GUEST COMMENT: Abernethy says GNWT faces challenges with Indigenous birth certificates

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In 2016, the Legislative Assembly passed Bill 5 to amend sections of the Vital Statistics Act that now allows for the use of Indigenous characters on Northwest Territories vital statistics documents such as birth certificates.

Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy

As we implement this Act, a number of complex factors must be considered. This work is not a matter of simple translation and printing.  This is about ensuring our information management systems  and official document recognition rules with other jurisdictions can seamlessly manage this with each of our nine Indigenous languages.

This means ensuring that any changes to NWT vital statistics documents are compatible with federal, provincial or international systems including those that document and produce Social Insurance Numbers (SIN), passports and international driver’s licenses.

As an example, to obtain a Canadian passport, an individual must provide proof of identity which is typically done using a birth certificate issued by a provincial or territorial government.

The Government of Canada’s systems that produce passports do not yet recognize alphabets or orthographic systems other than the Roman alphabet characters used in English or French. If the NWT were to proceed with producing vital statistics documents in isolation prior to working with the Federal government, it would create unintentional barriers for NWT residents seeking passports. These systems must be programmed to accept new characters that are unique to each Indigenous language.

There are likely other unintended consequences such as negative impacts on NWT residents’ ability to access air travel as personal identification must match the name on your ticket or security or airline staff may deny access to a flight. Given no jurisdictions other than the NWT recognize Indigenous fonts, it is reasonable to assume that airlines would not be able to print tickets with Indigenous fonts so NWT residents could have difficulties with air transportation.

We have discussed the issue with the Government of Canada and have initiated a working group to explore these issues which are largely technical in nature. Once the potential consequences for changing fonts on vital statistics documents are fully understood and a clearer timeline for system changes is established the GWNT will be in a better position to set a firm date for when vital statistics documents can be produced using the additional characters used by NWT.

We are working with Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) on exploring what GNWT documents and systems must be considered to accommodate Indigenous characters and what must be done to accommodate those systems changes.

Another challenge with the use of Indigenous characters on government document or forms is that most of the data systems in the NWT (Student Financial Assistance, People-soft, Income Support, road licensing, driver’s licenses, and around 200 health systems) currently do not recognize Indigenous characters.   As a result of the amendments to the legislation, all of these systems will need to be upgraded to recognize these fonts, store data and produce documents. In total, it is estimated that up to 400 GNWT systems will be affected. This is a significant undertaking that in some cases may not be simple due to the age of the systems; the upgrades to the systems alone could cost up to tens of millions of dollars and will also take time.

It was suggested, as an interim solution until the decision can be made on the addition of Indigenous characters and upgrading of the data systems is complete, that we simply print the name twice on our birth certificates; one using the Roman alphabet and one using the Indigenous fonts.   The issue with this option is that the Government of Canada does not recognize a birth certificate with two names on it.  The Department of Health and Social Services is working with the Office of the Chief Information Officer and ECE to see if any interim solutions or options exist while this required work is being done.

We will continue to work in this area and provide updates where necessary.