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What's in a name? And how do you get it back?

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Conversation, by Christi Belcourt

Earlier this year, a collective gasp was heard across Turtle Island as the horrific discovery of 215 children’s remains were found in unmarked graves at Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc (the Kamloops Residential School grounds). Then days later, in the quietest of breaths, the Government of Canada announced that Indigenous people could reclaim their traditional names for use on their passports and other federal identity documents.[1]


The push for this change stemmed from the TRC’s Call to Action #17. Which has been haphazardly taken up by provincial governments across the country.


17. We call upon all levels of government to enable residential school Survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system by waiving administrative costs for a period of five years for the name-change process and the revision of official identity documents, such as birth certificates, passports, driver’s licenses, health cards, status cards, and social insurance numbers.”[2]

In preparing to write this post, I researched the various processes to make this change. Granted, it is the end of term and I’m easily exhausted, but this process is immediately overwhelming.


I started reading the federal government’s news release, which frankly left me with the impression that they’ve set up a free, easy, and relatively quick process. Which is not exactly true. It turns out that to change your name on your passport, you have to change your name on your birth certificate, which is a provincial process.[3] Some provinces have made this an easily accessible process – available to any Indigenous person. Some provinces will only waive the fees for this change if you can establish that you are (or are a descendant of) a residential or day school survivor. Most provinces have a limit on how long fee waivers will be granted (and they’re running out too quickly - looking at you, Ontario). Some provinces require some kind of proof of your traditional name. [4]


To Alberta’s credit, this summer the province announced that the name change will be free - permanently.[5] However, it is only available for Alberta residents. How many folks have Alberta birth certificates but don’t live here anymore? Further, the costs associated with a name change are not limited to the registry fees governments are waiving – there are plenty of incidentals that add up such as notarizing and couriering documents.


Changing your name is not taken lightly (see the team’s post from last year). It may be an exciting time, or may mean reclaiming your traditional name (stolen from you by a colonial system). But, it becomes overwhelming when the process to reclaim something that is rightfully yours means you are required to jump hoops, prove the injustices done to you, or establish your Indigeneity. And while the TRC did suggest a five-year period for the no-cost change, the way this has been rolled out makes that window too small. The time limits imposed by provinces (Ontario - January 2022!) and the federal government (2026), force people to make deeply personal decisions on state terms, instead of their own. Furthermore when they do decide to change their name, identification systems cannot recognize the symbols or accents used in Indigenous languages, and therefore, folks are prevented from spelling their names accurately.


Imagining going through this is exhausting. Imagining going through this while also trying to reclaim Status, to reconnect with your language and culture, to heal from intergenerational trauma…and and and…it doesn’t feel like a positive, empowering reclaiming. Unsurprisingly, the uptake of reclaiming traditional names has been slow.[6]


I couldn’t help but compare this to the process of changing my name when I married. With my marriage certificate in hand, I could change my name anywhere and everywhere without question. No one bats an eye, because it’s “normal,” maybe even expected. That ease is what is owed Indigenous people, what they don’t need is another retraumatizing process.

A lawyer in Burnaby has undertaken to support people through this process pro bono.[7] Others should follow his lead. Moreover, governments should reconsider what they’re offering and what they’re asking of Indigenous people.


But for right now, please tell your Ontario friends that time is almost up on the fee waiver!


Until next time,


Amy and Team ReconciliACTION



 


[1] Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, News Release, "Minister Mendicino, Minister Bennett and Minister Miller announce that Indigenous peoples can now reclaim their traditional names on immigration identity documents" (14 June 2021), online: <https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/news/2021/06/minister-mendicino-minister-bennett-and-minister-miller-announce-that-indigenous-peoples-can-now-reclaim-their-traditional-names-on-immigration-ide.html>.


[2] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).


[3] Brigitte Pellerin, "Reclaiming their names", CBA/ABC National (27 July 2021), online: <https://nationalmagazine.ca/en-ca/articles/law/access-to-justice/2021/reclaiming-their-names>.


[4] Follow these links for the details on the process in British Columbia, Alberta, NWT, Nova Scotia.


[5] Government of Alberta, News Release, "Reclaiming Indigenous names" (2 June 2021), online: <https://www.alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=793040D259181-F7BF-CBB0-A93D4E8043D1B0DC>.


[6] see Pellerin, supra note 3; Nicholas Keung, "Her name is Ta7talíya. Why Canada won’t print the Squamish spelling on a passport", The Toronto Star (28 August 2021), online: <https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/08/28/why-canada-cant-print-this-womans-name-on-a-passport.html>.


[7] Pellerin, supra note 3.


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