Cheyenne Cunningham speaks the down-river dialect of hən̓q̓əmín̓əm̓, a language she’s been piecing together since she was seven.
Not a single person in her Katzie community, east of Vancouver, is fluent, but she’s been picking it up since taking hən̓q̓əmín̓əm̓ classes at her community school when she was a child.
Cunningham was taught by two teachers who learned from the last two remaining hən̓q̓əmín̓əm̓ speakers, and she is now considered a language keeper in her community.
So when her husband, an electrical engineer, asked for her help naming his new contracting company in hən̓q̓əmín̓əm, she was excited by the opportunity to promote her language.
But when she went online to register the company name — k̓ʷə́yecən, or grizzly bear — on his behalf, she discovered B.C.’s registry doesn’t permit characters that are not part of the Roman alphabet.
“I was just kind of really shocked and a little hurt,” said Cunningham, who is the Indigenous languages program co-ordinator at Simon Fraser University.
Government offered anglicized version of name
The registry service offered her an anglicized version, KYECN, but for Cunningham, it wasn’t an option.
“We are trying to open a business, and because of this small but big barrier, we can’t,” she said.
When she challenged the rejection, a representative from B.C. Registry Services, run by the Ministry of Citizens’ Services, said the only course of action was to sue the provincial government in B.C. Supreme Court, which they said would cost upward of $20,000.
Instead, she filed a discrimination case with B.C.’s Human Rights Tribunal.
This comes more than a year after the B.C. government passed a motion to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which says Indigenous people have a right to revitalize and use their languages, and that governments have an obligation to ensure those rights are protected.
“They can write all of the reports and acts and everything, but if they’re not going to follow through, then they’re just empty promises,” Cunningham said.
‘Outdated computer system’
Laura Track, Cunningham’s lawyer and the director of the human rights clinic at the Community Legal Assistance Society, was baffled to learn about the limitations of B.C.’s registration system.
“I certainly didn’t know that the computer system that the registry used was so outdated that it didn’t recognize any special characters that might appear in Indigenous languages,” Track said.
The language rule is enshrined in law in B.C.’s Business Corporation Act, which states: “A company or extraprovincial company must display its name … in legible English or French characters.”
But Track said the province’s commitment to UNDRIP should compel it to act swiftly to change the outdated laws.
“Amending the Business Corporations Act to remove the requirement that businesses be registered in English or French would be an important step toward implementing UNDRIP in B.C.,” she said.
Cunningham’s case never made it to a tribunal hearing because she opted to settle after being told the provincial government would consider changes to make it more inclusive of Indigenous languages in the registration of business names.
But no solid commitment was made and no timeline was given.
Changing system could take years
In a statement to CBC, the Ministry of Citizens’ Services said that while it understands Cunningham’s frustration, “when considering naming requests, B.C. Registry’s system is limited in the kind of text characters it can process.”
The statement also said that “any changes would require in-depth discussion with other government jurisdictions and agencies across Canada, and with private sector organizations.”
That means Cunningham’s business may not have a Hən̓q̓əmín̓əm̓ name for several years.
“Is this really allowing Indigenous people to use language in all domains of life or are Indigenous peoples once again being restricted?” asked Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, associate professor in the department of language and literacy education and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at UBC.
She said with governments in Canada promising to recognize Indigenous languages, they will have to think about how Indigenous languages can be better represented, whether it is on birth certificates, legal documents, or ID cards, without relying on the Roman alphabet.
In a statement, B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation said that, “the government wants to make sure people can register names in their language. We will keep working hard to improve our systems so they are more inclusive of Indigenous languages.”
As for Cunningham, she’ll keep pushing forward.
“My language is part of my culture, it’s who I am.”