Content note: This article and one of the accompanying images contain a word used historically to refer to Inuit that may be considered derogatory today. For more information, please see the Inuit Art Foundation’s Editorial Policies.
The Eskimo Identification Canada system was brought into Canada’s North in 1941. Essentially, the Government of Canada replaced Inuit names with numbered tags made of a compressed plastic substance, around the size of a quarter. Inuit were instructed to keep the tags with them at all times. They had to present their number during all their daily interactions, whether it was making a purchase at a store or attending school. No other Indigenous groups across the world were tagged in this way. The system ran for approximately 30 years and is an example of a heavy form of colonialism forced upon Canada’s smallest Indigenous population.
In Norma Dunning’s new book Kinauvit?: What’s Your Name? The Eskimo Disc System and a Daughter’s Search for Her Grandmother (Douglas & McIntyre), the award-winning author incorporates research and interviews with personal memories to examine the legacy of this dehumanizing system.
For this essay, Dunning shares the personal challenges she encountered while writing her book. Accompanying her story are three works from Inuk photographer Barry Pottle’s Awareness series (2009–11), which combines portraiture and photos to document the living history of the Eskimo tag system and its effects on Inuit populations.
I started university when I was three months shy of turning 51 years old, completing a bachelor of arts (BA) degree in 26 months through the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies. I worked hard, and even though tuition was paid for, not much else was. I always kept a minimum of three jobs. Some on campus, most off. In 2012 the faculty started a master of arts (MA) degree program. I applied and was accepted. I had written on my application that I would be moving my BA Honours Project on the Eskimo Identification Canada system into my MA research. It made sense to grow my research on the system. I wanted to answer that one question asked of me by a Nunavut government employee: “What was your mother’s disc number?” That question had sat inside of me for nine years.
Barry Pottle Awareness 1 Digital photograph © the artist
“What was your mother’s disc number?” is a simple query that could have had a simple answer. It didn’t. Instead, it haunted me. I began the work of uncovering facts and read the renderings of non-Inuit people who simplified the system as a way of keeping track of Inuit. The writings held a tone of organizing the unorganized and I often shook my head in disgust. Very few Inuit wrote about their experiences as disc holders. With my MA work I was determined that the bulk of the citations would belong to Inuit. I hunted for their words. I dug into old archival documents. I sought out disc lists. I studied old maps trying to figure out how the system was quietly birthed onto the tundra and died in equal silence. A start and finish of a federal policy and system that went without fanfare from its beginning to end.
In all of that work and overturning of rocks, it was easy to remove myself as I was reading old documents and maps and sitting solo in one library after another. Academic writing is generally very linear and there are expected benchmarks to be addressed. Standing on the outside and looking in on the system was easy, and at that time in my research I never thought that I would have to step inside my work. I managed to complete my thesis and MA degree in 2014. It is on the University of Alberta’s Education and Research Archive (ERA) site and is called “Tukitaaqtuq (explain to one another, reach understanding, receive explanation from the past) and the Eskimo Identification Canada System.” To date it has been downloaded 1,143 times. I teach the system in all of my courses and it is my topic at conferences.
In 2018 my thesis was accepted by a publisher. I thought it would be a smooth transition from academic writing to a book made accessible to everyone. I thought I was walking down Easy Street and spending time at the corner of Not-A-Problem. I was wrong.
I had booked a month away from teaching so I could meet the publisher’s deadline. When I started rewriting on the first day, I sat in front of my laptop with a blank page on the screen while the cursor blinked and winked and did the same dance in front of me. I stared at it. I spent time thinking about whether or not a person could stroke out from doing that. I wondered how long that would take? How do you tell an emergency room doctor the cause of your visit? Cursor-itis? Stare-osis? I had told myself no email, no googling, no phone, nothing but me and my laptop. Day One was unsuccessful.
“What was your mother’s disc number?” is a simple query that could have had a simple answer. It didn’t. Instead, it haunted me.
