The Province of B.C. has refused to allow a Campbell River couple to register their baby’s traditional Kwak’wala name because it uses specialized First Nations lettering.
“My partner’s from this territory,” Chrystal Smith said. “We just want to honour the land we’re on.”
λugʷaləs K’ala’ask Shaw was born on Jan. 12. Smith and her partner Raymond Shaw had planned to give him a traditional name since before he was born. Shaw is Wei Wai Kum (Campbell River), Smith is Tsym’syen and Haisla and has been adopted into the Heiltsuk Nation.
They had discussed the possibility of a traditional name with the head of Shaw’s family. They were particularly interested in a place name from somewhere in the Wei Wai Kum territory. When λugʷaləs was born, they settled on a name of a mountain in Loughborough Inlet that translates to “the place where people were blessed.”
“There’s a back story that goes with that mountain,” Smith said. “And we decided that’s who λugʷaləs was. That’s who he is. There’s no other name for him.”
But when they went to register the name using the province’s online registration system, it wouldn’t accept the Kwak’wala characters in the name. So, they sent in a paper copy of the application but that attempt ran into a technical glitch and so they had to re-do it. During the second attempt they pointed out the correspondence had spelled the name wrong. Smith offered to email the name with the proper lettering but was told by the staff member that they couldn’t do that. So, she spelled it all out and the employee wrote that down and said it would take a couple of weeks.
But on March 3, they received a letter from Registrar General Jack Shewchuk saying the proposed name contravened the Vital Statistics Agency’s current naming standards which only recognizes the standard letters in the Latin alphabet, the standard set of French characters (the acute and grave accents, the circumflex, the umlaut and cedilla) and the use of apostrophes, periods and hyphens as long as they are not next to each other or lead to confusion in interpretation.
“While the agency continues to meet with our business partners to facilitate the use of additional diacritic characters, we are currently unable to accept your child’s name as you have proposed it,” Shewchuk wrote. “The reason for this is the impact that the registration of this information would have on our partners and their systems that are unable to accept these symbols or reproduce them onto their secondary identification documents such as a driver’s licence or health care card.”
The letter offers variations on the couple’s names that would be acceptable to the system included Aug’walas or Augwalas but Smith and Shaw won’t compromise on the name.
“There is no compromise. He is λugʷaləs and he won’t be registered until we’re allowed to register him, which is ridiculous,” Smith said. “Yeah, I’m done compromising. Indigenous people have been compromising since colonization happened.”
Smith and Shaw’s situation is not unique. A Squamish woman was in the news recently about being unable to register her baby’s name which includes an “unacceptable” character. Salia Joseph and her partner Joseph Currie, whose heritage is Cree and Blackfoot, have named their daughter Alíla7, which means wild raspberry. The province, however, won’t recognize the 7 character in the name.
To Smith and Shaw, what’s additionally annoying about the situation is that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has an article that references the use of Indigenous languages, writing systems and names. It says, “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.”
On top of that, the B.C. government just unveiled a five-year action plan on implementing the UNDRIP.
“Yeah, it is super-frustrating,” Smith said. “And with the 97 Calls to Action (from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report), with the adoption of UNDRIP, like, ridiculous that we have to do this, that we have to continue to fight like this just to be recognized. And that’s what it is, they’re not recognizing us. Still.”
Speaking to CTV News about the Salia Joseph story, Health Minister Adrian Dix commiserated with First Nations families, acknowledging that the situation could be “distressing.” A statement from the ministry to CTV said the government is committed to ensuring that Indigenous languages are living, used, taught and visible, including ensuring parents can register the births of their children with traditional names.