λugʷaləs K’ala’ask Shaw now has his name on his birth certificate.
It only took 13 months of his Campbell River parents’ wrestling with B.C.’s Vital Statistics agency and then finally taking them to court to make it happen.
“We’re super excited and, like, really happy to have received this,” λugʷaləs’ mother, Crystal Smith, said. “But we’re also really wanting to make sure that it’s an opportunity for everyone to get – all Indigenous mothers and adults.”
λugʷaləs was born in Jan. 12, 2022 and Smith and her partner Raymond Shaw went to register him and obtain a birth certificate in February 2022.
Smith and Shaw had planned to give λugʷaləs a traditional name since before he was born. Shaw is Wei Wai Kum (Campbell River), Smith is Tsym’syen and Haisla and has been adopted into the Heiltsuk Nation.
They had discussed the possibility of a traditional name with the head of Shaw’s family. They were particularly interested in a place name from somewhere in the Wei Wai Kum territory. When λugʷaləs was born, they settled on a name of a mountain in Loughborough Inlet that translates to “the place where people were blessed.”
But when they went to register the name using the province’s online registration system, it wouldn’t accept the Kwak’wala characters in the name. So, they sent in a paper copy of the application but that attempt ran into a technical glitch and so they had to re-do it. During the second attempt they pointed out the correspondence had spelled the name wrong. Smith offered to email the name with the proper lettering but was told by the staff member that they couldn’t do that. So, she spelled it all out and the employee wrote that down and said it would take a couple of weeks.
But on March 3, 2022, they received a letter from Registrar General Jack Shewchuk saying the proposed name contravened the Vital Statistics Agency’s current naming standards which only recognizes the standard letters in the Latin alphabet, the standard set of French characters (the acute and grave accents, the circumflex, the umlaut and cedilla) and the use of apostrophes, periods and hyphens as long as they are not next to each other or lead to confusion in interpretation.
The agency offered variations on λugʷaləs’ name that would be acceptable to the system but Smith and Shaw were not willing to compromise, saying at the time, “Yeah, I’m done compromising. Indigenous people have been compromising since colonization happened.”
After more months of Vital Statistics “dragging their feet,” the couple took the agency to court. They filed a petition on Oct. 5, 2022, with the B.C. Supreme Court challenging the agency’s refusal on constitutional grounds.
A birth must be registered before the parents may apply for a birth certificate, which is, in turn, required to apply for other important documents like a social insurance number or a passport.
Earlier this year, Vital Statistics contacted the couple’s lawyers to negotiate a solution and avoid taking the issue to court. A deal was worked out that gives λugʷaləs a birth certificate with his full and proper name and Vital Statistics gets six months to roll out a system that allows everyone to use traditional names. If they don’t do that after six months, the couple can take them back to court.
The couple is happy about their success but Smith emphasizes that this isn’t something the agency should be patting themselves on the back about.
“It’s something that should have been done long time ago,” Smith said. “We shouldn’t have had to fight. We shouldn’t have had to wait this long.”
It’s not even a step in the right direction, she said, they’re really just “turning to the right direction.”
And now that λugʷaləs is getting his birth certificate, his family is preparing for the next bureaucratic battle. This time with the federal passport office.
“So, once we get our certificate, we’ll be applying for a passport and we’re like 90 per cent sure we’re going to get denied,” Smith said. “Once they deny us, we’ll take them to court as well.”
In the meantime, they savour this victory and look forward to everybody benefitting from it.
“But there’s a lot more work to be done and, yeah, it needs to be for everyone, not just λugʷaləs.”