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‘There’s got to be ways’ Indigenous language names can be registered in Manitoba, says SCO grand chief

theres got to be ways indigenous language names can be registered in manitoba says sco grand chief

A First Nations mother in Manitoba whose daughter’s traditional name was changed on the birth certificate supports another couple’s call for changes to the province’s Vital Statistics Act.

“Our names are really powerful and they’re really strong,” said Kakeka Thundersky.

“Why can’t they just accept how we want to name our babies?”

Thundersky’s daughter, Tokala Wači Wiŋ, was born in Winnipeg last year. Her traditional Lakota name translates to “dancing kit fox woman.”

Tokala Wači Wiŋ was supposed to be written together as a first name. Instead, Manitoba’s Vital Statistics Branch made Tokala the first name, turned Wači Wiŋ into two middle names, and didn’t include the accents.

Earlier this week, a First Nations couple said they ran into issues with Vital Statistics after naming their baby Atetsenhtsén:we, which translates to “forever healing medicine” in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language. 

The parents said nurses alerted them that the colon symbol and accented “e” may not be accepted on their birth registration. According to Manitoba’s Vital Statistics Act, when registering a child’s birth, “the given name and the surname must consist only of the letters ‘a’ to ‘z’ and accents from the English or French languages, but may include hyphens and apostrophes.”

Thundersky said Indigenous parents shouldn’t have to go through Vital Statistics with individual inquiries.

“That’s asking for a lot of unnecessary labour on the part of parents,” said Thundersky.

“We always have to settle; we always have to be like, ‘Oh, that’s good enough.’ But it’s not what we intended so that’s really frustrating.”

Previous legislation changes

In 1998, Diane Redsky contacted Vital Statistics prior to the birth of her son Binesi Ma’iingan, whose first name translates to Thunderbird in Anishinaabemowin and whose last name means Wolf, and is the name of his clan.

She said at the time there were two barriers that she was aware of to registering his name, one being that babies had to be named before leaving the hospital, and the second being that the child had to have one or both of the parents’ last names. 

She said she sent a letter to the Consumer Affairs Minister and was told the legislation could easily be changed.

“The legislation was changed just in time for my son to be the first child in Manitoba to be named traditionally by the elders, and his surname is his clan,” said Redsky.

She argues that with today’s technology, it shouldn’t be a problem to register traditional Indigenous names.

“It’s such a fundamental value to have identity,” said Redsky.

“There really should not be any barriers to honouring and celebrating that identity and to not have your name spelled the way it is intended.”

‘There’s got to be ways’

Jerry Daniels, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization, said Friday that he had spoken with Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere and there was agreement between the two that Atetsenhtsén:we’s name shouldn’t have been denied.

“We should still be able to have the name as the parents wanted, regardless of the system or the way the system is currently run, and that there’s got to be ways to be able to facilitate that for the parents,” Daniels said.

A spokesperson from the province wrote in an emailed statement that “Manitoba is actively working on the inclusion of Indigenous names and syllabics, including exploring potential legislative amendments.”

“This will of course require consultations to ensure changes are made appropriately to meet the needs of community.”

The spokesperson wrote the province is in communication with other provinces “to learn and share experiences” and that the Vital Statistics Branch wants to work toward a solution with the parents who have come forward.

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