When survivor Peter Nakogee first went to St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., he spoke no English and had a different name.
“I got the nun really mad that I was writing in Cree. And then I only knew my name was Ministik,” he told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.
“From the first time I heard my name, my name was Ministik. So I was whipped again because I didn’t know my name was Peter Nakogee.”
Decades after that trauma, hurdles to having his original name reflected in federal identification are at last being removed.
The federal government announced Monday that Indigenous people can now apply to reclaim their traditional names on passports and other government ID.
The move comes in response to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 that demanded governments allow survivors and their families to restore names changed by the residential school system.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the announcement goes a step further, as it applies to all individuals of First Nations, Inuit and Métis background, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of people who aim to reclaim their identity on official documents.
All fees will be waived for the name-changing process, which pertains to passports, citizenship certificates and permanent resident cards, said Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino.
“The traditional names given to Indigenous children carry deep cultural meaning. Yet for many First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, colonialism has robbed them of these sacred names,” Mendicino said at a news conference Monday.
“At times, efforts to use traditional names have been met with everything from polite rejection to racism.”
The move to clear those barriers follows last month’s news that ground-penetrating radar detected what are believed to be the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The new policy, effective immediately, was one of multiple announcements that landed the same day that Ottawa heads back to the courtroom to fight a pair of rulings involving First Nations children.
In a judicial review being heard in Federal Court on Monday, the federal government is arguing against Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decisions regarding compensation for First Nations children in foster care and the expansion of Jordan’s Principle to children who live off reserves.
Miller said Monday the ruling ordering Ottawa to pay $40,000 each to some 50,000 First Nations children separated from their families by a chronically underfunded child-welfare regime, and to each of their parents or grandparents, “doesn’t respect basic principles of proportionality.”
Every First Nations child who has suffered discrimination “at the hands of a broken child-welfare system” will be “fairly, justly and equitably compensated,” he said.
Most of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action remain unfulfilled, though cabinet ministers pointed to a pair of bills that would incorporate Indigenous rights into the oath of citizenship and align Canada’s laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Bill C-8 on the citizenship oath has passed the Senate and awaits royal assent, while the UNDRIP provisions of C-15 continue to work their way through the upper chamber.
Mendicino also said his department continues to work on updating Canada’s citizenship guide to emphasize “the role and stories of Indigenous peoples, including those parts that relate to residential schools.” The revised document will be released “very shortly,” he said.
He did not say whether Indigenous individuals would have to provide proof of Indigenous identity, but Miller said officials “want to cut out the red tape.”
In a further effort to demonstrate action, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault announced later on Monday the first commissioner of Indigenous languages, along with directors of the new office.
Chief Ronald E. Ignace of the Secwepemc Nation has been appointed to the lead role, with Robert Watt, Georgina Liberty and Joan Greyeyes named as directors.
Miller acknowledged that some for some, the newly opened door to name-changing may not be sufficient.
“The approach to the Canadian passport with many communities is different. Some reject it, as they reject Canadian identity, so this doesn’t solve that issue,” he said.
“But what it does offer is people that choose the Canadian passport can now see their Indigenous name reflected in it, which is not only a symbolic issue but a matter of profound identity.”
—Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press