What is a Wesmen?

Finding the origins of our team name and team spirit

Religious roots

Before delving into the current interpretations of “Wesmen,” it’s important to consider the context of history.

The Wesmen Athletics website defines our Wesmen mascot as men trained in the bible by Wesley College. These men were sent out on horseback to “spread the Christian word.”

Jane Barter, the Associate Professor and Chair of Religion and Culture of The Centre for the Liberal Arts and Secular Society (CLASS) at the University of Winnipeg, explains why this isn’t necessarily true. 

“The problem with that description is that it’s saying that Wesley College set out to train these circuit riders. That’s not true. Wesley College had a faculty of theology, which trained ministers to serve in Western Canada in (rural) churches,” Barter says.” (Wesley College) was seen as a place for training clergy and training people to go out and serve different parishes and ministries.”

Jane Barter, an Associate Professor and Chair of Religion of CLASS, describes the Wesmen’s religious history.

The website also states the Methodist Church was involved in “the spiritual affairs of the frontiers people of North America.” Barter elaborates:

“By (frontiers people of North America) I think that they are talking about early settlers in this case, (or) the social gospellers - they did a lot of good when we think about all the things we love in Canada,” Barter says. However, Barter also acknowledges that the Methodist Church was partially responsible for the residential school system.

Barter explains that more accurately the social gospellers’ involvement with the frontiers people of North America (early settlers) was just as much social as it was spiritual, linking their action to building a better social safety net in the prairies with things such as medicare, working for women to get the vote, and the cooperative movement. 

“They had this vision of building this Christian social society and so that included the residential schools, which of course the churches were involved in,” Barter says. “So it is an ambiguous legacy, but I don’t think it is necessarily only this negative, colonial one.”

Barter explains that Manitoba College (which was Presbyterian) and Wesley College (which was Methodist) eventually amalgamated. In 1925, the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations joined together to form the United Church. Manitoba and Wesley College followed suit shortly after in 1938 to become United College. Finally, in 1967 we received our current name, the University of Winnipeg. 

“I do not know the precise history of the name Wesmen for our sports teams. However, it comes from Wesley College, one of the predecessors of United College, and hence of the University of Winnipeg,” Barter says. “Wesley College was named for John and Charles Wesley, who were 18th century ministers/theologians, social reformers and the founders of Methodism.”

While this interpretation offers some context of the name’s religious history, it doesn’t fill in all the gaps for how the name was adopted by the U of W’s sports teams. But even on the side of sports history, the lineage of the name Wesmen is not fully traceable.

Clue on a hockey jersey

“It started because the University of Winnipeg was Wesley College. They were often referred to as ‘The Wesleys,’ and I suspect it kind of developed from there and took on a new nomenclature,” Will Jones says.

Jones is a Media Tech2 for the University of Winnipeg Instructional Network and a videographer. He has been working on a University of Winnipeg hockey documentary since 2007.

“When the name (Wesmen) came about (is) tough to say. It was certainly a team name by the mid-1960s, because that was the hockey team’s name starting in 1969,” Jones says. 

“As far as I can tell, the Wesmen name started around the end of United College, (but) I don’t have anything concrete to back that up,” Jones says. “(The name) never switches. It just stops.”

Jones references old hockey photos he found during his documentary research. He found the first appearance of Wesmen on the hockey team’s jerseys was designed with ‘Ranger’ style lettering (diagonally across the jersey). He estimates the date of that jersey to be 1970, based on the photo metadata. 

Jones then unveils a colour picture of the hockey team with the Wesmen mascot (man on the horse) with the name ‘WESMEN’ underneath. 

“Do you see the horseback? That’s the second jersey (from the) 1976-77 season. It probably existed slightly before that,” Jones says. “The first I definitely know is the ‘Ranger’ style, because they are black-and-white style photos. That style would be much earlier, so before the advent of colour photography reached the University of Winnipeg.”

