Ottawa man caught up in 2-year tussle over birth name

What's in a name? For Claude Therien, the one on his birth certificate, which follows a centuries-old French-Catholic tradition, has led to no end of problems obtaining a Canadian passport.

Claude Therien's birth certificate follows centuries-old French-Catholic naming convention

His driver's licence says Claude Therien, but his Ontario birth certificate says Joseph Louis Claude Therrien, thanks to a centuries-old French Catholic tradition — and a spelling mistake his father made in 1950. (Stu Mills/CBC)

It's a tradition as old as the Bible itself, but for one Ottawa man, it's meant two frustrating years of trying to restore his good name. 

When Claude Therien needed to replace his lost and expired passport in 2016, the 68-year-old submitted his birth certificate to Passport Canada to prove his Canadian citizenship.

I've always used one name in my life.- Claude Therien

Therien was raised in a traditional French-Catholic family, and his baptismal name follows the centuries-old religious tradition of naming boys after Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of Jesus.

(For the same reason, many French-Catholic girls are named Marie on their birth certificates.)

According to tradition, that biblical moniker is followed by a godparent's name — in Therien's case, Louis — a given name and finally, the family name, accidentally given an extra "r" by Therien's father.

Thus, Therien's birth certificate bears the name Joseph Louis Claude Therrien, and that's the name that appeared on his new passport.

Claude Therien's French-Catholic given name is 'Joseph Louis Claude Therrien' but his parents always intended on calling him 'Claude.' For more than two years he's been in a battle to get it straightened out with the government. 1:05

Just call him Claude

His parents always intended for him to be called Claude, and indeed the name Claude Therien appears on dozens of pieces of identification old and new, including his driver's licence, SIN card, business cards and racketball club membership.

"I've always used one name in my life," said Therien, who's spent the last two years trying to convince government officials that his first name isn't really Joseph.

"That would make my father, myself and all my four brothers Joseph," Therien pointed out.

To prove his point, Therien pulled out a box of documents and photographs, including one baby picture inscribed on the back with the words, "Claude à 71/2 mois" in blue ink.

Claude Therien sorts through pages of documents that he says demonstrate the name on his birth certificate isn't the one he's used throughout his life. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Nevertheless, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada insists his name is Joseph, as his Ontario birth certificate states.

For two years, he's been told that if he wants Claude Therien on his passport, he'd need Claude Therien on his birth certificate.

And for two years, Service Ontario has told him that if he wants Claude Therien on his birth certificate, he'd have to legally change his name.

'An insult'

Therien is concerned about the confusion his new passport might cause at the border, since the name on it doesn't match any of his other ID.

But to him, this is more than a case of inflexible bureaucracy.

He believes Service Ontario's intransigence signals the provincial government's ignorance of and disrespect for Franco-Ontarian traditions, particularly Catholic ones.

A boxful of photos dating back to Therien's infancy testify to his long use of the given name Claude, not Joseph. (Stu Mills/CBC)

He's not alone.

"It's [about] more than just a tradition," said Father Claude Thibault, a priest in Cornwall, Ont.

"It's also an insult to the French language."

Workaround exists

In his parish, Thibault asks the secretary to underline a child's given name on the birth record, though he admits it hasn't been a very effective solution.

"When I heard someone was making a stink about it, I said, 'Good.'" Thibault said of Therien's struggle.

"The government should have some way to restore the order of the names and recognize it."

It turns out there is such a workaround, though for two years, no one thought to inform Therien.

According to Shannon Ker, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the ministry responsible for issuing Canadian passports, "applicants can choose to drop or invert one or multiple given names from [their birth] certificate, provided the name requested for printing on the passport is supported by the name on another acceptable piece of identification, such as a driver's licence."