The beginning of the end for hyphenated surnames

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B.C. residents with hyphenated last names made the news in late September when they were unable to renew their driver’s licences and health cards onto the same card, with their names reported as “illegal” by the automated registry system. Perhaps this was an innocuous mistake . . . or perhaps this was just the beginning. 

I fidgeted with my business card in my pocket, running the tip of my index finger over the glossy, raised letters of my last name on the heavy paper of the business card. Two words: SCOTT-BIGSBY. A simple line connecting the two.

“What I’m going to tell you can’t come back to me or my family in any way, so I’m going to need you to promise that I’ll stay anonymous.” The man standing in front of me fumbled with his lighter, and the flame illuminated the beads of perspiration forming on his brow. It was cold, and his sweat was out of place with the frosty air blowing through the parkade. This man had contacted my office under the pseudonym “Sore Throat,” and identified himself as being someone who was in possession of information that may be pertinent to a story I had been investigating for some time. This was where he wanted to meet.

“I can promise that,” I said, notebook and pencil in hand.

“Good.” He took a long drag from his cigarette. On the exhale he seemed calmer, as if the smoke had pulled some uncomfortable entity from inside him.

This is just the beginning, he warned

“I first heard of it back in 2013. What you need to know is that I was sent something I wasn’t meant to see. It had to do with the B.C. Services Card.”

He stopped for a moment, nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“I was working on that project at the time, so it actually took me a while to figure out that that email thread wasn’t meant for my eyes.” He shifted his weight back to his other foot and looked back over his shoulder. “The thread was repeatedly referring to the eventual rollout of the Card, and there was this big section on hyphens. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I just saw it as weird.”

“And more recently you heard the news stories?” I asked.

“Yeah.” His cigarette had burned to the filter by now. He dropped it and extinguished the ember with his shoe. “Well at first it was word of mouth, but it didn’t take long for people to start asking questions. Look, I know that this might seem like an innocent mistake on their part.” His voice grew intense, urgent, but not rushed. “It’s not. This is a co-ordinated attack. Sure, you can get a Services Card and a Driver’s Licence, but you can’t get the single card when you have a hyphenated name.”

“What does that mean?” What did that mean for me?

“In the grand scheme, I’m not sure. Right now, it means a lot of confusion and upset.”

“Why change these rules at all then?”

“That would only be speculation on my part. I’ve got some ideas, but I know one thing for certain.”

“What’s that?”

“This,” he looked around, shrugging his shoulders slightly to indicate our city, or our province. “This is just the beginning. This is how it starts. First it’ll be an inconvenience to a few. Soon it’ll be regulation — maybe you’ll be allowed two last names with no hyphen, but who can say for sure? But there will be regulation, I know that, and eventually there will be criminalization.”

He fell silent for a moment before looking at me once more with a grave look in his eyes. “You told me your name over the phone. It’s hyphenated,” He paused for an eternity. “Isn’t it?”

I swallowed, apparently audibly enough to summon a look of sad recognition on his face.

“Yes,” I said, the first half of the word quieter than the second, an involuntary display of agitation on my part.

“You’ll probably want to change that.” He turned from me and began walking.

Putting my notepad away, I felt the edge of my business card. I felt hate for it. I crushed it in my pocket.

That was the last time I spoke to my source. Maybe he’s right. This could be the beginning. Perhaps there is some unnamed organization pulling the strings from the shadows. Maybe this is the first shot fired from an army we have yet to meet. Maybe those with hyphenated names should be cautious as to whom they reveal their real last names to.

Maybe it was a simple error. Maybe my source was wrong. However, I think we as a society should be prepared to accept the possibility that he is not. I don’t think that we can take that risk.

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