Day 6

Beyond a number: Inuit photo exhibit brings controversial 'Eskimo' I.D. system to light

Inuit photographer Barry Pottle's exhibit "The Awareness Series" chronicles the fraught history of the Eskimo Identification Tag System, which saw Canadian federal authorities issue identification discs and numbers to all Inuit in the Canadian Arctic.
From the 1940s until the 1970s, Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic were forced to wear tags like this one, photographed by Inuit artist Barry Pottle in 2009. (Barry Pottle/Art Gallery of Hamilton)

As a university student in the 1990s, Barry Pottle was surprised to discover that some Inuit artists signed their work with a number instead of their name.

Then he learned those numbers had been assigned by the Canadian government.

As it turned out, the numbers were part of the "Eskimo Identification Tag System," a federal program that ran from the 1940s until the 1970s.

Under the system, Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic were forced to wear round, numbered tags so the government could keep track of their population.

Pottle, an Inuit photographer who grew up in Labrador, had never heard of the numbering system. But the details of the program stayed with him for years.

"My understanding is that it was used for census purposes and population numbering," Pottle tells Day 6 guest host Jelena Adzic.

"It was a system that was developed because I think non-Inuit people, government officials didn't understand or speak Inuktitut and had a hard time pronouncing words."

Now, Pottle is documenting the history of those I.D. tags — and the people who wore them — in "The Awareness Project," a photo exhibition currently on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Under the Eskimo Identification Tag System, each Inuit person was issued an individual number that was used to identify them in place of their given name. (Barry Pottle / Art Gallery of Hamilton)


Identified by numbers

The tags were roughly the size of a loonie, made of pressed brown cardboard or leather.

"The front says 'Eskimo Identification System' and it has the government's crown on it," Pottle says. "And on the back, it has letters and numbers on it."

Leena Alivaktuk, a proud Inuk, displays her I.D. tag in this photograph from Pottle's collection. (Barry Pottle / Art Gallery of Hamilton)
 "Either 'E' for 'Eastern Arctic' or 'W' for 'Western Arctic' … followed by a number that was assigned to each individual Inuit."

They were required to be worn at all times.

"My understanding is you had to wear it all the time, or memorize it," Pottle says. "'Round the neck, or I think around the wrist as well, from my understanding."

"If you really think about it, it's not very pleasing for lack of a better word. And not very human, right? It's kind of degrading at times."

Still, there were mixed feelings among the Inuit people Pottle spoke with about the project.

"I know a couple people here in town who wear them every day," he says. "It depends on who you talk to."

Pottle hopes that his exhibition will help shed light on a little-known piece of Canada's history.

"My objective was not to feel anger or to be angry about it," he says.

"I just wanted to bring it forth, to bring this subject to the Canadian general public."

To hear the full interview with Barry Pottle, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.