Manitoba looks to change Vital Statistics Act to accept traditional Indigenous names with new law

Traditional Indigenous names spelled with accents and symbols could soon be recognized formally in Manitoba.

The Progressive Conservative government introduced a bill on Thursday to amend the Vital Statistics Act to recognize these names.

“Names are very personal to families and individuals, important to everybody, including myself, yourself,” said Labour Minister Reg Helwer, who tabled the proposed legislation.

“It’s not just Indigenous names, but that is, of course, the main content of the bill.”

When registering a child’s birth currently, the given name and surname must consist only of the letters A to Z, and only accents from English and French, but may include hyphens and apostrophes, according to the Vital Statistics Act. 

But some symbols are not included, which the proposed legislation would change.

Earlier this year, CBC Indigenous reported on a First Nations couple in Manitoba seeking a change to the law.

Parents Carson Robinson and Zaagaate Jock couldn’t get their daughter’s name, Atetsenhtsén:we, spelled correctly on Manitoba birth certificates, because the colon symbol isn’t an option. 

Atetsenhtsén:we translates to “forever healing medicine” in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language. 

In May, the Opposition NDP took on the family’s campaign and introduced a private member’s bill to make the necessary changes to the Vital Statistics Act. 

Ian Bushie, the NDP critic for Indigenous reconciliation, said his bill was inspired by the family’s story.

Robinson, the girl’s father, said the colon symbol helps people to pronounce the name in the Mohawk language. 

Zaagaate Jock holds her newborn, Atetsenhtsén:we, while her partner, Carson Robinson, addresses the media during a May news conference. At the time, the Opposition NDP introduced a private member’s bill, which MLA Ian Bushie said was ‘really inspired by their story.’ (Ian Froese/CBC)

“We’re looking to end that sort of way of thinking between you need to name your baby either in English or in French. We want to be able to name our baby how we see fit in our traditional ways and our traditional ways of living.”

At the time, the government said it was looking to amend the act, but would consult with Indigenous groups and others first.

If the bill passes, the legislation would allow for colons, semicolons and periods in names.

The text of the legislation provides various types of letters and diacritics that could be used as examples, though the bill gives government the power to add additional characters that may have been missed through future regulatory changes. 

The bill also permits a person to be registered under a single name, in accordance with their traditional culture, rather than requiring both a given name and a surname.

Families can provide documentation to support their request for a traditional name, but it is not required.

Helwer wasn’t sure how many Manitobans might explore the new naming options. He said some might try to reclaim their original names, while others may test the boundaries.

“We’re trying to make it as open as possible for people, but with the caution that the federal government does not yet recognize many of these names that people may register,” Helwer said.

The NDP’s Bushie said in a statement the ability to use traditional names will work to counter the harmful legacy of residential schools.

“As an Indigenous MLA, I was proud to introduce a bill to do this. It’s disappointing the PCs would rather score the win than partner with an Indigenous person on a bill that takes a step forward in reconciliation.” 

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