Editor’s note: Shene Catholique Valpy is the daughter of NNSL publisher Bruce Valpy.
Shene Catholique Valpy’s battle for her children’s names reflects the basic need to have the world recognize them as they truly are.
Since the birth of her first daughter Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ in 2014, she has been petitioning the territorial government to recognize the traditional spelling of their names on legal documents like their birth certificates and passports.
Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ means, “when the sun just peeks through” in Chipewyan.
However, on her birth certificate, her name is spelled Sahai’a because the GNWT only allows the Roman alphabet to be used on official documents.
Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ’s name contains a glottal stop, which signifies a type of sound used in many spoken languages. Without it, the meaning of her name is lost.
Catholique Valpy lodged her first complaint in 2014 and it has slowly percolated through the machinery of government. Change has come but at a glacial pace.
In a 2015 report, NWT language commissioner Shannon Gullberg sided with Catholique Valpy and said the territorial government was legally bound to provide services in the Indigenous languages of the NWT, of which there are nine, including Chipewyan.
In 2016, Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy promised to introduce legislative changes to the Vital Statistics Act that would allow Indigenous characters to be used on territorial identification documents.
Unfortunately, the government’s lofty gestures have yet to be put into meaningful action.
It is now 2019, Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ is almost five years old, she has a sister named Náʔël, a brother named Kairo and Catholique Valpy is still fighting.
Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson recently tabled a letter from Catholique Valpy in the legislative assembly, which asked MLAs to support her campaign.
“My family, myself, and many others are still waiting on the government’s promise,” she wrote. “As of now, myself and many others are not able to use the traditional spelling because they say ‘it causes too many problems.’”
And indeed, accommodating diversity doesn’t happen on its own, it means tackling problems.
According to the NWT language commissioner’s 2016-2017 annual report, work still needs to be done on the standardization of Indigenous languages to make sure that written documents are accurate.
Other governments will need to be involved to make sure that people with traditional names can obtain passports and other important documents.
In addition, chances are that people with traditional names will need to explain the significance of the strange looking letters in their official documents to employers, teachers, airlines and foreign governments, but this is the work that must be done if we are to confront our colonial past.
Often the assault against Indigenous identity began with people’s names.
According to a summary report released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it was common for residential school officials to give students new European names. At the Aklavik Anglican school, a young Inuit girl named Masak became Alice, at the Qu’Appelle school in Saskatchewan, a boy named Ochankugahe became Daniel.
It is true that Indigenous people are not the only Canadians who have been compelled to change their names.
The throngs of immigrants who were coming to Canada during the late 19th century to escape famine, war and poverty often Anglicized their names to fit into mainstream society.
Even today, choosing an English name when coming to Canada is a common practice among numerous immigrant communities.
But we have to appreciate that the Indigenous experience was unique and different. Theirs was not an immigrant experience but involved a moral injury and that simply wasn’t the case for other groups.
The need now is to heal that injury by accommodating Catholique Valpy, and those like her, who wish to be called by their proper names.