N.W.T. Health minister seeks fix for aboriginal names

Glen Abernethy, the N.W.T.'s minister of Health and Social Services, says it's perfectly reasonable for residents to expect to be able to register aboriginal baby names, but making it possible won't be easy. 'It's not a simple fix.'

'I don't anticipate it will be easy,' says Glen Abernethy on registering Dene names

Sahaiʔa May Talbot went without a birth certificate for more than a year due to the Government of the Northwest Territories being unable to register a surname that is not written entirely in the Roman alphabet. (Submitted by Shene Catholique Valpy)

The N.W.T.'s minister of Health and Social Services, says it's perfectly reasonable for residents to expect to be able to register aboriginal baby names, but making it possible won't be easy.

"I would like to find a way," says Glen Abernethy. "Ultimately, we respect aboriginal languages here in the N.W.T. and aboriginal language and culture is a priority for the government. We do recognize 11 official languages. This is why we're attempting to resolve the problem."

Abernethy says he "appreciates and admires" the efforts of Shene Catholique Valpy, the mother of one-year-old Sahaiʔa May Talbot, to raise awareness of the problem.

When Valpy attempted to register her daughter's birth, she was told that only characters in the Roman alphabet would be accepted. Sahaiʔa's name includes a glottal stop, a symbol used in the Chipewyan language that signifies both pronunciation and meaning.

N.W.T. Health Minister Glen Abernethy: 'I don't anticipate it will be easy.' (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Abernethy says he's directed his department to look into possible regional solutions, such as registering the name without it being part of an official legal document. But, he says, even if there were a regional fix, it could create problems down the road, as other jurisdictions may not have the same systems. 

"We need to make sure that those individuals with the fonts in their names aren't disadvantaged when they want to go to college outside the N.W.T. or travel abroad or get a social insurance number."

Abernethy noted that the N.W.T. government uses Dene fonts within the territory all the time, for example, in the names of many buildings.

He said officials in his department are working with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment and are talking to the federal government about possible solutions, without offering a timeline on when those solutions might be implemented.

"I don't anticipate it will be easy," he said. "It's not a simple fix."

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