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Project Surname

Abraham Okpik
I had to draw up a pamphlet, and send it to every community, through the RCMP, explaining “my little project.” I sent it to all the communities in both Inuktitut and English. I had to inform the people to let them know why I was coming there. This was the summer of 1969, and that’s when I got involved with Project Surname. …

Each district had a number like E-1, E-2 or E-3. Here it was E-7. It was a big district out of Lake Harbour. E-5 was up in Pond Inlet; E-6 was Pangnirtung, Clyde River and Broughton; E-4 was around Spence Bay; E-3 was Rankin, E-2 was Padlei and E-1 was Eskimo Point. …

I happened to be in the last part of the W-3 district, and when I came back from the hospital my mother gave me my number. I said, “What’s that?” “That’s your identification number,” she said. It was W3-441 or 445, I forget which! … We asked people what name they wanted. …Some people were very co-operative, but some said, “Why are you taking the number away? It worked for us all this time!”
In 1969, Simonie Michael, the first elected aboriginal Canadian, spoke at a council meeting of his frustration about the continued use of disc numbers by the Canadian government: his mail was still addressed to “Simonie E7-551.” The press picked up the story and soon after, the government in the territories undertook the task of registering people under a second name. Abe was able to use his knowledge of the northern communities and his understanding of the different dialects to travel from community to community for Project Surname. He reassured people and answered their questions, explained to them that their name was to be their choice. Most people chose to be registered under their ancestors’ names. Abe worked with a linguist and tried to use standardized spellings as much as possible. He travelled on planes that were bringing in supplies, meeting with health authorities, the local churches, and the RCMP. Project Surname was completed in 1971 as a centennial project for the territory, and that was the year the government stopped issuing disc numbers altogether.