Government pledges to expedite reclamation of traditional names

OTTAWA – Citing an individual’s name as “being fundamental to who they are,” and that “Indigenous names are endowed with deep cultural meaning and speak to Indigenous peoples’ presence on this land since time immemorial,” the federal government announced that not only would it be moving to implement Action 17 of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, it would put in place the means to enable residential school survivors and their families to reclaim and use their Indigenous names on all government documents—free of charge.

The announcement, made by the Honourable Marco E. L. Mendicino, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, and the Honourable Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous services, goes a step further than Action 17 (which specifically referenced passports) to include travel documents, citizenship certificates and permanent resident cards, not only for residential school survivors and their families, but for all Indigenous peoples.

The aim of the move, noted the government, is to overturn the impact of colonialism that has prevented the recognition of Indigenous names.

According to a government press release, in order to facilitate the reclamation of Indigenous names, the government has streamlined the process of reclamation to be faster and more efficient for applicants. This service will be provided free of charge for five years.

The release notes that in 2015, the prime minister made a commitment to implement all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations involving the Government of Canada—and asserts that over the past few years, the government  has been hard at work to make that happen. 

“Supporting First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in reclaiming and using their Indigenous names is an integral part of the shared journey of reconciliation,” said Minister Mendicino. “Traditional names are deeply connected to Indigenous languages and cultures and an individuals’ identity and dignity. This change means that Indigenous peoples can proudly reclaim their name, dismantling the legacy of colonialism and reflecting their true identity to the world.”

Dr. Alan Corbiere has spent a lifetime researching the history and names of the Anishinaabeg. Travelling the world to catalogue and repatriate artifacts.

“Today’s announcement represents an important step in reversing colonial policies and restoring dignity and pride in the identity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people,” said Minister Bennett. “Supporting Indigenous peoples in reclaiming their Indigenous names is vital to achieving meaningful and lasting reconciliation as we work to implement the TRC’s Calls to Action.”

“For far too long, Canada’s colonial legacy has disrupted Indigenous peoples’ Indigenous naming practices and family connections from being recognized,” said Minister Miller. “Today’s announcement creates the space for all First Nations, Inuit and Métis to reclaim their traditional identity and the dignity of their Indigenous names on status cards, Canadian passports and other immigration documents, including travel documents, citizenship certificates and permanent resident cards. We will continue to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and renew our nation-to-nation Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada.”

While lauding the move as long overdue, Anishinaabe historian Dr. Alan Corbiere said that it isn’t that simple, noting that it may take more than a little effort to reclaim an Indigenous name.

Dr. Corbiere noted that researching one’s historical name is confounded in part by cultural differences. “We did not have surnames as they are practiced along patrilineal lines in Western European traditions,” he said. “Each person would have their own given name at birth, but their surname would be their clan.”

Literal translations of Anishinaabe names also presents challenges, he pointed out. A lot of people get their names in English, then those names are translated into Anishinaabemowin producing unwieldy and long appellations. In the actual tradition, those names actually were much shorter, almost like a nickname—but with a significant difference.

One example would be White-eyed Crow Woman, an unwieldy name when translated back into Anishinaabemowin, “but if you knew the spirit that name references, it would have its own name,” he said, and those shorter names brought with them a lot of spiritual attachments that would be well-known to everyone in the community.

Another complicating factor is that translations can be very misleading or downright nonsensical. Dr. Corbiere used the name Buffalo Sky as an example. “I don’t know what that means,” he said. “If it was buffalo shaped cloud then you could understand, but buffalo and sky don’t go together,” he said.

Also making research a challenge is that changes in names usually came about during an initial baptism, and as such they carry marks relevant to the particular Christian denomination in which the family forebearer was christened.

“The word Ojibwe is spelt four different ways,” he pointed out. “The ‘e’ ending is Catholic, while the ‘a’ ending is Anglican, ‘ay’ is Methodist, if I remember correctly off the top of my head.”

Making a policy decision might seem simple, but like everything involving the impact of colonialism, the details can be devilish.

The implementation will not be as simple as it might seem from high atop Parliament Hill, according to Dr. Corbiere. Simply making it possible (and even free) to change the name printed on government documents belies the time and expense involved in reclaiming a traditional name, he noted. Still, Dr. Corbiere said that the move was definitely being made in the right direction.