Chipewyan girl, age 8, still waiting for proper name to appear on legal documents

A Yellowknife mom has been trying to get the Northwest Territories government to change its system to allow for Indigenous symbols on official documents for her daughter who was born in 2014.

Shene Catholique-Valpy has been fighting for her daughter to be able to use the glottal stop since 2014

Smiling girl, missing teeth, holds up a card with her name on it.
A Yellowknife mother had been trying for eight years to get the correct spelling of her daughter's name on legal documents. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

It's often a test of patience — filling out paperwork to make a change on legal documents, then waiting. 

But Shene Catholique-Valpy's patience has now been tested for eight years. 

That's how long the Yellowknife mom has been trying to get the Northwest Territories government to change its system to allow for Indigenous symbols on official documents for her daughter, Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ​, who was born in 2014. 

"It's a very simple aspect of reconciliation," Catholique Valpy said, as Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ, 8, played with her hair. 

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ​'s younger sister, six year-old Náʔël, is in the same situation. 

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ​ and Náʔël are both traditional Chipewyan names. 

Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ​ means "when the sun just peeks through."

And Náʔël means "where the caribou cross during migration."

The names describe "who they are," said Catholique-Valpy's mother, Snookie Catholique, who helped choose Náʔël's name. 

Happy family of six crashed on a couch.
Shene Catholique-Valpy with her partner and four children. She has been waiting eight years to get her daughter's name spelled properly on legal documents. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

Catholique said that's particularly important for her grandchildren because they don't live on the Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation, where she grew up. 

"You could see thousands of caribou crossing," Catholique recalls from her own youth, unlike today, when the animals have nearly disappeared. 

"It may never happen that she would see that … but she knows that her name is something really sacred and special. And she will pass it on to her children."

Without the glottal stop symbol ʔ in their spellings, the names are pronounced differently and the meanings are lost. 

Government vital statistics databases and printers don't include the glottal stop symbol. That forced Catholique-Valpy to resort to an apostrophe instead when registering her children's birth certificates. 

"It hurts having to do it," she said. "It didn't feel right."

"I feel like it's a violation of our rights, our language rights, our linguistic rights," she said. "It should be honored that we should have these names."

Call to action hasn't been heard

Catholique-Valpy said she's made numerous formal complaints to the N.W.T. Languages Commissioner, the territory's vital statistics officer, her MLA and her MP. 

She's even collected over 20 names of other people who are in the same situation to present to the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. 

And she's not the only one demanding change. 

The 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission including a call for "all levels of government to enable residential school survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system."

Catholique Valpy with her daughter in 2015, when CBC North first reported on their dilemma.

The call to action also asked that any fees associated with changes to birth certificates, passports, driver's licences, health cards, status cards, and social insurance numbers be waived for five years. 

Asked for an update on the situation, the N.W.T. government said it recently re-established a government-wide working group "to begin planning to develop a schedule for implementing changes to the information systems to accommodate the properly spelled traditional Indigenous names."

It says "a key component" will be finding a solution that will work with federal, provincial and international databases. 

Smiling woman wearing beaded earrings near forest.
Grandmother Snookie Catholique calls the situation 'maddening.' (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

A spokesperson with Indigenous Services Canada said via email that they too are "exploring potential solutions."

For now, it advises that names using diacritical marks, such as an accent, a colon, or any non-Latin characters, will simply be printed without them.

It gave the example of Ka'nhehsí:io, which would appear as "Ka'nhehsiio."

"We are exploring potential solutions," spokesperson Kyle Fournier wrote. 

A 'maddening' situation

Catholique-Valpy said she thinks Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ​ understands what she's been fighting for. 

"I don't want to spell it wrong anymore," she said. "I want her to grow up to be able to use a glottal stop."

Catholique, the grandmother whom Sahᾴí̜ʔᾳ​ and Náʔël call "?amá" (Aw MÁH) and a residential school survivor, is more strident. 

She called the situation "maddening." 

"It's taking away who we are," Catholique said. "They've done their best to take away everything we had, our languages, our lifestyle, our culture. And now we're fighting back. We want to reclaim it, but they're just making it so difficult."


Juanita Taylor is Senior Reporter for The National in the North. Juanita joined CBC North in 2008 and comes from Rankin Inlet and Arviat in Nunavut.