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Ojibwa man launches rights challenge against Ottawa football team’s name

A Nepean Redskins helmet sits on the sidelines during practice on Sept. 4, 2013 in Ottawa. Ian Campeau has filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against the football club on behalf of his five-year-old daughter.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

An Ottawa man has launched a legal complaint against a local youth football program over use of the name "Redskins," saying the phrase is racially insensitive and should be changed.

The Canadian case is the latest in a long-running debate over the Redskins name, used most prominently by the National Football League's Washington Redskins, which has resisted calls to rebrand.

The Ottawa complainant, Ian Campeau, had for roughly two years asked the Ottawa-area Nepean Redskins Football Club to change its name. The Ojibwa man ultimately filed the complaint Tuesday with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal on behalf of his five-year-old daughter, in a case that has the backing of the Assembly of First Nations.

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The football club, meanwhile, says both rebranding and any legal fight could be too expensive for the volunteer-only organization, which took its name from the NFL team 32 years ago. It would require replacing player equipment, a scoreboard and other supplies. After early complaints by Mr. Campeau, who is not involved in the league, the football club asked the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition last year for input. The group felt the name wasn't being used maliciously, and didn't object.

"This was never taken on as a slight towards aboriginal people and to be a negative. That goes without saying, and it's without question," said football club president Steve Dean. "The question now is, given all the rhetoric that's been presented, is this something that we want to maintain?"

Mr. Campeau isn't seeking money. Instead, he's asking the tribunal to order Ottawa's National Capital Amateur Football Association to change the name and logo in the next five years. He argues the name is racially charged.

"What's going to stop [people] from calling my daughter a redskin in the school yard?" he said in a written statement. "It's marginalizing, dehumanizing and racial profiling. If my daughter wanted to play football, or even watch it, she wouldn't feel welcome."

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo offered his support to Mr. Campeau's battle, saying "the term 'Redskins' is offensive and hurtful and completely inappropriate." He added "it is unfortunate that this step must be taken as a last resort."

Mr. Campeau's case is being handled on a pro-bono basis by Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. The case could be settled through mediation before heading to a hearing, said Qajaq Robinson, a lawyer representing Mr. Campeau.

"Ian has been clear throughout that he admires the work that NCAFA does do. He appreciates the value of organized sport for children, youth and young adults. However, under this [Redskins] term and the moniker, there is a group in our community, an aboriginal group, who are being discriminated against. And the good [work] can continue without that term," Ms. Robinson said.

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Some volunteers contacted Wednesday declined to comment, saying only the long-simmering public fight is unfortunate for a youth sports organization. Asked whether some think the issue is being blown out of proportion, Mr. Dean says the feedback he's seen "does have some of those sentiments."

The Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition discussed the issue last October after being approached by Mr. Dean's club, chairperson Marc Maracle said.

"We felt that the club didn't select the name with any malicious intent to insult or criticize the community or aboriginal people in general," he said in an interview, stressing the group doesn't claim to speak for the broad aboriginal community. Mr. Campeau is "determined in his approach," Mr. Maracle said.

"We've taken this issue, I think, in a more positive light. I know this is a huge issue in the States in terms of mascots and team names. You know, we've got enough challenges on our plate."

The Nepean club serves about 250 children and teenagers, running tackle and touch football teams and a cheerleading program. It was founded in 1978 as the Barrhaven Buccaneers, but wore the same colours as the NFL Redskins, and so the name was changed in 1981. "Kids looked at that as a positive, in terms of dressing in NFL colours … that was really the starting point of it," Mr. Dean said.

The NFL's Redskins – valued by Forbes as a $1.7-billion franchise – have also faced regular calls to rebrand. Ten members of Congress reiterated the request in a letter earlier this year. Last month, former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask said she, too, thinks the name should be changed.

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"As a society, we should seek to inspire people to be tolerant and respectful of others, regardless of our differences. Using Redskins as the name of an NFL team does not further this goal," Ms. Trask told NBC.

It's not an idea that team owner Dan Snyder has left the door open to, telling USA Today this year that "we'll never change the name." The NFL's commissioner has also resisted calls to change the name of one of the league's flagship franchises. They have public opinion on their side: A poll earlier this year found that four out of five Americans say the Redskins should keep their name, while only 11 per cent said it should be changed.

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Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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