Manitok Thompson explains how her name was taken — and replaced with a number

Manitok Thompson's experiences as a child in Canada's North are part of a new book that marks the 20th anniversary of Project Naming, an initiative by Library and Archives Canada that puts names to faces of Inuit who appear in their photography collection. (Submitted by Manitok Thompson - image credit)
Manitok Thompson's experiences as a child in Canada's North are part of a new book that marks the 20th anniversary of Project Naming, an initiative by Library and Archives Canada that puts names to faces of Inuit who appear in their photography collection. (Submitted by Manitok Thompson - image credit)

Manitok Thompson may have been the first Inuk woman to serve in Nunavut's legislature, but on many occasions as a child she was known simply by a number — one she'll never forget.

"My number was 831220," Thompson recently told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "It was drilled into us."

Now the executive director of Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, Thompson shared her experiences as a young person in Canada's North in a new book from McGill University Press called Atiqput: Inuit Oral History and Project Naming.

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

Beth Greenhorn, Library and Archives Canada
Beth Greenhorn, Library and Archives Canada

Thompson told CBC how doctors, nurses and administrators in her community would call Inuit by numbers that had been assigned to them.

In the eyes of the Canadian government at the time, she said, they didn't have names.

Thompson said her Inuktitut name, Manitok, means "rough surface." She was 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. Hers was Catherine.

Although everyone had to go by their English names in the classroom, Thompson said at recess they had the freedom to call one another by their Inuktitut names.

"I just kept fighting for my name, and just kept repeating 'Manitok'," she recalled.

Seen as 'a disappearing race'

Outside photographers would often go into Inuit communities and take pictures of the people who lived there. In part 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 go as far to say that, at the time, southerners felt that the Indigenous communities and Inuit communities were a disappearing race," said Greenhorn, who's been managing Project Naming for the past 15 years.

"[They felt] they were going to be assimilated to mainstream Canadian culture and society."

The goal of Project Naming, Greenhorn said, is to return names to the people in those photographs, thus restoring their identity and sense of dignity. She said the erasure of Inuktitut names is a form of colonization.

Beth Greenhorn, Library and Archives Canada
Beth Greenhorn, Library and Archives Canada

'I'm not Monica, I'm not Catherine'

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

"For this generation, I really hope that Inuit start naming their babies Inuktitut names," she said. "And that Inuktitut names [are] as important as an English name."

Thompson said language was a constant barrier she faced during her time at school. Rather than being called Manitok, or even her given English name Catherine, she was called Monica by a teacher who misunderstood what she was saying.

"I'm not Monica, I'm not Catherine," she told Ottawa Morning. "I'm Manitok."