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.