A two-year-old Chipewyan girl in the Northwest Territories may soon be able to have her real name on her birth certificate.
Sahaiʔa May Talbot was born on Feb. 15, 2014. However, on her birth certificate, her name is spelled Sahai'a because the Northwest Territories government only allows the Roman alphabet to be used on official documents.
The symbol in Sahaiʔa's name is the glottal stop, an important one in Chipewyan that signifies both pronunciation and meaning. If the glottal stop were replaced with a different character, Sahaiʔa's name would both sound and mean something completely different.
N.W.T. Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy said he plans on introducing changes to the Vital Statistics Act that would allow Dene, Inuvialuit and Cree characters to be used on N.W.T. identification documents, such as birth certificates.
"We respect the Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal people of the Northwest Territories. We have 11 official languages in the Northwest Territories. Yet one of our main documents to prove you're from the Northwest Territories is only in two languages," Abernethy said.
"We need to comply with our own legislation. So we're making the changes to have more equality and better representation."
Sahaiʔa's mother, Shene Catholique-Valpy, 26, chose her daughter's name because of its meaning in her traditional language of Chipewyan: "When the sun just peeks through."
When Catholique-Valpy tried to register her daughter's birth, the territory's vital statistics division told her it couldn't use the glottal stop. She went more than a year without legally registering her baby as her complaint was processed, paying Sahaiʔa's medical expenses out of pocket because of her inability to file for a territorial health card. She eventually settled for a birth certificate with an amended spelling when the need to register Sahaiʔa's birth became pressing.
Despite N.W.T.'s languages commissioner ruling in her favour last fall, Catholique-Valpy says she was in shock when she found out about the proposed legislative changes.
"It's important for us to have strong names for our children," Catholique-Valpy said.
"It should be recognized throughout Canada. It should be everywhere. This is our homeland and this is our opportunity to rebuild our languages for everyone."
Catholique-Valpy is six months pregnant with her third child. She said she plans on giving him or her a traditional name.
Font may pose passport problems
Abernethy added that individuals with Aboriginal characters on their birth certificate may have trouble getting federal identification.
"An individual who has a birth certificate in Dene fonts may have difficulty obtaining a passport or social insurance number that shows the name in the Dene fonts because they won't use those Dene fonts," he said.
"So we're looking at some possible ways to work with the federal government and it may mean we have to have additional names or other things on our birth certificates, but at the end of the day this is about respecting the people of the Northwest Territories."
Abernethy said amendments will also include an option to have only a single name on N.W.T. documents instead of a first and a last name. This is in response to a recommendation made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to allow families to reclaim names that were changed or added to by the residential school system.
N.W.T. residents who don't identify with the gender they were born with will also be able to change their gender on N.W.T. documents. Currently, that can only be done if the individual has had gender reassignment surgery.
Abernethy said he will be presenting the act's amendments in the legislature before the end of this sitting on June 29.