Why Indian immigrants' 1st names often end up as XXX on Canadian passports
Safa Khan didn't think her Canadian passport would prove to be such a hassle when she first moved from Delhi to London, Ont., nearly 10 years ago.
Khan received her Canadian passport earlier this year, with her full name — first, middle and last — shown as Safa Jamaluddin Khan printed in the surname field. Her first name on the official document reads XXX.
At every step, I get stuck with things. I need to go to a notary public. I need to go to a lawyer. You know? It's a pain. It's my name. I know it's my name. - Safa Khan of London, Ont.
"I didn't realize they had taken all my name as my surname," said Khan, a mother of two and a physiotherapy student at Western University. "It's very common in Canada that when they don't understand the names, they put all together in the surname."
Khan's Indian passport showed her three names listed on one line as well, which is common in that country, since many Indian citizens only have one name.
Khan's husband and son also have the first name XXX on their Canadian documents.
She hopes that by speaking out, Canadian officials will fix an old problem that can affect people arriving in Canada from India.
India-Canada naming conventions differ
Shalini Konanur, lawyer and executive director at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario in Toronto, said she sees a lot of people at the legal clinic who are dealing with the first-name issue.
"The problem actually goes back to the original documents. There are many parts of India, including my own family, where we don't have last names in India — massive parts, most of southern India," Konanur said.
But because Canadian immigration officials are required to fill out a first and last name, the first-name field is often left blank or reads XXX.
And that can cause problems.
"There are so many parts of our system that where somebody looks at your document, they won't even accept it because they don't see a first name and a last name," Konanur said.
"When the individual has one name, and their name cannot be divided into two parts, the name will be displayed on the surname field on the passport booklet," said Isabelle Dubois, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). "This is consistent with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)'s guidelines and facilitates future name searches."
According to IRCC, there are 9,365 Canadian passports with XXX listed in the given-name field. That doesn't include passports where the first name is left blank.
In a followup email late Monday, another IRCC spokesperson, Peter Liang, said passport holders with XXX as their first name can return their valid passport and have it replaced with a blank in their given-name field at no extra charge.
There's sort of this kind of systemic discrimination built into the way we do all of this. - Shalini Konanur, lawyer, executive director, South Asian Legal Clinic
Because Khan's first name reads XXX, she often has to get notary publics and lawyers to sign affidavits to explain her real name, even when she became a Western University student.
"When I applied there, I had a lot of problems, especially with OSAP and then I had to get my licensure done for my physiotherapy exam. I had to go and make an affidavit with a notary public," explained Khan about the Ontario Student Assistance Program.
"At every step, I get stuck with things. I need to go to a notary public. I need to go to a lawyer. You know? It's a pain. It's my name. I know it's my name."
Khan said she has been told if she wants her name to appear correctly on her Canadian passport, she'll have to apply for an official name change.
"And trust me, a legal name change is not easy," said Khan. "It's a big process. It takes around two months."
It's also not free. In Ontario, it costs $122.
"I am a busy mom. I am a student. And I'm doing my research," said Khan. "It's not easy for me to take out time and keep running here and there. At the end of the day, I have no other option."
System is discriminatory
Konanur is also personally familiar with the naming conundrum.
In 2013, Konanur adopted her daughter from India, and when she arrived, she had one name, Saniya, which Canadian officials recorded in the surname field. The first-name field was left blank.
It took months to get Saniya's name changed, said Konanur, "And I'm a practising lawyer."
Saniya's Canadian name is now Saniya D'silva. Saniya is the name given to her by the orphanage in India and D'silva is her father's last name.
"There's sort of this kind of systemic discrimination built into the way we do all of this," Konanur said, adding that Indian immigrants face unique challenges and barriers because of the naming discrepancy.
"We've long argued that in the process of getting immigration, there should be an easier or simpler way to correct it."
Konanur suggested correcting the problem at the permanent resident stage. Bureaucrats would have less paperwork she said, and Indian immigrants would have fewer headaches.