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Graphic: Evan Robins

Trent University Has a Branding Problem

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
November 28, 2022
Trent University Has a Branding Problem
Graphic: Evan Robins

Emblazoned across almost every piece of Trent University’s public-facing paraphernalia is its crest, a sword juxtaposed against a flowing river. The design appears on sweaters, notebooks, signposts, letterhead, webpages, and has become ubiquitous as a symbolic shorthand for Trent University in all its affairs. Even the space outside of Trent’s Justin Chiu stadium holds (or should I say, held) a gleaming statue of a sword lodged in a spherical plinth which proudly emblematizes the varsity team’s “Excalibur” namesake.

This, combined with the nomenclature of Trent’s own (in)famous student press Arthur, conspires to create the impression that Trent’s overall “brand identity” (bleurgh) derives chiefly from the annals of Arthurian canon. All of the elements the layperson expects are there — Arthur, his sword, the grail (Starbucks cups), a…river (like the Lady in the Lake…kind of?). Truly every element of the Vulgate Cycle accounted for. 

Just one slight problem then: the sword in question actually belongs to none other than Trent University’s favourite colonizer, one Samuel de Champlain. For a university which makes its Indigenous Studies department and supposed commitment to the reconciliatory process one of the central parts of its recruiting material, this is, as the kids say, “not a good look.” That said, it’s perhaps to be expected from the university which continually refuses to shift its stance on the college likewise named after Champlain. 

That’s not to say the symbology of this logo is wholly without precedent. The sword itself is lifted directly from the City of Peterborough’s Municipal flag, which depicts a stylized image of Champlain’s sword piercing the Otonabee River. Just in case you were wondering whether you’d read that right, the image which is reproduced nearly 1:1 across most of Trent’s branded matériel is indeed not just the sword of the man principally responsible for a substantial part of the colonial project which defined the creation of Canada — but the sword of that man portrayed in the symbolic act of “conquering” nature, in a metaphor I need not further argue to be extremely colonially fraught.

As an attempt to seemingly cleanse their image, Trent — as well as some of the groups associated with them — have implicitly leaned into the notion of the sword in Trent University’s logo being that of King Arthur, and not of Samuel de Champlain. While the Excalibur varsity team obviously comes to the front of mind, one can look further to the TCSA’s “Excaliburnt Out” campaign or the “SWORD” personal safety training they facilitated with the help of TISA. Regardless of the content or the quality of these respective events, their prolific usage of the University’s own colonial symbolism (even if pretending it's otherwise) raises questions about the actual subversiveness of the initiatives. As with Champlain College’s adoption of Pax the Gorilla as their de facto figurehead in a seeming attempt to draw attention away from the voyageur in the room, it is merely dressing up the more profound problem at hand. While certainly an argument can be made that the Excalibur naming convention has stuck, it bears repeating that the eponymous sword is not Trent’s mascot. The “Arthur” for which the Arthur you’re currently reading is named is not even King Arthur, but the bowl-cut George Harrisson sports in A Hard Day’s Night. We might as well call ourselves “Beatles University” and make our logo the yellow submarine!

Even if the university were to outright denounce Champlain and formally adopt the Excalibur branding throughout, the imagery of King Arthur is not wholly divorced of any colonial connotation. Rather than the Anglo-Saxon folk hero that so many know him as today, Arthur is a character of Celtic folklore dating back hundreds of years. He first appears in the Preiddeu Annwfn, from the middle-Welsh Book of Taliesin (Llyfr Taliesin) and subsequently in the tale Culhwch ac Olwen both of which pre-date contemporary Arthurian canon by hundreds of years. 

The word “Excalibur” itself is likely a French derivative of the Welsh word “Caledfwlch” (lit: “hard-cleft”) which is essentially just Welsh for “sword”. A lot of the modern elements of Arthurian legend that we know today are actually holdovers from Christianization, during the process of which Celtic and Gaelic folklore and cultural practices were appropriated or repressed to conform with Christian theological teachings, and to further the Church’s expansion by Evangelical and sometimes Proselytist means. Here again the spectre of imperial violence rears its head.

While Arthurian imagery is today diluted throughout contemporary popular culture, it serves nonetheless to exemplify why signs accrue history — and therefore, meaning — over time. Perhaps no symbol is free of sin, but it remains important to interrogate the meanings both explicit and implied by the usage of such symbols. The crest of Trent University is likewise not absolved of the implications it carries, as are any persons or organizations deigning to use it in service of their own objectives. As for what to do about it, perhaps that’s best left for the students to decide. It is their school after all, who but they should best decide on what terms they’re represented?

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