Reclaim your name

by Jo Brodie and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Canadian Passport
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

In June 2021 the Canadian government announced that Indigenous people would be allowed to use their ancestral family names on government-issued identity and travel documents. This meant that, for the first time, they could use the names that are part of their heritage and culture rather than the westernised names that are often used instead. Because of computers, it wasn’t quite as easy as that though …

Some Indigenous people take on a Western name to make things easier, to simplify things for official forms, to save having to spell the name, even to avoid teasing. If it is a real choice then perhaps that is fine, though surely we should be able to make it easy for people to use their actual names. For many it was certainly not a choice, their Indigenous names were taken from them. From the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children in Canada were sent to Western schools and made to take on Western names as part of an attempt to force them to “assimilate” into Western society. Some were even beaten if they did not use their new name. Because their family names had been “officially” changed, they and their descendants had to use these new names on official documents. Names matter. It is your identity, and in some cultures family names are also sacred. Being able to use them matters.

The change to allow ancestral names to be used was part of a reconciliation process to correct this injustice. After the announcement, Ta7talíya Nahanee, an indigenous woman from the Squamish community in Vancouver, was delighted to learn that she would be able to use her real name on her official documents, rather than ‘Michelle’ which she had previously used.

Unfortunately, she was frustrated to learn that travel documents could still only include the Latin alphabet (ABCDEFG etc) with French accents (À, Á, È, É etc). That excluded her name (pronounced Ta-taliya, the 7 is silent) as it contains a number and the letter í. Why? Because the computer said so!

Modern machine-readable passports have a specific area, called the Machine Readable Zone which can be read by a computer scanner at immigration. It has a very limited number of permitted characters. Names which don’t fit need to be “transliterated”, so Å would be written as AA, Ü as UE and the German letter ß (which looks like a B but sounds like a double S) is transliterated as SS. Names are completely rewritten to fit, so Müller becomes MUELLER, Gößmann becomes GOESSMANN, and Hämäläinen becomes HAEMAELAEINEN. If you’ve spent your life having your name adapted to fit someone else’s system this is another reminder of that.

While there are very sensible reasons for ensuring that a passport from one part of the world can be read by computers anywhere else, this choice of characters highlights that, in order to make things work, everyone else has been made to fall in line with the English-speaking population, another example of an unintentional bias. It isn’t, after all, remotely beyond our ability to design a system that meets the needs of everyone, it just needs the will. Designing computer systems isn’t just about machines. It’s about designing them for people.

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1. 

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