Indigenous parents push for birth registries to allow special characters and accents in their language

Kakeká ThunderSky named his 14-month-old daughter Tokala Wači Wiŋ ThunderSky-Catt – a Lakota name meaning “dancing kit fox woman”.

“When she was in my womb she was dancing all the time and we were attracted to foxes throughout my pregnancy,” said the 23-year-old Anishinaabe mother from Winnipeg.

But the authorities in Manitoba who register the names will not accept this name.

ThunderSky had filled out the forms by hand to add the appropriate accents.

But when the birth certificate and health card were issued by Manitoba’s Vital Statistics Branch, the name had changed.

Tokala Wači Wiŋ – pronounced “TOE-callah-WHA-chee-wei” – was meant to be spelled together as a first name.

But it ended up turning into three names without accents.

“I felt a little angry and disappointed,” ThunderSky said.

“They don’t respect how we want to name our babies. They don’t respect how we spell.”

ThunderSky is part of a growing chorus of Indigenous parents who are calling on provincial and territorial authorities to allow them to assign Indigenous names to their children – with any special characters, syllabics, accents, numbers or other non-English or French symbols used by some indigenous languages.

Critics say restrictions against Indigenous names and spellings are a relic of a colonial past that must go. Some threaten to file a human rights complaint or legal action.

The Manitoba government said in an email to CBC News on Thursday that the province recognizes the “deeply personal nature of names” and the importance for parents to be allowed to register their child’s name in a way that respects “cultures, languages ​​and identities”.

Salia Joseph of the Squamish Nation holds her daughter Alíla7. Birth registry officials in British Columbia did not allow the last character of the newborn’s name, which indicates a glottal stop. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The province says it works with its federal counterparts, which are responsible for issuing identity documents but do not allow certain characters, accents or other letters outside of the Roman alphabet.

Statistics Canada declined a request for an interview. But in a statement, the federal agency said “all civil registration matters” such as birth registrations and name changes are “the responsibility of individual provinces and territories.”

The minister responsible for vital statistics in British Columbia also recently addressed the issue.

“I understand the plight and, yes, we are absolutely committed to addressing it and changing it,” Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters earlier this week.

But parents say the change is too slow and describe the frustration of trying to register a newborn’s name only to be told to choose another or make changes because the system doesn’t does not allow native names.

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix said an official digital font including characters used in some Indigenous languages ​​is in the works. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

“It takes my breath away,” says an Indigenous mother

Salia Joseph of North Vancouver says it was important to her to name her daughter in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Sníchim, the Squamish language spoken by her own ancestors.

“Sḵwx̱wú7mesh has been spoken in the territory that is now Vancouver for thousands of years,” Joseph said.

“To think that [my child] only have English, French and English to choose from to be a legitimate citizen in our own territory, it takes my breath away.”

His daughter – Alíla7 – was born on March 1. The name means “wild raspberry”.

Joseph says she had already compromised on how the name would be spelled – but officials are blocked from allowing a number 7 at the end of the name.

The character indicates a glottal stop – a type of consonant sound used in many spoken languages, produced by obstructing airflow in the vocal tract.

“I keep hearing that change is coming… The problem is that she needs to be able to get her name and papers correct now. Today. That’s the problem.”

Alíla7 was born on March 1 in North Vancouver. Its name means “wild raspberry”. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Joseph says being denied his identity – his real name – is a violation of human rights.

“It makes me feel like Indigenous people are afterthoughts in their own territory… we’re just on the fringes that we can’t name our children whatever name we want to give them,” said Joseph, whose name ancestor of the Squamish Nation is St’ ax̱í7aluts.

His partner Joseph Currie is Cree from the Montana Indian Band and Blackfoot from the Piikani Nation.

When the couple pushed registrars to find a solution, they were offered unacceptable alternatives, Joseph said.

“There was no resolution. The suggestions were to spell his name incorrectly or give him an English name.

“Of course, none of those work for us.”

Joseph and his partner Joseph Currie, seen while expecting their daughter. (Facebook/Salia Joseph)

Dix says his ministry is working on the issue and that an “inclusive digital font that allows for the inclusion of Indigenous languages ​​in official documents” is in the works.

But parents faced with this conundrum say change is taking far too long. Joseph said his next step is to file a human rights complaint.

The rules are changing

Last year, the federal government said Indigenous peoples could apply to have their traditional names back on passports and other government IDs.

This came after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called on governments to allow survivors and their families to restore names altered by the residential school system.

This is in line with the determinations of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that they have the right to claim their traditions, language, culture and names.

Learning that at least BC is considering change, mothers like ThunderSky still feel frustrated.

“I think it was about time – it’s kind of disappointing that it’s taken so long and it’s taken so many families to come up with their baby’s name,” she said.

ThunderSky and her Cherokee and Oglala Lakota partner Terrell Ironshell of South Dakota can’t wait to change their baby’s name.

“Her name fits her – she’s a little mischievous and she likes getting into trouble, kind of like a little fox,” ThunderSky said.

“For us, it was very meaningful and powerful to think that she has a name in the same language that her grandmothers prayed for her – even before she was born.”