"It's important to me because that's our language," said Shene Catholique-Valpy. "I'm keeping it alive through her."
Catholique-Valpy and her partner are going to school in Red Deer, Alta., but the two decided before the birth of their baby last year to return to their Yellowknife home so their child would have an N.W.T. birth certificate. After her daughter was born on Feb. 15, 2014, Valpy decided she wanted to give her a traditional Chipewyan name.
The name she chose means "when the sun peaks through."
Spelling it properly requires a character that doesn't exist in the Roman alphabet. Resembling a question mark without a period at the bottom, the character signifies a glottal stop in pronunciation.
The closest normal keyboards can come is Sahai?a, roughly pronounced "sah-HYE'-uh" — "kind of like an uhhh at the end of it," Catholique-Valpy said.
The territory's Vital Statistics Department told her she couldn't register her baby under that name. It said Roman characters are legally required for names because they have to appear on official federal documents.
"Our research to date has shown that the letters and symbols used on a birth certificate have to be recognized by the federal government for a passport to be issued," said department spokesman Damien Healy in an email.
"Using letters or symbols that are not recognized by the federal government — or by other jurisdictions in Canada — on a birth certificate would create difficulties with obtaining identification documents later in life."
Sahai?a has never been legally registered, which means her mother can't get a health card for her daughter and has had to pay out of pocket for medical expenses. She also can't claim Sahai?a as a dependent for tax purposes.
"I'm a student and only one of us works, so it's a bit much."
Part of the reason she's adamant to call her daughter by a Chipewyan name is that her own traditional name was lost.
"Catholique" — now a common name in the N.W.T. — was originally "Gahdele," which was misheard and mistranslated by missionary priests.
Catholique-Valpy said she didn't think her daughter's name would cause such difficulties. Nine of the territory's 11 official languages are aboriginal and it's common to see non-standard characters on documents and buildings.
Healy said the department is working with Ottawa to see if it's possible to allow such characters on official documents. The issue raises both technical and economic issues, he said.
"In the event that the fonts cannot be accepted by the federal government, the department will have to continue to produce a birth certificate that only includes the Roman alphabet," he said.
"Producing two legal documents such as a birth certificate is not doable."
Catholique-Valpy has hired a lawyer.
She realizes her daughter will eventually have to use a Roman spelling, if only so she can do things like buy an airplane ticket to visit her grandparents in Yellowknife. But acknowledgment of the aboriginal name would be nice.
"I'm going to try and get both spellings on her birth certificate."
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960
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