Why ‘Standardization’ Means One Woman Can’t Have Her Name On Her Passport

In 1998’s excellent Seeing Like A State, James Scott walks through how government social plans strive to standardize weights, measures, and statistics while losing complex interdependencies, privileging formal, epistemic knowledge over local, practical knowledge.

When government knew little about its subjects, their location, and their wealth it was difficult to monitor, tax, and regulate. Over time we saw the development of permanent last names, land surveys and population measures, and standard weights. We get planned transportation networks. Local systems and customers were mapped onto more standard grids that allowed for central recording. State institutions seek to order nature and society.

And that, it seems, is why one woman can’t have her name printed on a passport.

Ta7talíya Nahanee‘s Canadian passport actually says Michelle Nahanee. Her given name includes the number 7 in it, given to her by her “Indigenous family in the Squamish Nation in North Vancouver.” It’s pronounced as a “glottal stop, similar to the stop in the middle of the word oh-oh!” and her “name is pronounced Ta-ta-li-ya.”

Even though Canada’s government has a new process specifically for Indigenous Peoples to “reclaim their Indigenous names on passports,” hers has been rejected.

[S]he 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.

Canada’s immigration agency says its documents aren’t actually limited just to the Roman alphabet because they also support “some French accents” along with apostrophes, hyphens, and periods. They just do not support numbers. And they blame it on the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization. By the way airline systems didn’t used to support genders other than male or female but those systems were updated.

Governments need standardization. Standardization is easier for the user, but loses something for the person being standardized. And that’s even true when the government makes an effort at inclusion.

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.

The government has “received fewer than five requests for replacement passports issued in reclaimed Indigenous names.” On the one hand, so few requests may explain why there’s no outcry the bureaucracy is responsive to for making the process easier. On the other hand, the unresponsive bureaucracy may be why there have been so few completed requests.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Like most things, it’s a tradeoff. Remember when Prince decided to forgo the whole name thing in favor of a symbol, then when that didn’t work the world took to calling him TAFKAP, then he finally pretty much settled back into Prince again?

  2. When I first travelled to Europe with my parents in 1960, my mother and father had a joint passport. I haven’t heard of that since. I remember the story because my mother wanted to purchase something, and my father had the passport. She wasn’t allowed to use her travelers checks (remember them?) because she didn’t have the passport with her.

  3. When I first travelled to Europe with my parents in 1960, my mother and father had a joint passport. I haven’t heard of that since. I remember the story because my mother wanted to purchase something, and my father had the passport. She wasn’t allowed to use her travelers checks (remember them?) because she didn’t have the passport with her.

  4. I don’t think it’s something Canada has entirely within it’s power. ICAO 9303 does allow Latin diacriticals from French, English, or Spanish, as well as Arabic, Greek, and Cyrillic but the machine readable section is limited to A-Z and 0-9 and <

    There needs to be a transliteration from the printed name to the machine readable part, and airline ticket to passport matching can cause problems when the machine readable part of the passport doesn't match the ticket. Numbers are not allowed in the machine readable part of the name, so a transliteration to someone else is required, and would need to be standardized or dropped.

  5. Then she can get a passport from her chief
    I live in Vancouver, and this BS is just one example of the stuff that goes on, like announcements in schools that “we are in the land of this tribe or that tribe” and so on and so on
    canadians live toi apologize

  6. Now that white canadians have already given up, I Can’t wait until indigenous tribes start fighting each other again claiming one tribe took their land before them. We are seriously regressing as a western society, and china will steamroll us all.

  7. This is not the first ICAO 9303 related issue that has arisen in various parts of the world, nor is it the last. The reason that 9303 exists though is to ensure that these things remain local issues and are not internationalized. Imagine the potential issues if every symbolic system could be used on travel documents. There has to be a global standard and 9303 establishes it. Whether that standard can be improved upon is a separate discussion (hint : even getting 9303 agreed upon was a nightmare so I’m not holding my breath), but the need for a common global standard definitely does exist.

  8. Georgia’s DMV cannot handle spaces in last names. The choice given is either to eliminate the space or substitute a hyphen. That’s a pretty big problem for many people with surnames of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, or Dutch origin, among others.

  9. Ever see some Asian names translated to English…. it just does not work. I know many who use “English” names rather then their given first names because it just does not work well in English. Know two people who go by the name David but their passport has their given name. My father had two middle names but the Navy dropped one and that ended that. David Thomas Robert Smith. became David Thomas Smith. (not real name) , A professor had the name Solomon Solomon. First and Last were the same. Knew a Mister Wright his dad was Doctor Wright. You know how that works on BA’s ticket Mr. Mister Wright. Mr. Doctor Wright. (he was a mailman).

    The Internal Revenue Service looks at the first 4 letters of your first name and the first 4 letters of your last name THAT IS IT and compares it to your SS#. No #%@@#342 allowed . … your return will be rejected. and c/o is changed to % NO Periods in St. just ST

    Computers can not understand those extra things. It is like making a government official do their job …. too complicated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *