Battle to Use One Name Won After 26 Years
After waiting 20 years, on January 25, 2017, a young woman from Kawehnoke received news of receiving her birth certificate. She is now legally recognized as Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha NLN. The acronym is just as important as her name; NLN stands for ‘No Last Name’. In challenging the existing legislation she and her family refused to add a surname to her Kaniekehaka name and instead chose to honor it, and to fight for it.
Historically and culturally, this reflects the common practice of using only one name. Names are given through the mother’s side, with each name being unique and for only one living person at a time. Each clan has their own collection of names that echo the characteristics of their clan.
Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha and her Ista began this journey twenty years ago and up until 2001, using an official birth certificate from the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs worked fine. Until 9/11. Then Canada and CBSA viewed anyone with an official birth certificate issued outside the Province of Ontario as a threat.
In 2014, Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha, along with her mother Sheree Bonaparte started by filing a formal complaint with Canada Human Rights. It highlighted the importance of Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha’s name and how this is her identity as a Mohawk woman. The complaint also detailed the difficulties she faced as a result of being unable to obtain a birth certificate.
It took persistence and a deep belief to continue this battle for not only her children and grandchildren, but for all who chose to identify themselves with one name.
Sheree Bonaparte added, “My children have strengthened my heart with their commitment to ensuring our right to choose to use only Kanienkehaka names throughout our lives. Our names are so beautiful, they are complete without any names added to them. Using our Kanienkehaka names will increase our desire to use our language to show respect for the way of life our ancestors lived.”
From there they met with Service Canada. In response to the human rights complaint, the government of Ontario acted expeditiously enough, meeting with the complainant and members of her family and later the Akwesasne community. They conducted a policy review and ultimately made recommendations and amendments to the offending provisions of the Vital Statistics Act. At this point the family attained the services of Gowling WLG. With their legal guidance Ontario Bill 173 was introduced to the Ontario Legislature on February 25, 2016.
This historic landmark case marks a significant victory for Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha. The changes made to Ontario’s Vital Statistics Act allows a person of Aboriginal descent to use one single name as their legal name This also marks a wider victory for Mohawk and Indigenous communities as a whole, as well as individuals of other cultural backgrounds with single-naming traditions.
New York state already recognized the use of one name through the persistence of Iohahiio. However, when his son was born on the northern portion of Akwesasne, Iohahiio ran into the same problems as Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha. With the issuing of an Ontario birth certificate, Iohahiio’s son will now have access to health care, education and hopefully, easier passage through the border.
On April 13, 2016, the Bill passed third reading and shortly thereafter the Bill received Royal Assent.
Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha stated, “I received the birth certificate on January 25, 2017. When my mother told me, I couldn’t believe, I was so amazed. To stand up for our rights and have our voices heard by Canada, and for them to realize the injustice and fix it. It’s an incredible accomplishment, and I hope to see positive changes from Ontario to continue efforts to reconcile with Indigenous people. I hope this helps our people heal and feel stronger with the ability to now be recognized by our Onkwehonwe names. I received congratulations from many people in our community, and a beautiful gift from Shakokwenionkwas (Tom Porter), he was so happy to hear we were able to win this case. He said they tried to fight this issue a long time ago and the government wasn’t ready to change. I would like to say Niawen Shakokwenionkwas, for standing up for our people, being the leader you were destined to be. Following the path Sonkwaiatison planned for you. Without the trail you made, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Our people wouldn’t stand as strong as they do. This win for our Onkwehonwe names, wouldn’t have been won.
And to her Ista, she stated, “You’re an inspiration to me, and the love and gratitude, you showed me with the beautiful gift you gave me, I truly feel the love. I promise you to never give up on our people, and to always stand up for our rights… I stand proud because of you and for you. Kanonronkwa”
Section 14 of the Vital Statistics Act was repealed, such provisions dealing with the process for name changes for children under the age of 12. In its place the new provisions permit the registration of name changes by the Registrar General where sufficient evidence is provided. Further to this, following the registration of a name change, new provisions provide for changes to related documentation. These changes will permit individuals wishing to return to their single, traditional name the opportunity to do so. In the Ontario government effort to reconcile with Indigenous people in the province, the ability for Indigenous people to register a birth or to change their name to, a single name is in accordance with our culture.
In a letter from Minister Marie-France Lalonde, she wrote, “As part of this, we are also communicating with the public, stakeholders and government employees like those working at our ServiceOntario centres to raise awareness of the new rules and ensure a seamless process for acquiring and using a birth certificate with one name. We expect this work to be completed in the next few month.”
The Minister also thanked Ienonhkwa’tsheriiostha and Ms. Bonaparte in their role in bringing forth this important issues with the Ontario government, “Your efforts and advocacy have helped focus our attention on the important issue of traditional single names and we are continuing our work on this as part of reconciliation efforts.”
In their efforts, the family pushed for the recognition of the Mohawk Nation Certificates of Birth without success, from here the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs will need to continue this. The establishment of a process for the primary registration of the births of all Akwesasronon is an issue for community leadership to assert.
The legal recognition of an Aboriginal person using one name is monumental in reclaiming and asserting our identity.