Federal gov't won't recognize Dene fonts, says N.W.T. health minister

The N.W.T.’s minister of health says the federal government is not in a position to consider Dene fonts on government ID. The territory's languages commissioner is recommending the change after a Dene mother complained.

'If we put the Dene font in, we might in fact make our residents lives a little bit more difficult'

The N.W.T.’s health minister, Glen Abernethy, says the federal government is not in a position to consider Dene fonts on government-issued ID. (CBC)

The N.W.T.'s health minister says the federal government is not in a position to consider Dene fonts on government-issued ID.

The territory's languages commissioner, Shannon Gullberg, recently released a report recommending that the N.W.T. allow the use of indigenous symbols on identification. The report comes in light of a complaint from Shene Catholique Valpy, who was told by the vital statistics department last year that the glottal stop in her daughter's Chipewyan name, Sahaiʔa May Talbot, could not appear on her birth certificate because the department only uses the Roman alphabet.

Gullberg is asking the territorial government to make personal identification more inclusive, saying people should be allowed to use fonts and symbols from the territory's nine official aboriginal languages.

Health Minister Glen Abernethy says he wants to find a solution, but allowing the symbols could create problems for travellers.

"We got in touch with the federal government and talked to their passport offices and Services Canada. They're not in a position to consider Dene fonts," Abernethy said.

"So recognizing that if we put the Dene fonts in, we might in fact make our residents' lives a little bit more difficult should they choose to travel south to other jurisdictions or to get a passport."

'This is an opportunity for the GNWT to be leaders'

Gullberg says she was shocked to discover no jurisdictions in Canada recognize symbols, such as the glottal stop.

"Surely somebody has at least considered this," she says.

The health department has said it would take significant resources to upgrade its database and printer to accommodate the symbols.

Gullberg doesn't downplay the challenges, but she's calling on the territorial government to amend its Vital Statistics Act and work with other jurisdictions to get Dene fonts recognized.

She recommends creating IDs with Roman characters on one side and Dene fonts on the other. She also suggests creating a second ID for traditional names that can only be used in the territory.

"Governments across Canada have done very little on this issue. This is an opportunity for the GNWT to be leaders," Gullberg says.

Abernethy says he's reviewing Gullberg's report in earnest.

"We want to find a solution that works, that allows us to recognize these people's names in their traditional languages," he says.

His department has 30 days to respond to the recommendations.


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