Chipewyan baby name not allowed on N.W.T. birth certificate

Shene Catholique Valpy has spent over a year fighting for the traditional spelling of her daughter Sahaiʔa's name, but the N.W.T. government says all legal names must be written in the letters of the Roman alphabet.

Shene Catholique Valpy forced to change daughter's legal name due to traditional glottal stop

Sahaiʔa May Talbot went without a birth certificate for over a year because the Northwest Territories government was unable to register a name that is not written entirely in the Roman alphabet. Her mother says she won't give up the fight for Sahaiʔa's traditional name. (Submitted by Shene Catholique Valpy)

A mother's battle for her daughter's name has become a fight for representation of her traditional language — all thanks to one character: ʔ.

Sahaiʔa May Talbot was born on Feb. 15, 2014, to mother Shene Catholique Valpy. Catholique Valpy, 24, chose her daughter's name because of its meaning in her traditional language of Chipewyan: "When the sun just peeks through."

The symbol in Sahaiʔa's name is the glottal stop, an important one in Chipewyan that signifies both pronunciation and meaning. If it were replaced with a different character, Sahaiʔa's name would both sound and mean something completely different.

Catholique Valpy chose the name Sahaiʔa because of its meaning in her traditional language of Chipewyan: 'When the sun just peeks through.' (Submitted by Shene Catholique Valpy)
When Catholique Valpy attempted to register her baby in February of last year, she received a phone call from the Northwest Territories government's vital statistics department, telling her it couldn't support the use of the traditional character. In an email to Catholique Valpy, a government representative explained that's because the glottal stop isn't part of the Roman alphabet.

Catholique Valpy, whose mother, Snookie Catholique, is N.W.T.'s official languages commissioner, had a choice to make: change her child's name, or fight for the traditional spelling. 

"I figured I could either drop the glottal, or I could put a hyphen or leave it there," she says. "I wasn't really sure, so I decided to keep it and as a family, we're going to try and fight it." 

Catholique Valpy 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.

Earlier this week, though, the need for identification — for travel, medical, and tax purposes — became too much, and Catholique Valpy got a birth certificate for her daughter with a hyphen replacing the glottal stop. 

However, she asserts this is a temporary situation and that she will continue to fight for her daughter's traditional name.

"I want to be able to fight this to be able to have my daughter's name written the right way, the way it's supposed to be," she says. "I don't want to sacrifice my language just because of this.

"They want to preserve our language. They're trying to get it back up, so this is my way of helping to break through."

'It's like saying we're going to get rid of the T'

The Northwest Territories currently supports 11 official languages, including Chipewyan, and one former territorial politician says that should be the end of the argument.

"Chipewyan language, along with all the other languages spoken up here, are a right and recognized in territorial law, but we have to be faced with these types of situations which, in my mind, is insensitive and not necessary," says Steven Nitah, a former MLA who reviewed the territory's Official Languages Act following the creation of Nunavut in 1999.

Former MLA Steven Nitah says the Chipewyan language needs to be respected. 'If reconciliation is going to happen, we have to accept indigenous people for who they are, who we are and how we want to express ourselves.' (CBC)
"If reconciliation is going to happen, we have to accept indigenous people for who they are, who we are and how we want to express ourselves. Whether it's through dance, song, or the names we choose for our children. 

"The Government of the Northwest Territories should be supporting that; it's their law."

Dene languages expert Brent Kaulback, who worked with elders in the community of Lutsel K'e to create a Chipewyan dictionary, agrees with Nitah. 

"It's like dropping a letter from an English alphabet," says Kaulback. "How many people would object to that? And seeing how these languages are struggling to survive and thrive, we've got to give them every support we can.

"Dene fonts are now unicode fonts. They can be loaded onto any computer, and if they're typed into any computer, any other computer can read those fonts as well. Each and every character in the Chipewyan or any other alphabet is just as important as any other letter.

The symbol in Sahaiʔa's name is the glottal stop, an important one in the Chipewyan dialect that signifies both pronunciation and meaning. (Submitted by Shene Catholique Valpy)
"It's just like ... saying we're going to get rid of the 'T,' or we're going to get rid of the 'l' and just not have it there. It just wouldn't make sense because there's a lot of words that wouldn't be spelled properly without those."

'Significant resources would be needed'

Damien Healy, a spokesperson for N.W.T.'s health department, says the Roman alphabet-only rule is similar in most parts of Canada. Any letters and symbols used on birth certificates have to be recognized by the federal government for a passport or other documents, and using other symbols could create difficulties later in life.

"From a practical perspective, our current vital statistics database and printer do not accommodate glottal stops or other non-standard diacritics and significant resources would be needed to upgrade them," Healy writes.

But, he says, "the department will be consulting with the federal government on what it would mean if the N.W.T. birth certificate was to include Dene fonts."

It will also look into the cost of accommodating glottal stops or other non-standard symbols. 

Catholique Valpy says that agreeing temporarily to replacing the glottal stop with a hyphen is what pushed her to speak out about her situation. By continuing her battle, she hopes to inspire others to do the same, and hear from those who may be in a similar situation.

"You can stand up and rise to see what will happen," she says. "You know, you have the right. You're aboriginal. You're strong. You're young. If you're old, you're young at heart."