Pouring over documents about 15 years ago with her mother in Alberta, Danita Bilozaze saw the name of her great-grandfather.
Except it wasn’t his name.
The man the Canadian government registered as Loth was actually Lor Bilozaze. The government changed it to Loth Bilozaze and eventually shortened it just to Loth, which became the family’s last name. And that government-created name — a name neither she nor her mother have felt a connection with — was also assigned to his children on their birth certificates.
For Bilozaze, who is Dene, the find began a life-changing discussion about Indigenous names, how they were changed by the federal government and Indian Agents and how they need to be reclaimed.
“I decided that I’m going to do this,” says Bilozaze who resides in the Comox Valley. “With the TRC I was hoping it would make it more accessible; I did some research and there wasn’t much available.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of Canada’s Calls to Action 17 calls upon all levels of government to enable residential school survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system by waiving administrative costs for a period of five years for the name-change process and the revision of official identity documents, such as birth certificates, passports, drivers’ licences, health cards, status cards and social insurance numbers.
Bilozaze began the lengthy, bureaucratic — and ultimately history-making — process of reclaiming her name in Sept. 2020 where she began with a fingerprint and criminal record check with the Comox Valley RCMP. It was there when she explained her story and photos to the agent at the detachment who told her she felt bad that as a Canadian, she didn’t know much of the history of Indigenous people within the country.
“I quickly realized this is no longer my story, and that I was creating space.”
• • •
A visit to a Service BC Centre to get her name legally changed was a small victory; Bilozaze’s mother was able to be a witness to the paperwork and be part of the process.
It was a moment of celebration, but at the same time, a moment when she knew the true work was about to begin.
She spent one month communicating back and forth with the Alberta government to get her birth certificate changed, something the government insisted she had to pay. She sent links, resources and information on the TRC Calls to Action, hoping that would make a difference, despite her feeling that it ws not her role to educate others, particularly those in government.
“It was then I realized I had to do things differently — I had to level up,” Bilozaze notes. She reached out to the ministry who replied with an apology and acknowledged more training needed to happen.
“They took total responsibility for the treatment … and within (a short time), my birth certificate was sent. If this was my mom (going through the process), she would have given up, an Elder may have given up. We need to do better.”
With her new birth certificate, Bilozaze was able to proceed with other paperwork; She was able to have her three university degrees changed, and then approached the Land Title and Survey Authority to ensure her home was in her reclaimed name.
She received a letter back from the corporation asking for Bilozaze to provide the relevant legislation and information.
“Why do I have to educate you?” she asked. “Eventually I got two letters back telling me I had to pay a fee; I wasn’t surprised. I’m dragging Canadians along with me.”
After speaking with the minister’s office, she was provided with an exemption. Following another month, she requested her legal name change documentation — which the ministry had in their possession — be returned in order for her to continue changing additional paperwork.
“I sent it in mint condition, and it came back torn, burnt and tattered. It says on the back if it’s altered in any way, it’s not valid … this is a really good training opportunity for that agency.”
She received a written apology from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (responsible for the legislative framework of B.C.’s land title and survey systems).
Finally, Bilozaze tackled her passport – a critically important document as travel is a significant part of her and her family’s lifestyle. As directed by the local Service Canada office, she was advised to visit the office in person in Victoria.
Facing bureaucratic stalemates and contradictory information, Bilozaze, with documents in hand, caught the attention of a supervisor at the office who offered to take a second look.
“I was so angry ….and I wasn’t leaving until this was going to get sorted out. (My daughter and I) waited for about 30 minutes while everyone was in the back looking up the TRC. This is emotional; it’s taking a toll on my health and spirit. I don’t want to fight, but I have to.”
Eventually, Bilozaze did receive her passport and was told she is the first person in Canada to do so with her reclaimed name under the TRC Calls to Action. She credits the supervisor at the Service Canada office in Victoria for her compassion and willingness to learn.
“She said words like diversity and inclusion are just words and wants to see the action behind it. She was empathetic and was in constant contact with me every day. This is a really good opportunity for training and it has gotten national attention (in federal offices).”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the department which oversees Passport Canada, said in a statement to Black Press Media to date, they have received two requests for replacement passports issued in reclaimed Indigenous names and the passports were re-issued at no cost to the clients.
“Indigenous peoples have called this land home since time immemorial, and all Canadians have a role to play on the shared journey of reconciliation,” said a spokesperson with the department in an email.
“IRCC’s approach to the reclaiming of Indigenous names will be consistent with that laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 17 enabling Indigenous peoples, residential school survivors and their families to reclaim their Indigenous name, for free for a period of five-years on replacement travel documents, Canadian passports, citizenship certificates and permanent residence cards.”
• • •
Bilozaze’s grandmother, who attended Blue Quills residential school near St. Paul, AB, was at the forefront of her mind during the entire name reclamation process. Her grandmother attended the school for most of her childhood, and she reflects back on the loss of her childhood and thinks about her own daughter’s future.
She wants her daughter to know if something is unacceptable, to keep pushing for what is right.
“There is a huge opportunity for learning here, and we all have a lot of work to do. I would 100 per cent go through (the process) again, but I would level up sooner. There’s changes and opportunities to make it right.
“There are so many resources out there – the TRC website, the book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, and locally the cultural program Potlatch 67-67 in our school district. Part of being a Canadian citizen is having the responsibility taken off our shoulders and everyone needs to feel that responsibility as deeply as we do. We all have to go backward in order to go forward.”
In response to the TRC’s Calls to Action, several provinces and territories have waived fees for certain name changes for Indigenous name reclamation and to correct historical errors. In October 2018, the Northwest Territories changed their policy so that people can apply until October 2023 to reclaim their names. Ontario introduced its policy in January 2017 and Nova Scotia did the same in July 2019.
The cost of changing a name in B.C. is $137, with additional costs of fingerprinting, a criminal record check, certifying documents and additional new identification not included.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Health, which is responsible for the Vital Statistics Agency in the province said B.C. does waive the fee but did not confirm if it is a province-wide policy or if it is reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.