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Photo exhibition explores government’s former ID system for Inuit people

If you have trouble accepting the term “colonialism” to describe Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous people, you may want to take in the new Art Gallery of Hamilton exhibition by Ottawa-based photographer Barry Pottle.

It’s called “The Awareness Series” and focuses on an embarrassing relic of our bureaucratic past called the “Eskimo Identification Tag System,” a federal program that saw every Inuk issued a small disc — some made from leather, others made from cardboard — with a number etched into it.

No name, just a number. It’s the way the government kept track of the Inuit population from 1941 into the 1970s. They were asked to wear the discs at all times. A small hole was cut into the tags so they could be worn around their necks on a string or piece of hide.

At the time, Inuit names presented a problem for government officials. They were difficult to pronounce and there was no written language. As well, many Inuit possessed no surnames.

It was easier for bureaucrats to simply assign them numbers. No names — like on military dog tags or social insurance cards — just numbers, and a letter designating location. “E” for east. “W” for west.

On the reverse side of the tag was a picture of a crown encircled by the words “Eskimo Identification Canada.”

Pottle’s “Awareness Series” is a suite of 19 photos, contrasting images of the discs with portraits of individuals who were enrolled in the program. Some of the discs feature personal markings. Handwritten on one is the name “BILLY.”

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