The naked truth about Nunavut’s postal abbreviation

Believe it or not, Canada Post once feared the consequences of using “NU” as a postal abbreviation for Nunavut. (File photo)

By Kenn Harper

If you live in Nunavut, you probably think nothing of it when you write the two letters NU as part of your address. If you live elsewhere but are mailing something to Nunavut, you also probably don’t cringe in embarrassment when you write the abbreviation NU.

But, believe it or not, the adoption of NU was mired in controversy, albeit short-lived, when Nunavut was founded.

Canada Post uses two-letter abbreviations for provinces and territories, as does the United States Postal Service. The creation of the Nunavut territory should have immediately triggered a need, at Canada Post, for the creation of a code for the territory. The letters NT were already in use for Northwest Territories.

But even after division of the territory into two territories on April 1, 1999, Canada Post stubbornly clung to NT as the designator for Nunavut: “As far as we’re concerned,” a spokesperson for Canada Post told Nunatsiaq News, “Nunavut is still NT.”

In fact, their scanning equipment would not even recognize NU. Grudgingly, they admitted that “you can spell out the full word Nunavut and our equipment will recognize it.”

And, they admitted, if you spelled out the full six-character postal code, the mail would get through, even if it contained the forbidden NU.

For those readers outside Canada, I should point out that, in addition to the two-letter abbreviations used for provinces and territories (just like the USA,) Canada also uses six-character postal codes, like X0A 0H0 for Iqaluit—a regular alteration of letters and numbers (Those “0s” are zeroes).

This differs from the USA, where all-numerical codes are used, and from the United Kingdom, where a different alphanumeric system is used.

So NT was taken. And the letters NV were already in use—for Nevada. That left NU as a logical possibility.

But Canada Post didn’t like it. They apparently favoured the abbreviation NN.

But what was their objection to NU? Simply this: in French, “nu” means “naked” or “nude.” Canada Post was overcome by a spate of over-the-top political correctness—a desire not to offend anyone.

“We don’t like NU mainly because of the French translation,” said a corporation official responsible for “address management.”

Going further, the Canada Post thought-police offered this rationale: “The issue is bigger than just the mail.” What that bigger issue was, they didn’t say.

“We’re Canada Post,” they explained, “and if anything’s sensitive, we get smacked across the head if we take one wrong step.”

At the time, the corporation said that it intended to continue using NT for Nunavut until the residual Northwest Territories—what was left in the west after division—came up with a new name for their territory. This would probably result in the need for a new abbreviation there.

A new name for what would be left of the old Northwest Territories was an idea often talked about 20 years ago, but it would have been a long wait. The Northwest Territories still retains the name it has always had.

Canada Post went so far as to consult with the Nunavut Implementation Commission on the subject. Once the laughter had died down, commission staff duly contacted the francophone association, who also had a good laugh over it and said they had no objection to the NU short form.

At some point and without any publicity, Canada Post, with a little nudge from the Standards Council of Canada, conceded the issue, and NU has been an official postal abbreviation ever since.

And that’s the naked truth.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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(7) Comments:

  1. Posted by Ken is ‘Yes’ on

    Amusing for being so PC. Now i wonder if you Ken had written about the mishaps of Iqaluit meaning and spellings. That is even more colourful.

    • Posted by Tulugaq on

      Indeed! I remember years ago, I had a high ranked official from Ottawa coming to Iqaluit for a BIG meeting with Inuit and other bureaucrats. I warned him that Iqualuit had a meaning that was improper for an official meeting and not to forget to omit the ‘u’. Well, as fate would have it, he hadn’t listened or understood and in his first sentence in his speech to this august assembly, he sait Iqualuit… that was followed by a stunned silence and then a polite laugh by our Inuit friends. I don’t even know if he realized what that was for…

  2. Posted by Umilik on

    Interesting read.
    Now the next step – civic addressing for all Municipalities. But it, too, is lost in bureaucracy.

  3. Posted by Graham White on

    Thanks Kenn; another great column. Too bad Nunavut couldn’t have taken the NT code and the Northwest Territories been BO — for Bob.

  4. Posted by Jack Hicks on

    I was the GN official who Premier Paul Okalik sent to represent Nunavut at a meeting called by the Standards Council of Canada to ‘reach consensus’ on what Nunavut’s two-letter postal identifier should be. I suspect he picked me because he knew I can be a right prick in a meeting if that’s what the situation requires… My marching orders were clear: NU.

    I went into the meeting armed with a piece of inside info supplied by a friend in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. The reason why Canada Post management was opposed to NU was because they had a ‘legacy’ computer reason which couldn’t handle an additional identifier. Agreeing to NU would mean replacing an antiquated piece of software – at considerable expense. My source added that the folks in Canada Post’s IT system would be very grateful if we could force that, as the software was badly in need of replacement – but each year for several years budget cuts had cancelled its scheduled replacement.

    A lot of federal officials turned up at the meeting, expecting a big fight. And that’s what they got. But it didn’t last long – once Canada Post management realized that I knew what they were hiding, they caved pretty quickly.

  5. Posted by Northwest Territories on

    It’s interesting that the Northwest Territories was never changed to something more Indigenous. It could be a name encompassing the Athabaskan, Algonquian and Inuit languages.

    A new territory name would likely be better than an antiquated term by the Hudson’s Bay in the 1600s.

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