What’s in a name? Ties to heritage: languages commish

What’s in a name? Ties to heritage: languages commish
Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy says the government is looking into the possibility of adding Dene fonts to some government-issued identification at the recommendation of the NWT Languages Commissioner.Photo: Glen Abernethy.

Expecting parents may someday be able to use traditional Dene names on their children’s government-issued identification, thanks to a push from the NWT Languages Commissioner.

The office has released a report to the government of the Northwest Territories notifying it that the Vital Statistics Act (VSA) violates the “spirit and intent” of the Official Languages Act.

According to the commissioner, this is because the VSA does not allow for names that contain Dene fonts, diacritical marks and symbols used in official Aboriginal languages.

The report comes after the acting commissioner, Shannon Gulberg, received two complaints.

By only allowing the use of characters from the Roman alphabet, Gulberg said parents are prevented from honouring their Aboriginal heritage by giving their children Aboriginal names. She further pressed the government to recognize its “obligation to provide services in Aboriginal official languages when it comes to birth registration and the issuance of birth certificates.”

“There was a solid recommendation and then there was a backup recommendation in case we couldn’t actually meet the first recommendation,” Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy said in an interview with the Journal. “We have to review her findings, we have to figure out how it applies and then we have to figure out how to move. We’re doing that work now.”

Abernethy stated the most difficult factor in accommodating the recommendations comes from the need to align identification pieces with federal standards.

“In the Northwest Territories we have an official languages act that recognizes 11 different languages, whereas Canada only recognizes two,” he said. “We recognize that language is inherent to culture and we recognize that people want to use traditional names and spellings. We would love to find a way to accommodate that but the challenge is, if we do that, are we adversely affecting them and making it too difficult for them to do things like traveling internationally or (deal with) universities, hospitals (and) health centres in southern Canada?”

However, Gulberg’s report preemptively encourages the GNWT to push forward on the initiative, despite the obstacles it might face in working with other levels of government.

“The Legislative Assembly and the Government of the Northwest Territories must be leaders in this issue and can not stop moving on the issue because of concerns that other jurisdictions may not follow suit,” Gulberg said in a release. “Issues of Aboriginal heritage, culture and language should be of concern to people throughout Canada.”

The recommendation came only a week after the GNWT announced the formal introduction of the Strong Cultures, Strong Territory: GNWT Culture and Heritage Strategic Framework, which was created to “align existing culture and heritage activities of all GNWT departments around shared goals and priorities” over the next decade. A major component of the strategy includes boosting support for the “foundational role” of Aboriginal culture, including languages, through government initiatives.

“I can tell you the federal passport offices and Service Canada said there’s no way they’ll be able to accommodate things like the glottal stop, which makes us have to look at the commissioner’s secondary recommendation; how we can do something with our own documentation to recognize it here in the Northwest Territories,” Abernethy said. “We use the Dene fonts already, we have the ability to provide documents in different languages accordingly.”

The government has 30 days to respond to the report, however, Abernethy said ultimately action on the recommendations will have to be taken by the 18th Assembly.

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