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

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - GRA­HAM ROCK­ING­HAM grock­ing­ham@thes­ 905-526-3331 | @Rock­atTheSpec

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 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 peo­ple en­rolled in the pro­gram. Some of the tags fea­ture per­sonal mark­ings. Hand­writ­ten on one is the name “BILLY.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion is sim­ple and ef­fec­tive. Pot­tle’s pho­tos are dis­played in a room that also con­tains the Che­doke Col­lec­tion of Inuit Art, a re­mark­able ar­ray of soap­stone carv­ings made by tu­ber­cu­lo­sis pa­tients brought from the Arc­tic to Hamil­ton’s Moun­tain Sana­to­rium dur­ing the 1950s and ’60s. It doesn’t take long to re­al­ize that many of these tal­ented carvers came to Hamil­ton as num­bers.

Pot­tle, an Innu born in north­ern Labrador now liv­ing in Ot­tawa, learned of the tag sys­tem while study­ing art at Car­leton Univer­sity in the early 1990s. He no­ticed some Inuit artists signed their work with num­bers.

The tag­ging sys­tem came as a sur­prise to Pot­tle. It had never been used in his na­tive Labrador, which had not yet en­tered con­fed­er­a­tion when the tags were in­tro­duced to the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries in the early ’40s.

“I found it a bit dis­turb­ing that it had hap­pened,” Pot­tle, 55, says in an in­ter­view from his home in Ot­tawa. “I was pretty per­plexed about it.”

Even­tu­ally, he de­cided to use his art to raise aware­ness of the tag sys­tem.

“I knew that a lot of peo­ple in main­stream so­ci­ety didn’t know about it,” Pot­tle ex­plains. “My idea was to bring it to the fore, bring it to main­stream so­ci­ety and do it in a re­spect­ful way.”

Ot­tawa con­tains a large Inuit pop­u­la­tion, the largest in south­ern Canada, and Pot­tle be­gan meet­ing com­mu­nity mem­bers who had been is­sued tags. Few had kept them, but many still re­mem­bered their num­bers. Many of the discs in Pot­tle’s series come from the col­lec­tion of one fam­ily, that of Reepa Evik Car­leton, whose photo is also in in­cluded in the in­stal­la­tion.

Pot­tle dis­cov­ered opin­ion about the tag sys­tem was mixed within the com­mu­nity. Some re­sented the de­hu­man­iz­ing num­bers. Oth­ers took pride in their tags and used them as a source of cul­tural iden­tity. One Ot­tawa woman, Leena Ali­vak­tuk (E. 6-761), still wears her tag on a chain around her neck.

“She wears her tag ev­ery day,” Pot­tle says about Ali­vak­tuk, a sub­ject of one of his pho­tos. “She’s very proud of it.”

In “The Aware­ness Series,” Pot­tle chose to put aside any judg­ment of the sys­tem. He chose in­stead to con­trast pho­to­graphs of the tags with por­traits of peo­ple who were is­sued them.

“I didn’t want to of­fer an opin­ion from an artis­tic point of view,” Pot­tle says. “I was more in­ter­ested in just get­ting it out there. I didn’t want to take a side. It wasn’t the point, to take a side. I wanted to just bring it to the fore.

“I wanted to show the hu­man di­men­sion, put a face to it, jux­ta­pose the pro­gram with the peo­ple.”

Artist Barry Pot­tle, an Innu born in north­ern Labrador and now liv­ing in Ot­tawa, learned of the tag sys­tem in the early 1990s.

The “Eskimo Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Tag Sys­tem” was how the gov­ern­ment kept track of the Inuit pop­u­la­tion from 1941 into the 1970s.

Billy wrote his name on tag E. 6-935.

Leena Ali­vak­tuk (E. 6-761) proudly wears her tag on a neck chain.

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