“There’s an argument to be made that they’re both connected, but the horse leads me to conclude that there’s more to the religious side. This was a religious institution. It still has that in its DNA I think,” Jones says.

Closer to home

Dave Crook, U of W Athletics Director, has a couple theories which add to those of Barter and Jones.

“We’ve always been told about the Wesmen being from Wesley Church, and the guys who went out on horseback spreading the word of the faith, and that’s sort of where ‘Wesmen’ came from,” Crook says. “The name was chosen by student vote in ’67, and Dr. Dave Anderson (a university professor) led the vote.” 

Crook says that in 2012, there was hype around the name being changed from “Wesmen” to “United” in efforts to make the name more gender-neutral. This was met with great resistance from student athletes, resulting in the creation of the “Save The Wesmen” Facebook page. 

“They were really adamant on not seeing the name change. The student athletes, they’re Wesmen. They feel proud of the name, and they didn’t want the name to change,” Crook says. 

Dave Crook, U of W Athletics Director, says that athletes are proud of the Wesmen name.

Crook explains how when he attended the university, the female athletes were referred to as the “Lady Wesmen” or the “Wesmenettes.” Ultimately, they reverted to calling everyone “Wesmen” in the end, and the name remained unamended after the more recent 2012-2013 debate. 

Despite the controversies over time, the name ‘Wesmen’ just stuck. 

“It’s the whole mentality of sports. People have pride in representing who you are, right? It’s a community, and you’re branded in that community, so you feel strongly about that,” Crook says.

“So what is it then? It’s just a name. It has become who we are (and) not so much the history of our name. I think very few people would have an understanding about any of the history at all.”

Crook says we see this odd trend continue with our mascot, Wes Lee Coyote. The advent of Wes Lee Coyote came about in 2001 and was the brainchild of Bill Wedlake, former UWinnipeg Athletics Director.

“It’s just a random thing! I think that might have been a vote in the paper and people could pick the mascot and that was in 2001,” Crook says. 

All U of W sports teams bear the name Wesmen.

Take a look, it’s in a book

Located in the archives in strips of microfilm are vintage Uniter papers dating back to 1966. In October of that year, there was a vote for the new athletics motto of United College. Students could chose between “Wesmen,” “Redmen” or “Vikings.” 

In November 1966, an article by Dennis McPhail critiqued the choice of the winning name “Wesmen.”   

“Surely out of a college the size of United, we should be able to come up with a better name for our teams to go under,” McPhail writes.

But this still doesn’t fully clarify the origin of the name.

Deep in the stacks of the rare books room, published in a two-volume book called The University of Winnipeg, Volume II: The First Forty Years (1967-2007) by A.G.Bedford, there’s a small paragraph in the index which holds a more definitive answer:

“The name ‘Wesmen’ originated in a contest held by the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association in 1966 soliciting names for the teams for the university. Suggestions such as Redmen and Collegians were rejected. The name ‘Wesman’ was entered by Catherine Chase, an undergraduate. ‘I entered the name ‘Wesman’ made up from Wesley and Manitoba, the names of the two founding colleges. Oddly, it was decided to change the name slightly to Wesmen as a way of pluralizing it,’ Chase said in a conversation with Pam Flick, a star member of the Lady Wesmen in 1995. It was later speculated by a few who were unaware of the above that the name had derived from the Weslymen who had travelled the West in pioneering days to promote the Christian gospel.”

The aforementioned Nicholson and Wedlake were in conversation about the derivative of the name Wesmen when a man named John Carl Ridd was brought up. It is suspected that Ridd, a Winnipeg hall-of-famer as of 2004, athlete, coach, educator and ambassador for peace,  was also a possible pioneer behind today’s meaning of the Wesmen name.

Ridd passed away in 2003, so the theory of his influence is just speculation and cannot be confirmed. 

Despite distance from our history or a clear definition of a Wesmen, it’s become a name that the athletes and supporters are proud to wear and rally behind.

Published in Volume 71, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 29, 2016)

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