘what’s the big deal. It’s just a name. It doesn’t mean anything.’ But it does. It really does.”