On paper and to people who only know her by her government IDs, she is Michelle Nahanee.
To everyone else, she is Ta7talíya Nahanee.
And yes, there’s a number 7 in the ancestral name she’s given by her Indigenous family in the Squamish Nation in North Vancouver. The number 7 is actually a “glottal stop, similar to the stop in the middle of the word oh-oh!” and the name is pronounced Ta-ta-li-ya.
After carrying her English colonial name Michelle in her IDs all her life, Nahanee was excited when she heard in June about the federal government’s new process to allow Indigenous Peoples, residential school survivors and their families to reclaim their Indigenous names on passports, travel documents, citizenship certificates and permanent resident cards.
But the Vancouver-based facilitator and strategist, whose work is meant to help undo colonial practices and impacts, says she was disappointed when she learned government systems can only print in Roman alphabet with French accents, meaning names with numbers and Indigenous characters and symbols won’t be accommodated.
“It’s just another one of these announcements of the government patting itself on the back for acts of reconciliation and yet without the actual fulfilment of that reconciliation,’” Nahanee said.
In June, within weeks of the gruesome discoveries of 200 potential unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Ottawa announced it would make the standard name change process simpler for reclamation of Indigenous names on various valid immigration documents free of charge — a response to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendation.
“We call upon 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 licenses, health cards, status cards, and social insurance numbers,” the commission said among its 94 calls to action in 2015.
It’s turned out to be a harder process than expected.
The immigration department said its document-issuance systems can only print Roman alphabet with some French accents, as well as three symbols: apostrophe, hyphen and period. Numbers in names are not part of its functionality.
That’s because its systems must abide by the current International Civil Aviation Organization standards to ensure all passports and travel documents are machine-readable since they are used in computer systems by domestic and foreign border-control agencies, airlines and airports for ticket purchasing, reservations and boarding card printing.
“All systems that handle passenger data, including personal identity information, follow the ICAO standards. This makes sure no matter where someone travels, their passport or travel document works across computer systems,” said immigration department spokesperson Nancy Caron.
During government consultations with organizations representing Indigenous communities, she said, participants did not raise concerns around the use of the Roman alphabet. Officials would not disclose which organizations were part of the consultations.
University of Manitoba professor Frank Deer said language is one of the fundamental elements of any national identity that “stores something” about a person’s cultural identity, communal identity, as well as their own personal histories.
“When people are concerned about names, they appear to me to be concerned about elements of those different identities,” said Deer, who specializes in Indigenous language education and identity studies.
Himself a Mohawk from Kahnawake in Quebec, he said there has been a growing awareness and interests of the Canadian Indigenous experience, but each community and nation is at different stages of the journey of reclamation.
For example, Deer has always had his Mohawk name, Aronhiótas, in his government-issued IDs and most of his people do not have an issue with reclaiming their traditional names. Whether to do it is also a personal choice and has much to do with individual life experiences.
“For some young people, there is a bit of shyness or nervous sort of orientation toward using their Indigenous name in a community that might not understand the importance of it. Maybe some are concerned about ridicule,” Deer said.
“There was a time when I was younger where I certainly was very nervous about being expressive about my national cultural background.
“(Now) I’m older and I’m quite proud of myself. It is a personal choice, but that personal choice is informed by certain things based on where you are and who you’re with — that sort of thing.”
Nahanee’s birth name, Michelle, was given to her by her grandparents and father, who all endured residential schools and didn’t want their children to stand out and suffer as a result of having a traditional name, she said.
“A lot of Indigenous people at that time were just going through so much, having their children taken away and brought back in very rough shape,” she said.
“So there’s this direct disconnection, forced disconnection from their culture. And basically, they’re brainwashed into believing that their Indigenous language is not valuable.”
Ancestral names are sacred and often inherited and carried through family lines or given when the person is “ready” to take a name in different phases of life, but how and why a person receives a name varies across Indigenous cultures, Nahanee said.
Nahanee has two Indigenous names. She “received” her first one from a respected Squamish language teacher in 2003 in a ceremony for the whole family to honour her late grandparents.
That name — a translation of the childhood nickname her grandfather gave her — is so sacred to her that she only uses it when she’s with close family members in private.
She only acquired her second Indigenous name, Ta7talíya, three years ago at another naming ceremony just for her and her daughter.
While these ceremonies vary from community to community, at Nahanee’s, witnesses were called to remember her name and share teachings about the meaning of carrying the name. During the ceremony, she and her daughter wore new regalia and stood on wool blankets to signify walking into a new life with the name. They also hosted a feast and a giveaway for guests and witnesses.
