Inuit Disc Numbers | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Inuit Disc Numbers

From 1941 to 1978, the Government of Canada issued personal identifying numbers to all Inuit, then referred to as Eskimos, in Canada’s Arctic. The Eskimo Identification system was implemented to identify and register individuals for administrative purposes, such as taking censuses. Each Inuk was given a small leather or pressed fibre disc with a number on it, referred to as their disc number. Ultimately, disc numbers were required for any government interaction, such as keeping track of hunting, trapping, medical services, education, housing, family allowance and getting food and supplies. The system was unique to the Inuit. No other Canadian was required to have a number to access basic services or monitor their actions.

Inuit Identification Disc Front

Name Challenges

Inuit did not traditionally have surnames nor did their names correspond to the European-style patriarchal naming convention with a shared family name. For non-Inuit coming into the Arctic, Inuit names were difficult to understand and pronounce.

Did You Know?
Inuit names are an important aspects of Inuit culture. Naming a child typically included Elders as well as the parents of the child. In Inuit culture, people’s names often incorporated some of their physical or personality traits. As a result, when a child is named after another person, some of that person’s traits are or will be present in the child.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whalers, fur traders, prospectors and missionaries visited the Arctic. These were mainly transient groups hoping to profit from Arctic resources. The majority did not learn how to properly say people’s names. Instead, they gave Inuit they met familiar southern names, like Tom and Annie. Missionaries gave their Inuit converts biblical names, which were Inuiticized: Adam (Atami), Jesse (Siasi), Elizabeth (Elisapi). This also meant that many people had the same biblical name.

In the 1920s, the federal government began to assert sovereignty in the Arctic. As part of this process, it set up some Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) posts near established Hudson’s Bay Company or other fur trading posts. Clergy also took up residence near these posts to meet people coming from the land to trade. Most of these outsiders were unable, or unwilling, to learn Inuktitut and found the lack of surnames and inconsistent spelling of names complicated. This made their record keeping difficult.

Non-Inuit spelled Inuit names as they sounded, or they shortened the name if they found it too long or difficult to write. These phonetic spellings and truncations led to a myriad of inconsistencies and confusion. The non-Inuit turned to the government for a solution to properly identify each Inuk.

Developing an Identification System

Between 1929 and 1935, several suggestions were made:
  • standardization of spelling names;
  • separate files for each Inuk showing their name in English and syllabic characters;
  • fingerprinting every individual; and
  • compelling the head of each family to select a common name for his family.

In 1932, RCMP members began fingerprinting local Inuit. However, as they couldn’t fingerprint children under the age of eight, it was not an ideal method of identifying individuals.

In 1935, Dr. A.G. Mackinnon, medical officer in Pangnirtung, wrote a letter to the Department of the Interior suggesting that when births were registered, “the child be given an identity disk on the same lines as the army identity disk and the same insistence that it be worn at all times.”

This idea was eventually adopted, and the system of identification discs was developed in time for the 1941 census, so they could be distributed by the enumerators. After that, RCMP officers were responsible for handing out discs. Children were issued disc numbers at birth. Discs belonging to deceased persons were returned. Annual lists were then compiled, detailing names and numbers of those who had received discs that year.

Disc numbers were distributed to all Inuit living in Inuvialuit (parts of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon), Nunavut (which was then part of the Northwest Territories) and Nunavik (part of northern Quebec). Inuit of Nunatsiavut (Labrador) were not given disc numbers, as Labrador was not part of Canada when they were first introduced. As well, after 1893, Inuit in Labrador were given last names by Moravian missionaries who settled there.

In 1945, with the introduction of family allowance, the federal government split the Arctic into east and west at Gjoa Haven (Uqsuqtuuq) on King William Island. It was further divided into districts, with nine in the Eastern Arctic and three in the Western Arctic. Each district was numbered.

Discs already distributed were recalled and replaced with new ones. By the 1950s, when many Inuit moved into community settlements, their disc numbers were noted on their family allowance and paycheques. As well, a person’s disc number appeared on their birth and death certificate.

Ujamiit | Disc Numbers

Inuit Identification Disc Back

Disc numbers are referred to as ujamik or ujamiit (plural) by Inuit.

The discs were an inch in diameter, about the size of a Canadian dollar coin (loonie). They were made of a rusty red coloured leather or pressed fibre. On one side of the disc, a crown was embossed in the centre with “Eskimo Identification Canada” stamped around it. On the other side was stamped the letter E for Eastern Arctic or W for Western Arctic. Beside the letter was a district number where the person lived, a hyphen, followed by three or four numbers that were registered as their personal identification number. For instance, someone living in the Churchill area on Hudson Bay (district E1) would have E.1-#### stamped on their disc.

People were expected to wear their disc number at all times. There was a hole at the top of the disc so that a string or sinew could be threaded through to wear it around the neck like an army dog tag. It could also be sewn into clothes. Many women kept the disc numbers of their family members so their children wouldn’t lose them. Artists also carved their number into their carvings or put it on their prints as identification.

Everyone memorized their number. However, officials often referred to people by their disc number rather than by their name. For many, disc numbers were dehumanizing.

In the late 1960s, after attention was brought to the demoralizing practice of the Eskimo Identification system, the federal government and the Government of the Northwest Territories decided disc numbers would be replaced with surnames. Starting in 1970, Abraham (Abe) Okpik, member of the NWT Council (now known as the Legislative Assembly), was appointed to head Project Surname. He toured the Arctic meeting Inuit and recording the surnames each person chose for themself.

In 1972, after Project Surname was completed, the NWT stopped the practice of issuing disc numbers. Disc numbers were not discontinued in Quebec until 1978. In some instances, disc numbers were still used until the 1980s. Decades after the discontinuation of disc numbers, Inuit still recall the number they memorized as children.

Library and Archives Canada has a comprehensive list of disc numbers. People may search for family members’ numbers through an access to information request.