The Little-Known History of How the Canadian Government Made Inuit Wear ‘Eskimo Tags’
For decades, Inuit had to wear numbered identification tags around their necks because white people couldn't pronounce their names.
"Well, my name's Jennifer Qupanuaq May...but apparently in the eyes of the government I'm still E8-2571," she says with irony.
The 33-year-old Inuk woman from Kuujuuaq, Quebec, is referring to her Eskimo Identification Number, a long-forgotten government program that ran for decades in the North—all the way to the 1980s in some parts.
Every Inuit was issued a number, the first letter and number indicating the region where they lived, the last four digits, a personalized number. The goal was to facilitate the administration of social and medical aid. The government thereafter addressed them as such, often dropping their names altogether in written correspondence. According to some accounts, children were asked to call out their disk number at school rather than a name.
When the program was introduced in the early 40s, Inuit still lived as nomads; they didn't carry wallets, didn't write, and only spoke Inuktitut. Because of this, the number had to be worn at all times on a small leather or copper disk around the neck. To many, they looked and felt like dog tags. The program was dropped in the 1970s (1980s in Quebec), after an Inuk member of the Northwest Territories legislative assembly decided he no longer wanted to be known as W3-554.
At first glance, it sounds like a messed up version of the social insurance number system we have today. In reality, old records from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs show that white administrators in the North were mostly just frustrated at their inability to pronounce or understand Inuit names. They tried fingerprinting at first, but eventually settled for the tagging system.
A. J. Mackinnon, the medical examiner for the remote northern community of Pangnirtung, came up with the idea. He was stumped by absence of actual surnames in Inuit society, which made his job more complicated. In a 1935 letter to his superiors, he wrote: "A good example of this is in the fairly common name of Ruth. The natives cannot get the sounding mechanism around the R letter; as a result, different persons would write down the following: Urootee, Ulootee, Alootah, etc. My humble suggestion would be that at each registration the child be given an identity disk on the same line as an army disk and the same instance that it'd be worn all the time. The novelty of it would appeal to the natives."
Like many before him, he assumed that messing with identity would be of little consequence for those renamed. While ignored for a while, his suggestion was eventually adopted. By 1945, the Family Allowance Act of Canada defined an "Eskimo" person as "one to whom an identification disk has been issued."
May was born in 1982, one of the last Inuks to ever receive an E-number. She never had to use hers, but two years ago she received a puzzling piece of mail from Service Canada. "For some reason, it had my E-number printed next to my name. I choked up in shock. I thought about all the people who had to wear the physical tags. Why the hell was that number still in my file?"
She never called Service Canada to find out, but agreed to let me check for her. They told me they'd investigate, but eventually sent a generic PR statement instead.
"The Government of Canada has discontinued the use of the "Eskimo" disk numbers completely. Generally, Inuit are known by given names and surnames, and are registered through vital statistics records the same way as other Canadians," it read in part.
Who knows, maybe it was a glitch, or maybe the E-numbers are still in the system somewhere.
"The Canadian government considered the Inuit as 'things', as weird savage people," says Jennifer. "It's getting better, but it's still misunderstood. We tend to repress that, but our social issues stem from this repression; people have PTSD from being sent to residential schools, from wearing dog tags and being just a number in their government's eyes."
To be fair, some Inuit people aren't as bothered with it. When I was researching this piece, one Inuit woman eagerly photocopied each of her family member's E-tags for me, which she's kept neatly stored in a jewelry box for decades. Nevertheless, the government of Canada has never apologized for or spoken about this program publicly. Throughout history, most Aboriginal people in Canada were identified by name; the Inuit were the only ones to be "tagged" in this way.
Of course, the Inuit had their own naming system, which worked just fine for them. In 1922, Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson said: "the name in Eskimo belief, is the soul, and the soul is the name." What he meant was that naming was—and still is, viewed as reincarnation. To this day, in most parts of the Arctic, name and gender aren't connected. An Inuit woman once put it this way: "No child is only a child. If I give my grandfather's atiq (name) to my baby daughter, she is my grandfather. I will call her ataatassiaq, grandfather. She is entitled to call me grandson."
To many, the Eskimo Identification System felt like an erasure of Inuit identity, but in recent years, young Inuks have started to reclaim it. Songs have been written about it. Olivia Ikey Duncan, also from Kuujuuaq, got a disk tattooed to the inside of her arm after she saw Jennifer's Service Canada letter posted on Facebook.
"Until then I had never known about it, even though it was discontinued only four years before I was born. Even our families aren't willing to teach us about it, because they've never healed. I know a man who threw his off a bridge somewhere in Montreal."
What angers her the most, she says, is that while the government was "tracking their every move," Inuit families were trying to locate their children in residential school, or sick relatives in southern hospitals. "If the government knew where we were, why weren't the children brought back?"
The history of the Eskimo Identification program still isn't talked about in Canadian classrooms, but its legacy lingers still, through a custom that neither Olivia or Jennifer can really explain.
"Growing up, all Inuit kids picked a number for themselves, like a lucky number, it was just a normal thing," says Olivia. "We signed everything with our numbers, I was number 8...my brother was 11. I guess it just kind of transferred over, weirdly, to this day."
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