Manitok Thompson explains how his name was taken – and replaced with a number

Manitok Thompson may have been the first Inuit woman to serve in the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, but many times as a child she was only known by a number — a number she didn’t will never forget.

“My number was 831220,” Thompson told CBC Radio recently. Ottawa morning. “He was drilled into us.”

Now executive director of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, Thompson has shared her experiences as a youth in Canada’s North in a new McGill University Press book titled Atiqput: Inuit oral history and name of the project.

The book marks the 20th anniversary of the Naming Project, an initiative of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) that puts names to the faces of Inuit people in LAC’s photography collection in Ottawa.

Ruth Idlout, center, holds her brother Jesse in this September 1959 photo, one of hundreds of archival photos in LAC’s collection. (Beth Greenhorn, Library and Archives Canada)

Thompson told CBC how doctors, nurses and administrators in his community call Inuit by their assigned numbers.

In the eyes of the Canadian government at the time, she said, they had no names.

Ottawa morning11:48Atiqput: Inuit oral history and name of the project

A new book on Project Naming puts Inuit oral history in writing. Atiqput includes stories of resistance to government interference in Inuit naming traditions. And he also puts names to the faces of anonymous Inuit in Library and Archives Canada’s photographic collection.

Thompson said his Inuktitut name, Manitok, means “rough surface.” She is named after her aunt, who died in childbirth a year before she was born. But when she was in school, Thompson and her classmates were given English baptismal names. His was Catherine.

Although everyone had to use their English name in the classroom, Thompson said at recess they had the freedom to call each other by their Inuktitut name.

“I kept fighting for my name and kept saying ‘Manitok’,” she recalled.

Considered “an endangered breed”

Outside photographers often traveled to Inuit communities and took pictures of the people who lived there. Partly because of the language barrier, the photographers never wrote down the names of their subjects, said the book’s co-editor Beth Greenhorn.

“I would even go so far as to say that at the time, southerners felt that Indigenous communities and Inuit communities were a dying breed,” said Greenhorn, who has run Project Naming for 15 years.

“[They felt] they would be assimilated into mainstream Canadian culture and society. »

The goal of Project Naming, Greenhorn said, is to rename the people in these photographs, thereby restoring their identity and sense of dignity. She said that erasing Inuktitut names is a form of colonization.

Ouuju Ottokie poses for a photo in Kinngait, Nunavut, in this photo from July 1961. Photographers often traveled to northern communities and took pictures of residents without worrying about getting their names, Greenhorn said. (Beth Greenhorn, Library and Archives Canada)

“I am not Monica, I am not Catherine”

Thompson was the only one of her classmates to keep her name in Inuktitut – and now she’s trying to teach her granddaughter’s generation the importance of preserving their language.

“For this generation, I really hope that Inuit will start giving their babies Inuktitut names,” she said. “And that the Inuktitut names [are] as important as an English name.”

Thompson said language was a constant barrier she faced while at school. Rather than calling herself Manitok, or even her English first name Catherine, she was called Monica by a teacher who misunderstood what she was saying.

“I’m not Monica, I’m not Catherine,” she said Ottawa morning. “I am Manitok.”

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