MONTREAL -- Just over a year ago, in April 2019, McGill University announced it would change the name of all its men’s varsity sports teams, doing away with the “Redmen” slur.

A 20-year-old varsity rower had been the driving force behind that change. For months, Tomas Jirousek had gotten used to being a public enemy to McGill’s authorities, or at least to many of its old-school alumni.

“It's not as if we were on the best of terms, myself and the administration, to put it lightly,” he says.

So when Jirousek found out a week ago that he had been named valedictorian of the Arts Faculty, he started shouting.

“I wouldn’t have expected it,” he said.

“I ran into my parents’ room and yelled ‘I'm valedictorian!'”

Jirousek, who turned 22 last week and heads to law school soon, is thought to be McGill’s first-ever Indigenous undergraduate valedictorian.

There were a lot of things he couldn’t have predicted two years ago. He says he just knew he had a unique window of opportunity that only he could take advantage of. Non-Indigenous students had brought up the idea of a name change before, but with no success.

Jirousek’s family lives in Whitehorse, but he is Blackfoot and spent much of his childhood and high-school years in the Blood Reserve near Lethbridge, Alberta. 

“Being Indigenous, being an athlete,” he said, he knew that his voice would carry unusual weight on the name change, that he could “really speak from the heart.” 

A year later, as the world erupts in anti-racism protests, Jirousek says everything that followed taught him much beyond his classes about this moment in history—what’s changed and what hasn’t. Not that he regrets it, but “if I’m being honest,” he says, it changed him permanently.

He spent months working 60- to 70-hour weeks between classes and research for the campaign, which meant trawling through old newspaper articles and archives, and interviewing alumni, to gather evidence.

“That was devastating,” he said in an interview last year. “There was a picture in an old yearbook of an Indigenous person being scalped.”

He met many times with senior McGill administrators and its principal, who he found “incredibly respectful…incredibly open to what I had to say,” he said.

Still, it all added up to a repetitive, painful discussion, Jirousek said at the time.

“It’s quite emotionally taxing when you have to describe over and over again... interactions you've had with other students, or other athletes at the gym,” he said.

A former Redmen athlete, much older than him, even took him out to lunch once purely to try to talk him out of the campaign, he said.

In retrospect, what marked him the most deeply were the messages sent to him personally, he said this week—comments, among others, “saying I'm just a dumb Indian who only got into McGill because I was native.”

“I think maybe I was naive to think maybe we were past that type of dialogue,” he said. “It was shocking how personalized it was at times…how it would become attached to you, and follow you.”

Valedictorians are chosen by committees within each faculty, Jirousek said, including some students. He hasn’t heard about the decision from the administrators who he butted heads with.

His standout academic record likely factored into the decision. A political science major, he’ll start law school at the University of Toronto in the fall.

When he got the news, at home for a brief period of quarantine with his family in Whitehorse, he was told he had only a day to send in his speech over video for the virtual ceremony four days later. He decided to write it about how today’s new grads have a calling to stand in solidarity with people who aren’t like them.

Seeing what happened in the year after the name change helped make up for it all, he said. 

“I think we saw a healing on campus. We saw Indigenous students become more comfortable going into places like the Athletic Centre…people spoke openly about it more.”

A new levy was approved by students in a school-wide vote to create a support fund for McGill’s Indigenous students, he said.

When it came to the name, he barely heard about it again after April 2019, he said.

“The opposition and you know, the kind of disgruntled comments that were made,” he said, “kind of washed away after the decision was made.”