Should SFU change the ‘Clan’ team name?

The Clan. When you read those words, what is the first thing you think of? Is it the storied 50-plus years of Simon Fraser University athletics, or is it an extreme right-wing hate group from the United States?

It’s that confusion, that question, that potential offense, that prompted SFU philosophy professor Holly Andersen to launch a petition in August, asking her university to finally change the team name to something less confusing and controversial. The petition currently has over 400 signatures.

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To be clear: Simon Fraser was an explorer with Scottish heritage. Back in 1808, with a lot of help from interior First Nations bands, he was the first white guy to successfully navigate one of North America’s great West Coast rivers – the river which now bears his name – to the sea.

The university on top of Burnaby mountain not only adopted the explorer’s name but all things Scottish, including its world-class bagpipe band, its mascot, and the name “clan” for its sports teams. In the Scottish case, “Clan” simply means a group of close-knit families. You watch Outlander, right?

When I first heard of the brouhaha emerging around the nickname, I’ll admit that my knee-jerk reaction was defensive. I have Scottish roots, so I understand the meaning behind the name, and “the Clan” seemed to be a far cry from what I felt were far higher profile offensive team names, like the Washington Redskins or the Edmonton Eskimos.

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SFU athletics has switched to using SFU with a swoosh instead of Clan with a swoosh as its athletics logo.

The problem with SFU’s Clan teams is that Simon Fraser University is the only Canadian school playing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). That means the SFU Clan teams play lots of games in the States, and lots of teams from the States play games at SFU. According to some SFU sporting alumni, the name has been cause for concern from our southern neighbours for decades. The SFU student body is now much more multicultural than it was 50 years ago, and so is the Lower Mainland. For many, the word “clan,” no matter how it’s spelled, references only one thing: the Ku Klux Klan.

Shad is a celebrated, Juno-winning hip-hop artist who graduated from SFU in 2011 with a master’s degree in liberal studies. Shad is an African-Canadian who was born in Kenya.

“Obviously, SFU didn’t name its teams after a racist terrorist organization, but that’s the automatic connection the mind makes every time,” Shad told me. “I mean, I definitely never refer to myself as a ‘proud Clansman,’ and the idea of a gym full of Canadians screaming “GO CLAN!” as they oppose a small group of visiting African-Americans is like something from Chappelle's Show. Everyone would probably be more comfortable with a rebrand.”

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A 1977 SFU football program features the name "Clansmen." - SFU archives

Strangely, the person who didn’t seem all that comfortable was Holly Andersen, the SFU professor who launched the petition. When I called her to ask a few clarifying questions for this column, she told me sharply that, “you should do more research before contacting me,” and then promptly hung up.

Why so abrupt? Maybe because SFU and its sports teams have been part of BC history for a long time. It takes guts to stand up to tradition. Why should SFU have to change to appease confusion from southern neighbours or younger Canadians? I discussed the issue with my wife over breakfast.

“Everyone knows change is hard, but what is the harm in moving towards a name that is inclusive to more people? Why stick with a name that stirs up negative or frightening feelings?” she said. “It’s important for universities to remain relevant and evolve with our times, and to show students they are willing to do that. Changing the name doesn’t change your proud Scottish traditions, Grant. It proves that SFU, and Scottish-Canadians, are forward thinking. Maybe just like Simon Fraser himself, hmmm?”

My wife is never wrong, so it looks like it’s time for a name-change, SFU. The Highlanders? The Bravehearts? The Real McKenzies? Wait, that last one is taken. Dearest readers, what do you think? 

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