I told myself that Day One was a dry run and Day Two would be better. Again, the cursor. Again, thoughts of stroking out. I told myself no distractions. Only write. Only write right. Do not leave the home office chair. Do not take calls or texts. Day Two plus Day Three equalled zip. Day Four was spent reviewing old research notes. Old maps and all the notes that never entered the thesis. Day Five = Just write it! Get it done! I went after it furiously. I remained within the bounds and confines of a book that did not include me. The book included all the research and hours and labour pains of vomiting information onto a page. It was done and back to the publisher on time. Ta-Da!
It wasn’t Ta-Da. My agent called and said, “This needs 30 more pages.” I felt defeated. Deflated. Destroyed. I had spent 20 consecutive days writing and rewriting. I decided to write about all the questions and the near anger that slid off the chairs when I presented on the system from coast to coast in Canada and the United States. People questioned why the system mattered? Not one Inuit Canadian died from it. I wrote 30 more pages on the questions I had grown used to answering at the end of every presentation. The manuscript went back out to my publisher. Edits were the next step.
Editing included more editors than I ever expected. I kept thinking why were there so many people dealing with my book? Every citation reviewed and re-reviewed. Then the final editor, Peter Midgley, said that I had to put myself into all that writing. I didn’t know how to do that.
When we work in academe we work in a very linear way to show off rigour and scholarship. We must perform in an expected style; a style that is often rigid and without personality. We must be able to spew facts and engage a classroom or a conference audience. Peter saw the gaps, the empty pockets. He asked me to fill them. It was hard for me.
Barry Pottle E.6-1445 Digital photograph © the artist
I always ask myself the same question when I write: How much do I give and how much do I keep? Our personal lives are personal. How do I honour my ancestors, my folks, my siblings, my children and myself? I had to talk about my own identity. It felt like something obscure. A hazy outline of an Inuk body.
Stereotypical expectations of the mainstream continue to say that Inuit are only real if they live in the North. If you aren’t fluent in Inuktitut, then you aren’t real. You have to eat raw meat. I wasn’t raised in the North. I’m not fluent in the Padlei dialect of Inuktitut. I don’t eat raw meat daily.
In having to write about me, I had to write to all Inuit. Kinauvit? gave me space to talk about how there are Inuit in the south of Canada who will say, “I am only half.” I was able to write to young Inuit especially that there is no such thing as being half if your ancestors are from Nunavut. Inuit are accepted as a whole Inuk person. Blood quantum does not exist and living in the North is not the compass point that makes you Inuit. Your ancestors do.
I wanted to invite people into my heart. I had to think of a way to bring people to Inuit without offending them or laying blame. In many ways Kinauvit? became a scuffle to understand myself. Writing allows us time to wrestle with ourselves in a singular sumo match.
It wasn’t easy writing but it was worth every sleepless night. Every long walk spent rewriting in my head. It was worth it to write my best to honour all Inuit. I cried when I wrote me into Kinauvit?
Not tears of frustration. They were tears of love because Inuit will always be more than a number.
Norma Dunning is a Padlei Inuk professor, author and grandmother. She has published five books and her book Tainna (The Unseen Ones) was awarded the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. She received the Danuta Gleed award in 2018 for her debut story collection Annie Muktuk and Other Stories. She has released two collections of poetry. Kinauvit? (What’s Your Name?) is her first work of non-fiction.
Barry Pottle is an Inuk artist from Nunatsiavut in Labrador (Rigolet), now living in Ottawa, ON. He has worked with the Indigenous arts community for many years, particularly in the city of Ottawa. Pottle has always been interested in photography as a medium of artistic expression and as a way of exploring the world around him. Living in Ottawa, which has the largest urban population of Inuit outside the North, Barry has been able to stay connected to the greater Inuit community. “The camera,” he shares, “allows me to explore connection and continuity with my heritage and culture especially with regards to the contemporary reality of being an Urban Inuk.” Pottle’s photos have been published in a variety of magazines, including Makivik Magazine, Inuktitut Magazine and the Inuit Art Quarterly, and he has also contributed images to a number of community initiatives.
This project was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts.