British Columbia

Heiltsuk woman unable to restore Indigenous surname on ID because system can't handle its spelling

B.C. officials say government systems can't currently incorporate the diacritic marks — the accents and symbols used to change the meaning and pronunciation of words — that Jess Úst̓i considers an essential part of her Indigenous surname.

Jess Úst̓i says she's facing roadblocks to change her name on her documents, despite promise from government

Named as Jess Housty on official documents, Jess Úst̓i says her government identification has never reflected her true identity. 'The reason why I have an incorrect name is because it was anglicized by Indian agents,' she said. (Contributed by Heiltsuk Tribal Council )

As Canada launches an expedited process to help Indigenous people reclaim traditional names on government documents, a woman from the Heiltsuk Nation says she is already facing roadblocks.

That's because officials say government systems can't currently incorporate the diacritic marks — the accents and symbols used to change the meaning and pronunciation of words — that Jess Úst̓i considers an essential part of her Indigenous surname.

It means she will have to continue using her anglicized surname, Housty, on official documents until a fix is available — which could take two or three years, according to the B.C. government. 

"It's particularly frustrating for me, because the reason why I have an incorrect name is because it was anglicized by Indian agents. I didn't create the problem, but I'm not getting any help to fix that," said Úst̓i, 34, who lives in the Heiltsuk coastal community of Bella Bella, B.C.

Jess Úst̓i lives in the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella, B.C. (Submitted by the Heiltsuk Tribal Council )

For Úst̓i, her official identification has never reflected her true identity.

"I feel that it's important to honour my ancestors and my language by spelling and pronouncing it correctly. I would love for my children to grow up with the correct spelling of their name on their ID," she said.

Diacritic marks in Indigenous naming are crucial, according to Prof. Lisa Matthewson, associate head of the University of British Columbia's linguistics department.

"It is literally impossible to convey the sounds of the language using only the English alphabet," she told CBC News.

System 'limitations'

In June, the federal government announced Indigenous people could apply to use their original names on official documents on an expedited basis and free of charge. 

That policy was influenced by a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

B.C. supports the federal government's move to enable Indigenous identification, said Brent Shearer, a spokesperson for ICBC, which issues the province's primary identification of drivers' licences and provincial health cards.

But when Úst̓i applied to the province to restore her traditional Indigenous surname through a legal name change, she was told B.C.'s system was unable to accommodate any diacritical marks.

"Unfortunately, at this time, systems' limitations do not allow for the accommodation of any diacritical markers for provincial government photo ID," Shearer said. The only way to accommodate Indigenous names like Úst̓i's is to anglicize them using the Latin alphabet.

B.C.'s Ministry of Citizens' Services says it's working on a solution to the problem, but future system upgrades could take two or three years.

Federally, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News it can only issue documents printed "in the Roman alphabet with some French characters" because of standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. 

'Beautifully complex' language

The founding chair of UBC's First Nations and Endangered Languages Program, Patricia Shaw, said she is "deeply dismayed" that Úst̓i has to fight for the inclusion of a "fundamental foundation for how the language is to be pronounced." 

Shaw said the language family that Heiltsuk belongs to is "beautifully complex".

"With the rich inventories of sounds in these languages, they need an enhanced set of alphabetic symbols and diacritics," she said.

Shaw said the omission of diacritics for Indigenous names could be compared to identifying Francophone members of parliament without the French accents central to their names.

She said the technological resources needed for government systems to adapt have been available for several years.

"All that is needed is respect, recognition, and the will to act on this," Shaw said. 

Úst̓i says the government has to step up to fix the issue as soon as possible. 

"Government talks a lot about reconciliation," she said. "But I'm in a situation where the proper spelling of our name was taken away from us. And the government is not even willing to do the bare minimum to restore it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

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