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The complicated history of the now-former name of Edmonton’s CFL club

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The term 'Eskimo' has a complicated history in Canada. Many within the Inuit community feel the word is racist, but others don't agree.

Naulaq LeDrew, an Inuit community elder and artist based in Toronto, is happy Edmonton’s CFL team will no longer be known as Eskimos.

It’s not because she feels the word is a derogatory term. She doesn’t. It was the lack of connection between the team and Canada’s Inuit that she says was a problem.

“I’m glad they’re changing the name because my understanding was they weren’t helping any Inuit back home,” said LaDrew.

Heather Igloliorite is an Inuk scholar from Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador. For Iglorliorite, the word Eskimo has always been offensive, but she says not all Inuit feel the same way.

READ MORE: CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos dropping ‘Eskimo’ from team name

“For me, it has always been a term that has been tinged with racism. I was called a ‘skimo’ when I was kid … I don’t think there’s two ways to consider that a respectful term,” the Concordia University professor said.

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Igloliorite was also happy to hear the Edmonton CFL club’s decision to retire the name because on the field, much of the complicated context around the word and its relationship to the people of Canada’s North was lost.

“I think that does detract from our humanity when we are turned into a mascot,” she said.

The word Eskimo is also closely tied to colonialism, something that came relatively late to some Inuit communities. When LeDrew was born in Apex Hill, Nunavut, she lived a very traditional way of life

READ MORE:  N.L. government, Inuit leaders agree to delay residential school apology due to COVID-19

“I was brought up culturally hunting, fishing, camping on the tundra where my parents were raised, until colonization came.”

Colonization brought a number of painful policies to Inuit communities.  LaDrew and her parents were forced to wear Eskimo Identification Tags or E-tags at all times. The brown leather badges had an identification number and were used by the Canadian government to track and identify Inuit community members from 1941 into the 1970s.

“There’s a theory they were introduced because it may have been difficult to pronounce a lot of Inuit names, we also didn’t have a surname system until then,” said Igloliorite. “I think if you asked a lot of Inuit who had numbers, many would say it was seen as oppressive. Certainly, a lot of Inuit saw them as dog tags or serial numbers.”

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Government policies also forced some Inuit people to relocate or to go to residential schools. There are also questions around whether there was a coordinated campaign by either the government or the RCMP to kill thousands of Inuit family sled dogs.

READ MORE: Changing logos is a start, but experts say racialized brands need to do even more 

“I witnessed the dog slaughter because my father himself had a dog team and what really got me was they hired a relative of ours to slaughter our dogs,” LaDrew says, adding she was six years old at the time.

“I have talked to elders who have said that more than almost any other history that was the darkest time because it meant that Inuit couldn’t leave their communities they had been settled into and had to stay in town,” said Igloliorite

Both LaDrew and Igloliorite recognize that changing Edmonton’s CFL club name has been controversial.  There have been disagreements about it within the Inuit community as well but both women hope that the name change might spark some conversation and lead more people to learn about the lesser-known history of the people in Canada’s north.