Mom says N.W.T. government still forcing Indigenous people to use 'colonized version' of their names
Shene Catholique Valpy in limbo since 2015, fighting for daughters' names to include traditional accents
As the Northwest Territories government says it plans to waive fees for residential school survivors and their families to reclaim their Indigenous names, one mom in Yellowknife says that's not enough.
The territorial government has told CBC it will eventually change its current policy that can charge hundreds of dollars for Indigenous people to legally change their names, which may have been altered in the past through colonization. The change has been delayed for months, and is still yet to be implemented.
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Meanwhile, Shene Catholique Valpy — the mom who fought for her baby's Chipewyan name Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ to include traditional accents on her birth certificate three years ago — is still fighting for the N.W.T. government to change its policy that only allows the Roman alphabet on legal names.
You're still having to colonize your Indigenous name.- Shene Catholique Valpy
Catholique Valpy says while the government's plan to waive fees for people to reclaim their traditional names is "a good change," she has a major concern.
"Yes, we can spell it back to its original [Indigenous] name, but the thing is that we can't use the traditional spelling," said Catholique Valpy.
"So in turn, you're still losing the meaning of the name. You're still having to colonize your Indigenous name that you're given."
For example, the "ʔ" symbol, called a glottal stop — which would change both the pronunciation and the meaning of a name — is still not allowed to be used in official documents.
Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ May Talbot, who's now four years old, is still spelled Sahai'a May Talbot legally (Catholique Valpy said she recently realized Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ's name had more accents than CBC originally reported).
Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ now has a younger sister, Náʔël Nóríya May Talbot, whose first name is spelled Ná'ël on her birth certificate, without the glottal stop.
Government still 'dragging their feet'
"I haven't quite won the battle yet," said Catholique Valpy.
A part of me feels like I should just give in and give up.- Shene Catholique Valpy
Only two of the three amendments to the N.W.T. Vital Statistics Act were passed at the time — allowing gender x and single Indigenous names on birth certificates — but it excluded a clause removing the requirement that names are to be only written in the Roman alphabet.
Catholique Valpy said she hasn't heard from the government since.
"They're definitely dragging their feet," she said.
That's why Catholique Valpy started making a list of others around her in the same situation.
"So I have proof that my family is not the only one that has traditional names," said Catholique Valpy.
So far she's collected 19 people's names. On her list are names like ʔeDacho (legally spelled Dacho) and Jíe (legally spelled Jie).
Catholique Valpy said she's planning on taking her list to the Legislative Assembly's next sitting in October.
But this long-term fight is taking a toll.
"A part of me feels like I should just give in and give up, but then also a part of me knows that when my daughters get older, I would like them to know that I had fought for our culture and that it's OK to do something you're afraid of doing."
The territory's health minister, Glen Abernethy, said in 2015 that his department was talking to the federal government about a solution for registering Indigenous characters — as the accents may pose difficulty for individuals getting a passport or when travelling abroad.
Indigenous fonts need to be able to interact with other databases across the country, said the Health Department's spokesperson Umesh Sutendra, in an email response Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a working group has been set up to help make a "transliteration guide" as a possible solution to allowing Indigenous fonts on passports. The guide would help transcribe the accents in nine official Indigenous languages in the N.W.T. — but this will take a while, said Sutendra.
Gahdëlé, not Catholique
Catholique Valpy said she's also planning to change her last name once the territorial government allows Indigenous characters on official documents, so she can do her family's name changes all together.
She explained how when missionaries came to the Lutselk'e area, her ancestors' names were changed from Gahdëlé — meaning rabbit blood in Chipewyan — to Catholique.
"[The missionaries] couldn't pronounce the name, so they chose what they thought would've been closest," said Catholique Valpy.
"It doesn't feel right to have the last name Catholique when that's not necessarily our last name. It's just a colonized version of it."
Anything would help — a phone call, a coffee … to just feel like I'm not standing alone in this fight."- Shene Catholique Valpy
But Catholique Valpy explained how difficult the process is to change one's name.
"The paperwork's crazy. And you have elders who can't properly write or read [English]," she said.
Catholique Valpy suggested the government run workshops to help people go through the name-change process.
She's offering to assist anyone who needs help with the paperwork, once the fee is waived.
Meanwhile, she's also asking anyone who's willing to share wisdom, advice, or their Indigenous names for her list to contact her, as she continues to challenge the N.W.T. government.
"Anything would help — a phone call, a coffee … to just feel like I'm not standing alone in this fight."
Do you have a story to share about your name? Reach Priscilla at firstname.lastname@example.org