Exhibit puts faces, names to Canada’s Eskimo ID tag system
“Some people are proud of them, and others feel resentment”
One of the photographs in Barry Pottle’s long-running photography exhibit shows a smiling Leena Alivaktuk holding up a medallion attached to a silver chain around her neck.
It’s not your typical piece of jewellery, but an important — if not controversial — part of the history of Inuit in Canada.
The medallion around Alivatuk’s neck is her Eskimo Identification Tag, including her number — E6-741 — a remnant of a system the federal government used to track Inuit between the 1940s and 1980s.
Under her photograph, a short quote from Alivatuk reads: “Very proud Inuk!”
The photograph of Alivatuk was one of many that Pottle, an Ottawa-based artist and Nunatsiavut Inuk, took of Inuit in the city in an effort to give faces and names to those numbers.
Pottle’s work produced a photography exhibit that first emerged under the name Decolonize Me in 2011, and travelled to eight venues across the country.
It’s since changed names to the Awareness Series — an appropriate name, Pottle says, because so many non-Inuit have never even heard about this aspect of Canada’s history. Awareness Series is currently on display at Toronto’s Feheley Fine Arts.
Pottle grew up in Nunatsiavut, the one region where Inuit were never assigned the disc, but the system always intrigued him.
“I was always interested in the idea of them and how people felt about them,” he said. “So I just started asking friends and colleagues if they still had theirs.”
The first discs Pottle came in contact with were those of Ottawa friend Reepa Eevik Carleton, originally from Pangnirtung, who had kept her family members’ tags and agreed to let Pottle photograph them.
That gradually lead to connections with other Inuit in Ottawa who talked about their own tags, and what they represented.
“Some people are proud of them, and others feel resentment,” Pottle said.
Many Inuit feel a sense of pride in their history, like Alivaktuk. Another woman Pottle interviewed includes her identification number with her signature.
Other Inuit declined Pottle’s request to be photographed with their tags, either because the tags represented negative memories, or because they were unsure how to characterize them.
The disc itself was the idea of civil servants posted in the Arctic in the 1930s, who first tried to fingerprint Inuit as a way of documenting individuals.
When that attempt failed, Dr. A.J. MacKinnon, a medical doctor based in Pangnirtung, wrote to Ottawa to suggest the identification tags.
By 1944, Inuit in what’s known today as Nunavik, Nunavut and Northwest Territories received the burgundy discs, made of pressed fibre or leather. The number started with a W for western Arctic, or an E for eastern, followed by a number that denoted the region.
E8, for example, represented Inuit living in the Ungava Bay region.
Inuit were expected to keep the discs on them at all times, and the numbers were used in all their official documentation.
The system was phased out through the 1970s in most of the Arctic, but continued into the 1980s in the Nunavik region.
As someone who was never assigned to a tag, Pottle is careful not to weigh into any debate about the disc’s legacy — his goal is only to share the stories of Inuit who lived the experience.
“It is a sensitive issue, especially because I wasn’t under the system,” he said. “My whole idea was to bring the subject into the mainstream.”
Indeed, many non-Inuit visitors to the Toronto exhibit have expressed surprise to learn such a system existed in Canada, he said.
Pottle isn’t sure how the exhibit would be received in Inuit Nunangat, but his hope is that it can travel North one day.
“I think a younger generation of Inuit are interested to learn more about it,” he said.