A new federal policy allowing traditional Indigenous names to be used on passports and other travel documents is a step in the right direction, say some First Nations people in Nova Scotia.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced the change on Monday, fulfilling one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 ‘Calls to Action,’ published six years ago.
“It’s about getting back what we lost, then people having the freedom and use their language and their spirituality to name their children what they want to name them,” said Patti Doyle-Bedwell, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and Indigenous Studies assistant professor at Dalhousie University.
“So I think it’s a great step forward.”
Indigenous names are sacred — inseparable from language, culture and spirituality, said Doyle-Bedwell.
She says many of those names were stolen through Canada’s residential school system, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families in an attempt to sever all connections to their culture.
Countless children were starved and subjected to severe physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Thousands died, and the ensuing intergenerational trauma left deep, lasting wounds among survivors, their descendants and communities.
In some ways, said Doyle-Bedwell, allowing Indigenous names to be reclaimed on passports is “low-hanging fruit” for the federal government.
Nevertheless, she added, it could “create a better space where there’s more acceptance of our names and who we are, and maybe further understanding of what we use our names for.”
Prior to Monday’s announcement, the federal government said it allowed Indigenous applicants to change their passport names on a case-by-case basis. The formalized system now includes travel documents, citizenship certificates and permanent resident cards for all Indigenous Peoples.
While the name change fees will be waived for the next five years, in a written statement to Global News, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Nancy Caron said the program has some limits.
In accordance with international guidelines, for example, it can only process the Roman alphabet with some French characters, meaning many Indigenous language characters could not be included “in order to ensure seamless transmission of passenger data around the globe.”
“If an Indigenous name contains characters that are not recognized by the issuance system, we may need to make minor modifications, with the applicant’s consent,” she wrote.
There is no requirement of proof of Indigenous identity or familial linkage to the residential school system in order to qualify, she added, but those seeking to change their passports will need to provide valid identification that already includes their traditional name, such as a birth or citizenship certificate.
Kukuwis Wowkis, a Mi’kmaw grandmother, has used her traditional name for years and said she’s unsure what to make of Ottawa’s recent announcement.
“We never needed permission to use them,” she told Global News from Unama’ki (Cape Breton). “In a way, it’s a good thing, but in a way, they’re still colonizing us.”
She said she would need to consult with elders on the subject before considering a change to any of her official documents.
In 2019, the Nova Scotia government acted on the 17th Call to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, waiving fees for residential school survivors and their families for those who want to use traditional names on driver’s licenses other government-issued photo ID.
That process will remain free until July 2024.
Jarvis Googoo of We’koqma’q said these measures are a “step in the right direction toward reconciliation,” but governments could go even further by allowing businesses to register Indigenous names without English translations, and using Indigenous place names as often as possible.
“Here at least within Mi’kmaw’ki I would like to see it more normalized,” he explained, “when you’re driving up to towards Truro or you’re headed to Cape Breton to see the original Mi’kmaq signs and names if the place is known.”
It’s also important, said both Kukuwis Wowkis and Doyle-Bedwell, that all Canadians learn how to pronounce the Indigenous names of the people and places they encounter, understand their significance, and remember them.