Day 6

These 2 Canadian women changed their names to honour their roots

Ashante Infantry and Zahra Bakhsh have made a more personal renunciation of colonial conventions of naming — starting with changing their own names to better reflect their roots.

Some people are taking a more personal approach to rejecting colonial naming conventions

Ashante Infantry (left) and Zahra Bakhsh (right) have made a personal renunciation of colonial naming conventions by changing their own names to reflect their ancestry. (Submitted by Ashante Infantry and Zahra Bakhsh)

When you walk into Ashante Infantry's living room, it's hard to miss the writing on the wall. Large twig letters, crafted by Canadian artist Roisin Cadieux, spell Infantry's full name.

Infantry grew up in Brampton, Ont., after her parents immigrated to Canada from Jamaica.

It was roughly 30 years ago, the veteran journalist changed her name to reflect her African ancestry. 

"I really tried to configure something that was a nod to African heritage, but was also unique to me," she said.

Infantry says the name Ashante came to her because of the relationship between the Ashanti tribe of West Africa and the Maroons of Jamaica, where her family is from.

Ashante Infantry wooden sticks hanging on wall
Large twig letters, crafted by Canadian artist Roisin Cadieux, spell Ashante Infantry's name and are displayed on her wall. (Submitted by Ashante Infantry )

While there's a drive to decolonize the names of Canadian institutions, — Toronto Metropolitan University, for example — Infantry is among a group of Canadians taking a more personal approach.

She attended McMaster University in 1989 and says she arrived on campus thinking she was "fairly well read" in regards to Black history. 

However, Infantry says she quickly realized how little she knew about some issues when a political push began for the school to diversify its holdings from South Africa because of the country's apartheid era — something she knew nothing about. 

"When I thought about what I could do as an individual to reclaim aspects of African identity, the name was number one and hair was number two," Infantry said.  "I stopped straightening my hair because I wanted to do away with any reflection of what was considered acceptable Eurocentric notions of beauty." 

Some people are a little juvenile and they use the opportunity to call me by my name or refer to my real name which I find a little offensive. So I just prefer to keep it to myself.- Ashante Infantry

She says she had a very generic "Susan, Linda, Debra, Lisa kind of name" that would have not been denoted as being Black or Afrocentric in any way. And it was a sort of typical name of the times. 

Infantry says she didn't feel the same need to change her last name because it didn't exist as a "slave name, so to speak," adding, that putting Ashante and Infantry together felt as if she'd achieved a uniqueness, but also a nod to African heritage.

"It's been different reasons over the years why I don't like to tell people my original name. Some people are a little juvenile and they use the opportunity to call me by my name or refer to my real name, which I find a little offensive. So I just prefer to keep it to myself."   

WATCH | Ottawa allows Indigenous people to reclaim birth names on official documents:

Ottawa allows Indigenous people to reclaim birth names on official documents

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Zahra Bakhsh has had her name for roughly three years now.

The marriage officiant and photographer was raised in Toronto, and her parents immigrated from India, and took on colonial names.

Bakhsh grew up as Cynthia Phillip, and says she felt like she was pretending to be something she was nothing close to being.

"I think my first realization that I had an out-of-context name was when I was 12 years old, when I wore a saris for a party," she said. "It was my first big celebration that was adjacent to having an identity in my culture. I remember how odd it was. My aunts are there, my uncles are there, other family members, and friends of my parents — and they all have these Indian names, but how come I'm Cynthia? It felt odd. It felt strange. It felt separate."

By her early 30s, Bakhsh said she was married and her last name had been changed to a Ukrainian one. 

"The questions started again. 'Oh, you're Italian' or  'You must be Greek.' I was always displaced culturally, and there was always the shock and disbelief. So over time it definitely eroded my sense of identity."

It makes me feel beautiful. It makes me feel like I belong to my people.- Zahra Bakhsh

Eventually, Bakhsh received the blessing she had hoped for, from her father, to change her name to something more representative of their family's roots. 

"I feel like when I introduce myself, what comes back is so different. Now, it's just there's no questioning. That in itself has been the biggest freedom for me. I feel like I don't have to prove anything. I don't have to explain anything."

She says she chose the name Zahra Bakhsh because it sounds powerful and makes her feel incredibly strong and committed to her identity as a brown woman.

"It makes me feel beautiful. It makes me feel like I belong to my people."

WATCH | Should Canada cut ties with the monarchy?:

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Last year, the Canadian government announced it would allow Indigenous people who had their names changed by the residential school system to reclaim their original names on official federal documents free of charge. 

Tom Freda is the national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, a group that opposes the monarchy's role in Canada. 

Tom Freda is the national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, a group that opposes the monarchy's role in Canada. (Submitted by Tom Freda)

He says there's a growing interest in decolonization that's brought a new awareness to Canadians about the implications of our monarchical symbols.

"I think that this is an excellent opportunity [with the Queen passing away] to reevaluate how we define ourselves as Canadians, who we should be respecting with naming places and institutions, and be mindful that there were people here before we arrived," said Freda. "And to have that all covered up and renamed, it does make a lot of Canadians wonder. And I think it's high time that we do."


Radio segment produced by Yamri Taddese.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Becken

Journalist

Bob Becken is a producer for CBC Radio’s Digital team. Previously, he was an executive producer with CBC Windsor, and held broadcast and digital news director duties with Bell Media and Blackburn Media. Bob and the teams he has worked with have won several Radio Television Digital News Association awards, including five with CBC Windsor from 2019 to 2020. He also taught digital journalism at the University of Windsor. You can reach him at bob.becken@cbc.ca.

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