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Reclaiming Indigenous Names and Reconciliation

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Our names are an important part of our identity because they carry deep personal, cultural, and historical connections, and have the ability to give us a sense of who we are and where we belong in the community. [1] The names that we’re given at birth grow to define us.

People may experience this feeling when getting married and deciding whether to change their last name. This decision is not always as easy as expected. Someone's last name, the name that has tied them to their family for generations, would no longer be a name that they could identify with. This type of consensual name change pales in comparison to the experiences that many Indigenous people are facing in Canada with regard to their names.

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Here on the blog, we have previously discussed the devastating impacts of residential schools, and how they have had lasting effects on Indigenous peoples’ experience of the world today. One of those impacts is the loss of traditional names. “It was common for institutions to rename children when they were enrolled [in residential schools], erasing traditional Indigenous names to cut the ties a child had with the cultural identity and family.” [2] These children lost not only their own names and ties to community, but the ability to pass them on. Their children, and their children’s children, were also deeply affected by the loss of these names and familial ties. Many names faded into history, and were not able to be recovered.

The federal government’s Indian Act policies also played a destructive role in the assimilation process of renaming Indigenous peoples. Many First Nation peoples did not have Christian names or surnames. They were given hereditary names, family names, spirit names, clan names, animal names, or other names to mark milestones or acts of bravery. [3] Indian agents had the responsibility of recording the names of all the Indigenous people living on the reserve, and it was much easier for them to record a given Christian name and a non-Indigenous surname. [4]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Act #17 calls upon all levels of government “to enable residential school Survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system, by waiving administration costs for a period of five years for the name-change process and the revision of official identity documents”. [5] Some provinces have already taken steps to implement this Call to Action, by waiving administration fees. These provinces include Ontario, The Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick, and British Columbia. [6]

Currently, there is a bill before the Manitoba legislature which “would establish a wider range of letters, characters and symbols beyond the traditional ones found in the English and French languages.” [7] This important step would not only allow Indigenous people to reclaim birth names that were stolen from them through the operation of the residential school system, but would allow new and future parents to name their children in a way that is culturally significant to them. [8] Thus, this bill is significant not only because it aids in remedying past harm, but also because it can allow for the creation and recognition of new names that are rooted in the unique cultures of different Indigenous nations.

Although Call to Action #17 has not yet been completed, the positive steps provinces are taking show promise that completion is on the horizon. The ability for Indigenous people to legally identify by the names that they choose is an important and necessary step toward repairing some of the harms caused by colonialism and the residential school system. There is more work to be done, but steps in the right direction bring hope for the future.

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] Iman Baobeid, "The Importance of names" (last visited 22 November 2022), at 1, online (pdf): University of British Columbia Equity and Inclusion Office <>.

[2] “Manitoba bill would help ensure birth certificates reflect Indigenous names” (18 November 2022), online: Global News <>.

[3] "Indian Act Naming Policies" (11 March 2014), online: Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. <,to%20name%20but%20a%20few.>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2015) at 2, Call to Action 17.

[6] “Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada” (8 June 2022), online: CBC News <>.

[7] Supra note 2.

[8] Ibid.

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