Mom says N.W.T. government still forcing Indigenous people to use 'colonized version' of their names

As the Northwest Territories government says it’ll eventually waive fees for residential school survivors and their families to reclaim their Indigenous names, one Yellowknife mom left in limbo says that’s not enough.

Shene Catholique Valpy in limbo since 2015, fighting for daughters' names to include traditional accents

Shene Catholique Valpy with her two daughters Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ and Náʔël. Catholique Valpy has been pushing the N.W.T. government to allow traditional characters and accents on legal names since 2015. She says nothing's changed since then. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

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.

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."

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ, left, and Náʔël, right, have glottal stops in their names which aren't allowed on official documents. The symbol would change both the pronunciation and meaning of their names in Chipewyan. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

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'

Catholique Valpy's story prompted changes to the legislation in July 2017. When the territorial government announced the change, people thought she'd won her battle.

"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.

Catholique Valpy is compiling a list of others with traditional symbols in their names. She's hoping to take her case and the list to the Legislative Assembly in the fall. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

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.

Catholique Valpy reviewing a 2016 document to amend the Vital Statistics Act. The changes to the Act in 2017 excluded the clause about not restricting names on official documents to the Roman alphabet. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

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.

When Catholique Valpy tried to register her baby Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ's name with the traditional accent back in 2014, she was denied. She went more than a year without legally registering Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ's name as her complaint was processed. Nothing's changed since then, says Catholique Valpy. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

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 priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca

About the Author

Priscilla Hwang

Reporter/Editor

Priscilla Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Yellowknife. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, Ottawa, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Before joining the CBC in 2016, she travelled across the Middle East and North Africa to share people's stories. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University and speaks Korean, Tunisian Arabic, and dabbles at classical Arabic and French. Want to contact her? Email priscilla.hwang@cbc.ca or @prisksh on Twitter.