British Columbia

Indigenous parents push for birth registries to allow their languages' special characters, accents

A growing chorus of Indigenous parents want provincial and territorial authorities to allow them to register Indigenous names for their children — with all the special characters, syllabics, accents, numeric or other non-English or French symbols used by some Indigenous languages.

Officials have changed babies' names or told parents to spell them differently

Winnipeg mom Kakeká ThunderSky holds her 14-month-old daughter, Tokala Wači Wiŋ ThunderSky-Catt. She was angered when Manitoba authorities didn't properly register her daughter's name. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Kakeká ThunderSky named her 14-month-old daughter Tokala Wači Wiŋ ThunderSky-Catt — a Lakota name that means "dancing kit fox woman."

"When she was in my belly she was just dancing all the time and we were just drawn to foxes throughout my pregnancy," said the 23-year-old Anishinaabe mother from Winnipeg.

But the authorities in Manitoba that register names, won't accept that name.

ThunderSky had filled out the forms by hand to add the appropriate accents.

But when the birth certificate and health card were issued by the Manitoba Vital Statistics Branch, the name had changed. 

Tokala Wači Wiŋ — pronounced "TOE-callah-WHA-chee-wei" — was supposed to be written together as a first name.

But it ended up morphing into three names with no accents.

"I felt kind of angry and let down," said ThunderSky.

"They don't respect how we want to name our babies. They don't respect how we spell."

ThunderSky is one of a growing chorus of Indigenous parents demanding provincial and territorial authorities allow them to bestow Indigenous names on their children — with all the special characters, syllabics, accents, numeric or other non-English or French symbols used by some Indigenous languages.

Critics say restrictions against Indigenous names and spellings are a relic from a colonial past that must go. Some are threatening human rights complaints or legal action.

On Thursday the Manitoba government said in an email to CBC News that the province recognizes the "deeply personal nature of names," and the importance of parents being allowed to register their child's name in a way that respects "cultures, languages and identities."

Salia Joseph of the Squamish Nation holds her daughter Alíla7. Birth registry officials in B.C. didn't permit the last character the newborn's name, which indicates a glottal stop. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The province says it's working with its federal counterparts, which are responsible for issuing identity documents but do not permit certain characters, accents or other letters outside of the Roman alphabet.

Statistics Canada declined a request for an interview. But in a statement the federal agency said "all civil registration issues" such as birth registrations and name changes are "the responsibility of the individual provinces and territories."

The minister responsible for B.C.'s vital statistics department, also recently addressed the issue.

"I understand the distress and, yes, we are absolutely committed to addressing it and changing it," Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters earlier this week.

But parents say the change is too slow, and describe the frustration of trying to register a newborn's name only to be told to pick another or make changes because the system doesn't allow Indigenous names.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix says an official digital font that includes the characters used in some Indigenous languages is in the works. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

'Blows my mind' says Indigenous mother

Salia Joseph of North Vancouver says it was important to her to name her daughter in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim, the Squamish language which was spoken by her own ancestors.

"Sḵwx̱wú7mesh has been spoken in the territory that now is Vancouver for thousands of years," said Joseph.

"To think that [my child] only has English and French and English to chose from to be a legitimate citizen in our own territory, it just blows my mind."

Her daughter — Alíla7 — was born March 1. The name means "wild raspberry." 

Joseph says she'd already compromised on how the name would be written — but officials are stuck on allowing a number 7 at the end of the name.

The character indicates a glottal stop — a type of consonant sound used in many spoken languages, produced by obstructing the airflow in the vocal tract.

"I just keep hearing change is coming … The issue is that she needs to be able to have her correct name and documentation now. Today. That's the issue."

Alíla7 was born March 1 in North Vancouver. Her name means 'wild raspberry.' (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Joseph says being denied one's identity — one's real name — is a human rights violation.

"It makes me feel like Indigenous peoples are afterthoughts on their own territory … we are just on the sidelines that we can't name our children the name that we want to give them," said Joseph, whose ancestral Squamish Nation name is St'ax̱í7aluts.

Her partner Joseph Currie is Cree from the Montana Indian Band and Blackfoot from the Piikani Nation.

When the couple pushed vital statistics officials for a solution they were offered unacceptable alternatives, Joseph said.

"There was no resolution. The suggestions were to spell her name incorrectly or to give her an English name.

"Of course neither of those work for us."

Joseph and her partner Joseph Currie, seen when they were expecting their daughter. (Facebook/Salia Joseph)

Dix says his ministry is working on the issue, and that an "inclusive digital font that allows for Indigenous languages to be included in official records" is in the works.

But parents faced with this conundrum say that change is taking far too long. Joseph said her next step is to file a human rights complaint.

Rules are shifting

Last year the federal government said Indigenous people could apply to reclaim their traditional names on passports and other government IDs.

That came after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 demanded governments allow survivors and their families to restore names changed by the residential school system.

This falls in line with determinations by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that they have a right to reclaim traditions, language, culture — and names.

Hearing that at least B.C. is considering a change, mothers like ThunderSky still feel frustrated.

"I think it's about time — it's kind of disappointing that it took this long and it took so many families speaking out about their baby's name," she said.

ThunderSky and her Cherokee and Oglala Lakota partner, Terrell Ironshell, from South Dakota, can't wait to change their infant's name.

"Her name matches her — she's kind of a little bit mischievous and she likes to get into trouble, kind of like a little fox," said ThunderSky.

"For us it was very meaningful and powerful to think that she has a name in the same language that her grandmothers prayed for her in — before she was even born."

With files from Lenard Monkman