Among Inuit in the last half of the 20th century, few had as big of an impact on the day-to-day lives of the Inuit than a man by the name of Abraham Okpik. An activist, he would spend his life working for the people of the north, giving them a voice and literally names.
Okpik was born on Jan. 12, 1928, sometimes said to be 1929, in the Mackenzie Delta. At his birth, he was called Auktalik, after a shaman who had a special power to heal. As a young child, he would see the changing world around him as the fur trade started to end. He would talk about seeing Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders arriving and buying furs, but as time went on, they would appear less and less. He would eventually select the name Abraham Okpik for himself. Abraham for the biblical reference and Okpik because it was a named used by his family for generations, which means willow.
In speaking about names, Okpik would say:
“The name never dies. It always lives from generation to generation. If the person you were named after was very respected, even old, old people respected the name.”
While he was brought up in the Anglican Church, Okpik was also raised traditionally and would hunt, trap and travel by dog sled.
Forced to attend All Saints Residential School in Aklavik at the age of eight in 1937, he would learn English during his time at the school. At the school, he proved to be highly gifted and was able to skip grades two, four and five. His teachers told him he had a photographic memory. It was still not an easy time for Okpik, he would say later in his life:
“It was not that easy, my friend, because I was eight years old. I did not know anything about yes and no. I did not know the ABCs when I went to class for the first time, although my sister tried to teach me to read a little Jack and Jill. I did not know what language they were talking. They put us in a dormitory. One side of the building was the girl’s side, and on our side was the boy’s side. It was convent-like. You could not do anything. You were restricted.”
Upon his arrival at the school, he was given moccasins, boots, socks, and a number, 35, that was sewn onto his sweaters and painted on his boots.
He would be taken out of the school in 1941 so he could assist his father with trapping. With his father, he continued to learn traditional ways. He would say:
“We learned how to follow the cycle of the seasons and learned the times of year when there were a lot of fish, whales, birds and eggs. We followed the cycle, which nature called us to do. You had to move around the survive and I think that this was one of the things that we learned how to do.”
One year later, he suffered a leg injury that caused a permanent disability, but he continued to trap and hunt.
Abe’s father noticed his son’s ability to read and remember things. He would subscribe to two newspapers, Star Weekly and Life magazine, and Abe would read to him about sports, war and other news and current events.
At the age of 16, he would contract tuberculosis and was sent to Edmonton to recover, the airfare being paid by Abe’s father.
Abe would relate:
“They had a staff of experts that all came from the war, x-ray technicians and surgeons. Some of the patients were cut right open and part of their ribs were collapsed together. I had pneumothorax in my lung and every week they put some air in it with water pressure. I could feel it for two days after.”
He would spend three entire years in hospital recovering, improving his English to the point that he was able to get a job as a translator with the Distant Early Warning Line. In 1957, he went to the hospital and tested positive for tuberculosis again, spending 18 months in hospital again.
In 1959, he began working for the Diefenbaker government as a translator and was able to learn the syllabic writing system used in the Eastern Arctic. He would translate books from English to Inuktitut for the first time.
“There was a social worker who came to see me. He told me that they wanted somebody from Aklavik to attend the Eskimo Affairs Committee meeting in Ottawa. Someone in the office, who had known me before, mentioned that maybe I would be a good candidate to attend the meeting.”
By the 1960s, Okpik was living in what was called Frobisher Bay formerly, and is now Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. Working at a rehabilitation centre, he would eventually start working for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
In 1965, he was appointed to the Northwest Territories Council, the precursor to the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. This was significant as most of the council came from Ottawa, and his role was to represent the Inuit population in the eastern Arctic, and he was the first Inuk to sit on the council. On Feb. 4, 1966, he attended his first council meeting and began speaking in his native language before transitioning into fluent English. During his speech, he advocated for a higher standard of living in the north. He also said he wanted to have a name like other Canadians.
Abe would say later:
“When I made my presentation at the first meeting in November or October, I said, this is Canada but how come the East doesn’t have a member on this council? There must be a reason. Is it that colonial rule is not over yet?”
His time on council was short. He was not reappointed to the council after his first year, with Simonie Michael being elected. Michael would have a strong impact on the Inuit life as well, including through the Surname Project that he helped to initiate. The federal government had felt that Michael could serve the role of Okpik on the council, and his seat was given to Chief John Tetlichi, the first status Indigenous to serve on the council.
Okpik had already made an impact though. In July 1966, electoral boundary officials from the federal government came up North to divide the territory into three separate districts, who each had their own representative.