“So it was a marking. It’s a connection and a protection for you. It also comes with what we call teachings that tell us how to care for the name and how to be our best person,” she said. “You want to take care of the name and you want to carry the name forward, so the next generations have that name. You build a legacy with that name.”
Then in 2018, she had a reckoning of her Squamish name while attending a conference and introducing herself on a panel in her what was her limited ability with her native language. Suddenly, she said, she heard a voice from her ancestor asking her, “Who are you?”
Nahanee said she felt that was a message to learn more about her heritage language in order to stand stronger with her Indigenous identity. The next day, she shared that spiritual experience with her uncle, who also had an admonition: It was time for her to take an ancestral name.
Later, she visited all her other family members to ask for the permission to use the five-generation-old name “Ta7talíya,” to make sure she was deserving of it. On the winter solstice of that year, she received the name at a ceremony and family feast. From that moment, she began to ask everyone she meets to address her by her “rebirth” name.
Nahanee has tried to update her name in email addresses and Facebook or fill out online forms with her Indigenous name but they wouldn’t take the “7” or the accent of the “í.”
“For a while, I would spend the time to write to people and say, ‘I try to fill out your form but it wouldn’t accept my name. Can you change the form?’” she recalled.
“That’s a lot of my time, and I just decided I’m not gonna keep pushing this.”
Then Nahanee saw a LinkedIn post by Burnaby-based immigration lawyer Will Tao of Heron Law Offices about its pro-bono project to help members of the Indigenous community reclaim their traditional names under Ottawa’s new program. And the two connected.
In the wake of the Kamloops discovery, Tao said, he and his team felt strongly about their collective responsibility as settlers on stolen land to offer support, and the project came naturally for them as experts in immigration law and operations.
It didn’t take them long to realize all the hurdles and barriers applicants face in the name-reclaiming process that go beyond the limitations on characters.
All applicants, for instance, must first navigate a cumbersome provincial name-change process as a prerequisite to reclaim their names on passports, citizenship certificates and Indian status cards.
“What complicates this further is that many folks may have been born in a different province and have or need documentation from that province for the application,” Tao explained.
“Many provinces did not even post the process for Indigenous name changes, so we had to reach out to those provinces to figure out how to do it.”
Each province also has different rules on who can receive fee waivers, while the federal government does it free of charge. In B.C., for example, applicants also require an affidavit to prove one is connected to Indian residential schools or the “Sixties scoop.”
In Ontario, residential school survivors and family can reclaim their Indigenous names for free until January 2022. They can change to a single name, if it is part of your traditional culture or the child’s traditional culture, with evidence supporting the naming practice.
You will not be charged a fee for a name change from now until January 2022.
“We are seeing many individuals who contact us not go ahead or proceed,” said Tao, whose office is currently working on four applications.
He said the federal government needs to push the provinces to align policies and make this program more accessible, and maybe provide in-person support and guidance via Service Canada or those administering the Indian status cards.
Deer, the professor from Manitoba, said the Indigenous name reclamation is going to have positive impact toward reconciliation, a journey that never ends.
“That’s not something you flip the switch and you will achieve reconciliation. That journey might require these steps, these initiatives to engage people and on topics that really matter to them,” he said.
“The government bureaucrats who are responsible for bringing these things to life are also on a journey,” Deer added. “It would be a lofty goal to expect a Canadian government, whatever orientation, Liberal, NDP, whatever, to get this right, right away.”
According to the immigration department, as of July 30, it has received fewer than five requests for replacement passports issued in reclaimed Indigenous names. There has been no such request for replacement permanent resident cards or citizenship certificates.
Nahanee said she’s not surprised with the low uptake and hopes both the federal and provincial governments recognize the significance of the name change to Indigenous communities.
“For me, being able to use my name Ta7talíya on my driver’s licence and my passport allows me to show up in the world as a whole human as who I fully am. When I’m only able to show up as Michelle, really that’s just one part of who I am,” she said.
What’s also significant in reclaiming the Indigenous name, said Nahanee, is the cultural shift that comes with the visibility of these traditional names in the colonial world.
“My name actually is not that hard to pronounce and how easy you can move beyond your fear by saying Ta7talíya versus being stalled by the 7,” said Nahanee, whose first name is pronounced with the number being silent.
“If all of us are able to share with the world every time we show our ID, it just opens up that normalizing Indigenous language, normalizing Indigenous teachings and normalizing Indigenous ways. So please make policy that works for us.”