THE AWARENESS SERIES AT AGH
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 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.