His work with the people of the north was far from over though. This brings us to Project Surname. Beginning in the 1940s, the Government of Canada used disc numbers to identify people in the north. The government had deemed this necessary to handle the distribution of family allowances due to the lack of surnames in Inuit communities. Traditionally, the Inuit were named after a relative to carry part of that person’s spirit. Names could also change through one’s life, for example if a child were sick that could be a sign, they were rejecting the name and it was customary to change the name. It was also felt by the government that it took too long to identify Inuit names, so it was easier to use disc numbers. This would lead to the loss of traditional names in the Inuit culture. The Inuit were always required to have the tags with them, and the code on the tag denoted where they were born. An E at the start meant that the person was born in the east, while W stated the person was born in the west. While it may not seem that this was done in a prejudice way, many did see the disc number tags as an easing of culture. The process of using the numbers was supported and assisted by the churches and missionaries who saw the traditional names of the Inuit as too like practices of paganism and shamanism. The church and missionaries encouraged the Inuit to take Christian names on their disc numbers. Many were told this was a normal part of Christian and English naming systems. So, while a person may have been born with the name Lutaaq, and could be known by different names in their family, they would be baptized as Annie or John, and under the system would have the name Annie E7-183 or John E7-383, for example. It was only as the Inuit began studying in the south that they discovered the numbers were not part of the typical process for surnames.
Simonie Michael would bring the issue of surnames to the attention of the public, and the failings of the disc system. This would prompt the government to launch Project Surname. Okpik had also written an essay called “What Inuit Want”, that stated Inuit wanted equal treatment like the rest of Canadians.
Okpik had the disc number W3-554 and he was chosen to be the head of this new project, which was a monumental task but Okpik was up to the challenge.
From 1968 to 1971, Okpik visited every community and hundreds of traditional campsites in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and northern Quebec. In all, he visited 55 communities, going by snowmobile, boat, snowshoe, and plane. As he arrived in each community, he would record a person’s name, explain the need to choose a last name and how the naming process worked. The process followed a Euro-Canadian naming pattern, that assumed a male head-of-household, and as a result the name selected by the man was then extended to the entire family. To complete the project, Okpik had no budget and would often hitchhike on government charters to get into the communities. As well, while Okpik was helping the Inuit choose surnames, the government only addressed him by his disc number. Even for paying him, they only used his number.
Okpik would say later:
“We asked people what name they wanted. Some people were very co-operative, but some would say “why are you taking the number away. It worked for us all this time.”
When the project was finished, Okpik would return to Frobisher Bay, where he lived with his wife and three children and he began working as a teacher. He would focus on promoting the Inuit language and working with the Inuit Cultural Institute to create a new Inuktitut writing system that used 45 letters. This system would be adopted in 1974.
In 1974, Okpik would again assist the government when Thomas Berger came to the north on behalf of the Government of Canada to head the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. This inquiry’s goal was to look at the social, environmental, and economic impact of a gas pipeline running through the Yukon and Mackenzie River valley. It involved meeting with the Inuit population of the north and explaining the project to them. This often presented a challenge due to the huge scope of it. Okpik would describe the trillions of cubic feet of gas as such:
“When you talk about trillions, imagine six sand hill cranes and six caribou and try to count all the feathers and the hair on their body if you have time. You will never get near. A trillion is so huge.”
When telling people of places like Toronto, he compared it to the area of Aklavik down to Nelson Island, across the Mackenzie and up to Inuvik. He would describe the subway system like harp seals diving underwater to surface further away.
In the meetings, Okpik described what he would often hear:
“I heard; we don’t want industrial development before land claims. They were saying, this is our mother earth. It looked after us.”
The inquiry cost $5.3 million and comprised 40,000 pages of text and evidence. The recommendation was that no pipeline should be built through the Yukon and that a Mackenzie Valley pipeline should be delayed a decade. Okpik would travel with Berger through 35 northern communities to serve as both a broadcaster and an interpreter. The inquiry was notable because it gave a voice to the Indigenous who would be impacted by having a pipeline through their traditional territories.
For his work with Project Surname and the Berger Commission, Okpik was presented with the Order of Canada on Dec. 15, 1977. His citation reads:
“In recognition of the important contribution he has made to the preservation of the Inuit way of life by helping his people to rediscover their original surnames, through his membership on the Territorial Council and by his work on the Berger Commission as a broadcaster and interpreter.”
Okpik would spend the rest of his life living in Iqaluit and was a member of town council for several years, while also serving on community and volunteer organizations.
He would die on July 10, 1997 after a long illness. His funeral would be held at St. Jude’s Cathedral, which was attended by 500 people.
Today, Abe Okpik Hall is named for him.
From helping with Project Surname to the Berger Commission, Okpik spent his life promoting and protecting the Inuit culture.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Wikipedia, Prezi.com, Traditional-Knowledge.ca,