B.C. parents launch court action over rejection of baby’s Indigenous name

A couple in Campbell River, B.C., has launched a court action against the provincial government after it refused to register their infant’s name due to its Kwak’wala lettering.

Crystal Smith and Raymond Shaw say they won’t register nine-month-old λugʷaləs K’ala’ask Shaw until B.C.’s Vital Statistics Agency can accept his name as written.

That agency is now named in a petition to the court alleging the refusal violates their freedom of expression rights, and constitutional protection from discrimination.

“It shouldn’t be this hard. λugʷaləs is a beautiful name, a powerful name, and it deserved to be recognized,” Smith said.

λugʷaləs K’ala’ask Shaw was born on Jan. 12 to a Ts’msyen and Haisla mother and a Liǧʷiłdax̌ʷ father from the Wei Wai Kum First Nation.

λugʷaləs is the name of a mountain in nearby Loughborough Inlet, in unceded Wei Wai Kum territory, meaning “the place people were blessed.” Shaw’s great-grandmother was born near the head of the inlet and the couple said they wanted little λugʷaləs to be rooted in his territory and connected to his ancestors.

His second name, Kwak’wala, means “river” in Sm’algyax.

“It is important to Ms. Smith and Mr. Shaw that their son have a traditional name so that they as a family can continue to reclaim and revitalize their languages,” the Oct. 5 court petition reads.

“They foresee that he will grow up in Liǧʷiłdax̌ʷ territory and, by giving him a place name, they believe that it grounds him and conveys to him that the land on which he lives is his.”

According to the petition, Smith made an application to the Vital Statistics Agency after λugʷaləs was born, noting that his birth was not “actioned” as payment had not gone through. The agency’s letter about the payment issue, she noticed, had spelled λugʷaləs’ name wrong in the subject line.

On Feb. 16, the mom of three submitted a second application for a birth certificate and registration at the Service BC location in Campbell River, including a brief cover letter explaining the languages and characters of λugʷaləs’ name.

About a month later, Smith received a letter from the registrar stating that the Vital Statistics Agency was unable to accept λugʷaləs’ name, as its systems would not accept the symbols or reproduce them on identification such as a driver’s license or health card.

The registrar’s letter included alternative options for expressing λugʷaləs’ name, such as “Aug’walas” or “Augwalas.” Smith and Shaw say those alternatives were offensive and colonial.

“Living in this time in which the government talks a lot about reconciliation, talks a lot about recognizing Indigenous people – this just shows me, you know – we’re not there,” Smith said.

Smith’s lawyer inquired on April 4 as to whether λugʷaləs’ birth name had been registered, and was informed once more, that his name did not meet the agency’s naming standards.

In addition to alleging the Vital Statistics Agency breached their constitutional rights, Shaw and Smith claim it was not within the registrar’s rights to deny the registration, given that he did not raise concerns with the truth and sufficiency of their statement. If the registrar had deemed the name “objectionable,” the petition adds, he would have been required by law to register the birth without the name, which he did not.

The B.C. government recently released an action plan for implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which Canada ratified in June 2021. One of the steps in that plan is to adopt an “inclusive digital font” that allows Indigenous languages to be included in official records.

Kwak’wala is also taught in some public schools in B.C., the petition notes, and is therefore used and recognized by its Ministry of Education.

Global News has requested a comment from B.C.’s Vital Statistics Agency.

Since January, Smith and Shaw have been forced to pay out of pocket for λugʷaləs’ medical expenses because he does not have a B.C. services card under his name.

Their court action seeks both compensation for costs and an order requiring the registrar to accept their application to register him, and to do so.

The B.C. government has 21 days from the date it was served the petition to respond unless a different deadline is set by the court.

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