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Right to Chipewyan name validated
A report by the Languages Commissioner of the NWT bolsters a mother's fight for her baby's name with indigenous letters

Elaine Anselmi
Northern News Services
Monday, October 12, 2015

One mother's argument that the territorial government should recognize her daughter's Chipewyan name now carries critical weight.

NNSL photo/graphic

Shene Catholique-Valpy's daughter Sahaia May Talbot, left, was born in February 2014. Her mother has been seeking recognition of her aboriginal name on a birth certificate. Now, the Languages Commissioner of the NWT has submitted a report to the government arguing that name is her right. - photo courtesy of Shene Catholique-Valpy

On Oct. 2, the languages commissioner of the Northwest Territories submitted a report to the Department of Health and Social Services that its Vital Statistics Act - under which birth certificates are issued - violates the territory's Official Languages Act.

"You have to look at the Official Languages Act as being quasi-constitutional legislation. It's special legislation that's given a special priority. It gives certain language rights to individuals, so any other legislation has to be looked into based on that context," said Shannon Gullberg, acting languages commissioner.

"Then you look at the Vital Statistics Act, which says you can only use essentially the Roman alphabet."

When Shene Catholique-Valpy's daughter, Sahaia May Talbot, was born on Feb. 15, 2014, her birth registration was refused by the vital statistics department because of the glottal stop in her name. Sahaia is a Chipewyan word, describing the sun breaking through, Catholique-Valpy had previously told News/North.

"It's coming through something," she said, adding it's a fitting description now the process to see that name credited is underway.

"It kind of makes me feel like the ball is rolling a little bit now," said Catholique-Valpy.

"Before, I was waiting and that's all it seemed I was doing."

In her report, Gullberg references two cases in which the Official Languages Act was not complied with, in regards to the Vital Statistics Act. The first complainant was Catholique-Valpy, with the second coming forward in support of her, after having a similar experience when trying to register their own daughter approximately 20 years ago.

In her report, Gullberg references not only the precedence given to the languages act over other legislation but the intention of that act in respecting and preserving all official languages of the territory.

As commissioner, Gullberg's official recommendation to the legislative assembly and territorial government is to "give effect to the spirit and intent of the Official Languages Act in regard to issues of birth registration and the issuance of birth certificates in the Northwest Territories."

She also recommended the government make efforts to overcome the technical barriers in using Dene fonts, symbols and diacritical marks in official documents. While she recognized there would be some challenges in using characters outside the Roman alphabet, she said technologies are certainly being developed and will continue to develop.

With the report submitted, the department has 30 days to respond. Gullberg said her powers are limited to making recommendations, but if the department does not respond in an appropriate way, she can report back to the legislative assembly.

"Recommendations can be, in my opinion, more persuasive than just telling people," she said. "I hope it will generate discussion within the GNWT and legislative assembly."

In her research, Gullberg found that there is also significant room for improving language rights outside of the territory.

"There are aboriginal populations throughout Canada and in some jurisdictions larger populations, like B.C. or Manitoba," Gullberg said. "You would have, in my head, dealt with these issues in a significant fashion. What surprised me his how little has really happened."

This, she said, poses an additional challenge, and urges the government to work with other jurisdictions and levels of government to ensure residents don't face barriers in the use of aboriginal names if they are to move out of the territory, for example.

"I look at this as a positive thing," Gullberg said. "Where the NWT can be a leader on this issue."

Having only just received the report, Health and Social Services spokesperson Damien Healy stated in an e-mail that a review and analysis has not yet taken place.

"We had been previously made aware of this issue through complaints raised to the registrar general of Vital Statistics regarding the inability to use aboriginal fonts on NWT birth certificates; the department had reviewed this issue and it is our understanding that our Vital Statistics Act does not contravene the Official Languages Act," he wrote.

"However, we will review the commissioner's comments on this matter."

Catholique-Valpy also says she was happy to see the report come forward.

"I think it was time for a change," she said.

"What I'm going to be waiting for is for them to say that I'm allowed to have my daughter's name spelled properly on her birth certificate. That's all I really want."

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