Project Surname | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Project Surname

In 1970, the federal government undertook a program, known as Project Surname, to assign last names to Inuit in northern Canada. These surnames were to replace the personal disc numbers (see Inuit Disc Numbers) that Inuit had been given by the Canadian government in the 1940s. Some Inuit and non-Inuit viewed Project Surname as a more effective and politically correct system of identification. Others saw it as another instrument of paternalism.

Inuit Disc Numbers

Traditional Inuit Names

Before the arrival of Europeans, Inuit had a complex naming tradition. Inuit names reflected what was important in their culture. This included the environment, animals, family and spirits. They believed that names carried life and personality. Consequently, the process of naming a child was about discovering who the child was, who they represented from the past and who they will become.

Elders and family members often offered naming advice to the mothers of newborns. Sometimes, expectant mothers would claim to receive a name for their child from a dream or vision. In other cases, the simple gestures a newborn made could trigger memories of a deceased family member. This person would become the infant’s namesake. As a result, children sometimes received multiple names upon birth in order to decide which one(s) best suited their personality. If a name was thought to be a poor fit for a child, either because it did not reflect their personality or was believed to cause illness and misfortune, their name would be changed.

If a child was named after a living family member, they would often grow to form close bonds with that person. This was because they were now considered part of one another. It was also common for children to be named after lost loved ones. Since names were thought to carry life, naming a child after a deceased family member was a way of bringing that person back to the community. Inuit believed that children would take on some of the characteristics and personality traits of their namesake. However, since Inuit had multiple names, no two people were identical. Each name carried with it different identities and powers.

Since names were unique, the Inuit naming system did not recognize shared family names or surnames. Women did not take on the family name of their husbands, as was the tradition among Europeans. Inuit names were also not gender specific. Males could be named after females and vice versa. It was believed that people with the same name were essentially one person, whether male or female. From generation to generation, Inuit namesake traditions served to bond families and communities, simultaneously ensuring the survival of Inuit culture.

Influence of Christian Missionaries and Traders

Christian missionaries and traders living and working in the Canadian North during the 19th and 20th centuries found Inuit naming traditions confusing. Europeans claimed that Inuit names were difficult to pronounce, accurately spell and understand. Some missionaries also believed that traditional Inuit names were related to paganism and shamanism. As a result, Europeans sought to influence the adoption of European names among Inuit. Missionaries encouraged Inuit to adopt their baptismal, Christian names as their official names. This new system introduced gender-specific, Euro-Christian names to Inuit communities.

Some Inuit only used their Christian names in the presence of missionaries, traders and government agents. However, other Inuit wholly adopted new Christian names. While some individuals admitted that it was emotionally difficult to stop following Inuit namesake traditions, they decided that adopting European names would better serve their families in the long-run.

Disc Numbers

Church-led initiatives to alter Inuit naming traditions were followed by projects commissioned by the federal government in the 1920s and 1930s to make additional changes. The federal government sought to better identify the Inuit for administration of its programs and to compile census data. Similar to early missionaries and traders, federal government agents had difficulties documenting Inuit names. Because women did not take their husbands’ last name after marriage, it was also challenging for federal agents to understand family relations. Inuit culture did not conform to the patriarchal, European social model. This confused government administrators. Rather than adapt their policies to accommodate Inuit naming traditions, the government sought other, seemingly simpler, solutions.

Civil servants posted in the Canadian Arctic in the 1930s tried to fingerprint the Inuit as a method of identifying and documenting Inuit communities. Some missionaries and federal agents protested this project, arguing that fingerprinting was associated with criminal activity. As a result, it should not be used to identify innocent people. Others opposed the project based on logistics. Travelling across the Arctic and fingerprinting Inuit who did not understand English proved exceptionally difficult. After failed attempts, Dr. A.G. MacKinnon, a medical officer posted in Pangnirtung (present-day Nunavut), wrote to the federal government in 1935. Dr. MacKinnon suggested cancelling the fingerprinting project and instead assigning Inuit with identification discs (see Inuit Disc Numbers). The government adopted the idea. The discs were distributed by enumerators for the 1941 census. In 1945, the government reorganized the system and recalled and replaced existing disc numbers.

Tag Description

Every Inuk received an identification disc that carried information about themselves and their place of residence. The discs were roughly 2.5 cm in diameter, burgundy in colour and made of pressed fibre or leather. The edge of the disc read “Eskimo Identification Canada.” The image of a crown was placed in the centre of the disc, below which was the identification number. This number contained several parts. The first piece of identification on the disc was either the letter “E” for “East Arctic” or “W” for “West Arctic.” This was followed by a number representing one of the 12 geographic locations of the Arctic, as defined by the administrators of this program. The last portion was a personal set of identification numbers used to reference individuals. For example, Inuit leader Abraham “Abe” Okpik’s disc number was W-3 554 and Commissioner of Nunavut Ann Meekitjuk Hanson’s disc number was E7-121. The Inuit were expected to always keep this tag on their person. As a result, most Inuit either sewed the tag into their jacket or wore it as a necklace. Inuit disc numbers were used in all official documentation, including all birth, marriage and death certificates.


