Recognizing Indigenous names a small step


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I wrote a column in March about how the Manitoba Vital Statistics Act marginalizes Indigenous names and maintains the legacy of residential schools.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/11/2022 (194 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I wrote a column in March about how the Manitoba Vital Statistics Act marginalizes Indigenous names and maintains the legacy of residential schools.

I pointed out that while the law allows for names that include European letters, accents, hyphens and apostrophes, for Indigenous languages that require other sounds, symbols and letters (called diacritics), identification is not accommodated.

At the time, I wrote about how the refusal to recognize Indigenous names has a long history of violence identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There is even a specific call to action (No. 17) directing all governments in Canada to recognize Indigenous names.

I explained how Manitoba was falling behind other provinces and the federal government in this regard. In June 2021, Canadian officials announced all federal documents would be made to accommodate Indigenous writing systems. Alberta, Ontario and B.C. followed suit.

I identified that by failing to make this simple change, Manitoba was failing on its own Pathway to Reconciliation Act, which “requires each cabinet member to promote measures to advance reconciliation through the work of their department and across government.”

I then called on readers to write to MLAs and bureaucrats. I even provided emails.

Two months later, NDP MLA Ian Bushie introduced a private member’s bill to change the law and accommodate all Indigenous languages.

Heather Stefanson’s Conservative government, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t support it.

Soon after, I was emailed by numerous members in the Vital Statistics Branch and the government, asking for advice while quietly advising me that something was on the way.

Manitoba Labour Minister Reg Helwar introduced Bill 3 (the Vital Statistics Amendment Act – Name Registration) on Thursday, which calls “for all levels of government to enable residential school survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system by waiving administrative costs for a period of five years for the name-change process and the revision of official identity documents, such as birth certificates, passports, driver’s licences, health cards, status cards, and social insurance numbers.”

In other words, a replica of Bushie’s bill.

In his announcement, Helwar credited the “good advice” he received from members of the Indigenous community and other concerned Manitobans.

Ahem, you’re welcome.

As a political strategy, I get it. As everyone knows, Stefanson’s Conservative government is desperate and low in the polls and needs any win it can get.

One might say that a better win on reconciliation might have been putting politics aside and allying with an Indigenous MLA in support of Indigenous parents — but I digress.

Regardless, this bill is a step in the right direction and the right decision in a province where one-fifth of the people are Indigenous.

It is the right thing to do.

So, why do we have to keep making reconciliation political?

So many times, rectifying the past while building relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people simply means the ethical, responsible, and human thing to do.

It’s not an opinion, a debate, or often even a choice.

It’s just the right thing to do.

Who would argue that the Pope coming to Canada to apologize for violence that happened in institutions run by his church is a bad thing?

How about training civil servants on Indigenous history and culture so they can serve one out of every five (or even 10 or 20) of their clients?

What about asking immigrants to recognize they share an oath of citizenship with Canada and Indigenous nations?

All of these are changes that have happened because of decades of lobbying, numerous commissions and inquiries, and so many recommendations and calls to action that it’s dizzying.

Why do governments in Canada feel the need to debate reconciliation and pass laws only when it suits them?

Of course, I know the answer.

It costs money to replace computers that only provide services for European languages.

It also costs Canada when human and Indigenous rights cases end up at the Supreme Court. So, frankly, it’s much cheaper in the long run to just do the right thing.

Maybe, that’s the problem: the long run.

No government in Canada — federal, provincial, or municipal — is built for the long run. They are built for quick, populist, four-year terms — half of which are spent running for re-election.

This is why small steps, such as enabling computers to add a few characters to include Indigenous languages, happen far more than big ones such as returning stolen land, replacing the Indian Act, or implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It’s in these latter changes where truth, justice, and a path forward for this country will be found.

Recognizing that Indigenous parents should have a right to name their children according to the languages their ancestors carried for millennia means treating them like human beings.

Reconciliation is more than that.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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