Fight for traditional names on birth certificate enters fifth year

‘It’s time for this change,’ says Shene Catholique Valpy

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Five years into Shene Catholique Valpy’s fight to have her daughters’ Chipewyan names Náʔël and Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ printed on their birth certificates, she is asking MLAs to support her push for the GNWT to register traditional Indigenous names in formal documents.

Shene Catholique Valpy penned a letter to MLAs Feb. 22 asking for their support to make necessary changes that would allow her daughters’ names Náʔël Nóríya(right) and Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ to be printed on their birth certificate. Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

“When we had our daughter we knew we wanted traditional spelling. When we got denied, it was my first realization that we aren’t allowed to use the spelling and that hit home,” she said. It’s only fair to be able to use our spelling on our birth certificates.”

“When I’m not able to use the proper spelling … you lose the complete spelling of the name. I should be able to reclaim my language and reclaim my identity that I feel has been taken away. Doing this, I feel like I’m honouring that.”

In the NWT Legislative Assembly Thursday, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson asked questions of Health Minister Glen Abernethy on how the GNWT is progressing on including traditional names and characters in a legal name.

Thompson tabled the letter penned by Catholique Valpy Feb. 22 that asks MLAs to support her to ensure Vital Statistics, under the Department of Health and Social Services, will recognize Chipewyan and eight other Indigenous languages.

“Sahą́ı̨́Ɂą is now almost five years old. No progress has been made that I am aware of. My family, myself, and many others are still waiting on the government’s promise. As of now, myself and many others are not able to use the traditional spelling because they say ‘it causes too many problems,’” she wrote.

Catholique Valpy has compiled traditional spellings, meanings and language of 30 people to compare the differences and what is lost in the roman alphabet spelling.

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ means “when the sun just peeks through.”

When Catholique Valpy wrote her daughter’s name for her birth certificate half a decade ago, it was rejected because GNWT systems do not recognize the glottal stop.

Abernethy suggested the certificates could include a person’s name using both traditional accents and a latin alphabet version, transferable across platforms and recognized internationally to ensure compatibility for documents like passports, which fall outside of the GNWT’s jurisdiction.

Catholique Valpy supports a dual reference on formal documents.

Abernethy directed his department to study whether that option could be pursued. The department is preparing a transliteration guide that it will present to the federal government during negotiations.

It is anticipated for draft completion in 2019 and the NWT’s own systems must be updated, he said.

“Health and Social Services alone has over 40 systems that will have to be upgraded to recognize traditional fonts. This is an incredibly expensive undertaking but we need to make sure we do it right. It is going to take some time to realize this important commitment,” he said.

The systems used by the health department would not recognize traditional fonts, but “using a traditional font is truly the only way to recognize a traditional name,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is to be able to have traditional names on our birth certificates, on our vital statistics documents, using the traditional font,” said Abernethy.

In 2018, the GNWT announced it would waive administrative fees for people wishing to reclaim names changed by the residential school system.

“This meant waiving the administrative fees for five years but we are still losing the meaning of the name because we have to conform to colonized spellings of our traditional names,” wrote Catholique Valpy.

Shene Catholique Valpy was surrounded by her three children Náʔël (left), Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ and Kairo as she works for changes that would support the inclusion of Indigenous names on formal documentation like birth certificates. Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

Catholique Valpy made her first complaint to the languages commissioner in 2014. A second complainant previously came forward and stated that he had the same issues with the Vital Statistics Registry in 1994, but that “had long given up trying to resolve the issue,” states a 2016 annual report by the territory’s language commissioner, Shannon Gullberg. The report stated that the territorial government was obligated to offer services, including birth certificates, in official Indigenous languages.

Gullberg recognized that technical issues around registering a name with Dene fonts have decreased over time with the advances of Unicode and Dene font keyboards.

To register names with Dene fonts, symbols and diacritical marks, the GNWT must have the technology to provide those registrations and must work with federal, provincial and territorial governments to ensure the use of orthography other than Roman orthography would not cause issues for obtaining a passport or other important documents.

“We used to have two languages on our birth certificates and that didn’t seem to be too much of a problem,” said Valpy Catholique, referring to the use of syllabics on territorial birth certificates issued in the 1990s.

As the United Nations declares 2019 to be the year of Indigenous Languages, Catholique Valpy is quick to point out that the NWT has also dedicated the month of March to Indigenous languages.

“This would be a great year to have this barrier broken down, in a time when we need to be reclaiming our names and the traditional languages. Be the leader in this change, and I believe the rest of the country will follow suit,” she wrote.

“Our Dene fonts exist. You use them on your GNWT correspondence, including on signage across the territories in government buildings and hospitals. I am also able to type with the fonts on my keyboard at home and on my smartphone,” she said.

Valpy Catholique is still waiting for a concrete commitment on when she will be able to put her five-year-old daughter’s proper name on her birth certificate.

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