Some Canadian policy makers found the disc numbers a useful way of documenting Inuit. Others, including Christian missionaries, considered them de-humanizing. Opponents likened the discs to military tags or hospital bracelets. These examples were worn by people who might have difficulty identifying themselves. This was not the case with Inuit. The numbers, opponents argued, were nothing more than part of a broader plan to bring Inuit under the bureaucratic administration of the Canadian state. Despite these protests, the disc system was used for nearly 30 years. The system ended in 1972 in the Northwest Territories (including what is now Nunavut). However, it continued until 1978 in Nunavik.

Did You Know?
Inuit in Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador) were not part of the Inuit disc number program. As Labrador was not part of Canada when disc numbers were first created, Inuit in Nunatsiavut were not given disc numbers. Additionally, Moravian missionaries, after 1893, created surnames for Inuit in Nunatsiavut.

Some Inuit became accustomed to their disc numbers, and some actually argued that they were an easy and efficient way to communicate with government agents. However, in the midst of Indigenous Rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the disc system fell into disrepute. The Canadian government once again sought to change Inuit naming systems.

Nunavut has the largest landmass out of all the provinces and territories in Canada - and yet, it is an area that many of us know the least about. In this episode, The Secret Life of Canada looks at the forced relocation of the Inuit, the Eskimo Identification System, and the dog slaughter perpetuated by the Canadian government.

Note: The Secret Life of Canada is hosted and written by Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen and is a CBC original podcast independent of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Abe Okpik and Project Surname

Due to criticism of the disc system, the Canadian government and the Northwest Territories Council initiated a program, in 1970, to replace disc numbers with surnames. Opponents of the disc system argued that identifying the Inuit by last names rather than a series of numbers was more humane. Similar renaming projects had been conducted in other parts of the Arctic, including in areas of Greenland and the Soviet Union. Commissioner of the Northwest Territories Stuart Hodgson made this program — known as Project Surname — an official project of the 1970 Territorial Centennial. He also hired Inuit leader and Northwest Territories councillor Abraham “Abe” Okpik to carry it out.

Okpik, who was fluent in English and knew various dialects of Inuktitut, was responsible for directing the assignment and registration of Inuit surnames. As he travelled to various Inuit communities, Okpik explained the new system to the locals. He answered their questions and reassured them that their surnames were to be their choice. Most people chose to be registered under their ancestors’ names. During this process, Okpik worked with a linguist as a means of using standardized spellings as much as possible. By the end of the project in 1971, Okpik had travelled over 72,420 km and interviewed more than 12,000 people.


While some commended Okpik’s efforts, others found fault in Project Surname. The main purpose of the project — to assign surnames to Inuit — was absurd, according to the project’s opponents. They argued surnames did not exist in traditional Inuit culture. Project Surname only reinforced European naming methods and ignored traditional ones. In addition, despite assurances that the surname process was voluntary, many people had no say in their name choice. In some cases, people who were not home when the renaming happened returned to find that their family members had assigned them a surname. Children, for example, sometimes came home from school to a new name. Some also criticized Okpik for speaking mostly to men and for using men’s names as their family’s new surname. This became a source of distress for women who had their identity overturned and reassigned. While Project Surname was supposed to protect and promote Inuit culture, some argued that it was only a continuation of paternalist policies.

Inuit Response

Some Inuit preferred the disc system to Project Surname. They argued that it was less disruptive to identity traditions and less intrusive than other bureaucratic interventions. Some Inuit had accepted their disc numbers and had even become emotionally attached to them. The disc had become a part of their personal identity and family history. It was a symbol that reminded them of Canada’s colonial past and where Inuit have come since then. Though the federal government no longer recognizes the disc numbers, some Inuit, including carvers and graphic artists, continue to use their numbers as methods of identification. Officially, Inuit today use both Euro-Canadian and Inuit names.

Reclaiming Inuit Names

After the establishment of the Nunavut territory on 1 April 1999, the Inuit became one of the first Indigenous Peoples to retrieve territory based on Indigenous Title. With it came a sense of renewed pride and a desire to reclaim Inuit cultural traditions and customs. Part of this reclamation movement included renaming geographical locations using Inuit names. As early as 1 January 1987, for example, the town of Frobisher Bay changed its name to Iqaluit. In Inuktitut, Iqaluit means “fishes”. Iqaluit was the term that Inuit used before the location was renamed after Martin Frobisher, the English explorer who navigated the region in the 1500s. It was selected as the capital of Nunavut on 19 April 1995.

The Nunavut Court of Justice also saw people seeking to change their own names during this time. While people who were given Christian names generally kept them, there have been efforts to correct the spelling of surnames to make them sound more authentic to Inuit languages.

Since the 1990s, there has also been increased awareness and education about traditional Inuit naming systems in northern Canadian schools. In the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, for example, students learn about Inuit naming traditions in grade school. Social Studies and Northern Studies courses, first developed in the 1990s, use cultural curricula, such as Dene Kede and Inuuqatigiit, to contribute to students’ sense of identity and heritage.


The introduction of disc numbers and surnames altered Inuit naming traditions and relationships between Inuit and the state. However, in each case, Inuit have found ways to counteract changes and preserve tradition. Today, Inuit use a combination of Euro-Christian and Inuit names, emphasizing a return to traditional naming patterns.

Further Reading