N.W.T. ID should allow Dene symbols, says languages commissioner

The Northwest Territories’ languages commissioner agrees with a Dene mother that symbols such as the glottal stop that appear in traditional indigenous names should be allowed on government ID.

'I'm actually seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,' says Shene Catholique Valpy

Shene Catholique Valpy has been fighting to get the glottal stop in her daughter's name included on official government ID in the Northwest Territories. Now the territory's language commissioner says she agrees. (Submitted by Shene Catholique Valpy)

The Northwest Territories' language commissioner agrees with a Dene mother that the symbol representing a glottal stop, used in her daughter's traditional indigenous name, should be allowed on government ID.

Earlier this year, the territory's vital statistics department told Shene Catholique Valpy the glottal stop in her daughter's Chipewyan name, Sahaiʔa May Talbot, could not appear on her birth certificate because the department uses only the Roman alphabet.

The glottal stop, as part of the Chipewyan language, signifies both pronunciation and meaning.

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. She eventually got a birth certificate for her daughter with a hyphen replacing the glottal stop when the need for official registration — for travel, medical, and tax purposes — became pressing.

In a new report, the N.W.T.'s language commissioner, Shannon Gullberg, says the territorial government has an obligation to provide services in aboriginal official languages when it comes to birth registration and the issuing of birth certificates. 

By not allowing for names that contain Dene fonts, diacritical marks and symbols, she says the Vital Statistics Act is violating the spirit and intent of the Official Languages Act.

Catholique Valpy says she's pleased that her fight has produced results.

"I'm actually seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," she says. "I feel like we are changing the N.W.T."

Catholique Valpy says Gullberg is also calling on government to upgrade its computer systems to allow the use of Dene font and symbols.

"This is not a for sure yet but I know we will get there. In my lifetime, in my daughter's lifetime this will be solved and this will be fixed," says Catholique Valpy.

The N.W.T.'s health department has previously said its database and printer doesn't accommodate glottal stops and that significant resources would be needed to upgrade them.

It also said any letters and symbols used on birth certificates have to be recognized by the federal government for a passport or other documents.

In a news release, Gullberg stated "The Legislative Assembly and the Government of the Northwest Territories must be leaders in this issue and cannot stop moving on the issue because of concerns that other jurisdictions may not follow suit. Issues of aboriginal heritage, culture and language should be of concern to people throughout Canada."

Gullberg has sent the report to the territory's health minister. The department has 30 days to respond.


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