Place Names | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Place Names

Canada has about 350,000 official place names. These include names of populated places, water bodies (e.g. lakes) and geographical features (e.g. mountains).
Alberta, Princess Louise
The fourth daughter of Queen Victoria had both the province of Alberta and Lake Louise named for her (courtesy PAA/PA 3670).
Queen Victoria Statue
Queen Victoria is remembered in Canada through numerous place-names and public statues (courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission).
Iqaluit is near a traditional South Baffin Inuit fishing camp, where a summer camp was established each year to fish (photo by Barbara Brundege and Eugene Fisher).\r\n
Iqaluit is near a traditional South Baffin Inuit fishing camp, where a summer camp was established each year to fish.\r\n
Indigenous Place Names
This sign welcomes newcomers to Iqaluit, Nunavut. In 1987, the town of Frobisher Bay changed its name to Iqaluit, which means "fishes" in Inuktitut. Iqaluit was the term that the Inuit used before the location was renamed after Martin Frobisher, the English explorer who navigated the region in the 1500s. It was selected as the capital of Nunavut on 19 April 1995.

Canada has about 350,000 official place names. These include names of populated places, water bodies (e.g. lakes) and geographical features (e.g. mountains). Many geographical features are still unnamed, at least officially. Canadian place names have a variety of origins, including Aboriginal languages, royalty, famous people and religion.

Origin of the name Canada

In 1535, Jacques Cartier noted that Donnacona, an Iroquoian leader, called an area centered on the present site of Québec City kanata, meaning “a cluster of dwellings.” The name clearly impressed Cartier, for "Canada" appears in the Saguenay and Gaspé regions on the various maps compiled shortly after his historic voyages.

For a number of years the name Québec ("narrow passage" in the Algonquian languages) was assigned to the French territory from the Gulf of St Lawrence to the Ohio River. Similarly, from 1763-91 the British adopted "Province of Quebec" as the name of British lands or territories in present-day Ontario and Québec. By 1791, the name Canada was restored to the area of present southern Québec (Lower Canada) and southern Ontario (Upper Canada); from 1841 to 1867, these territories, united as the Province of Canada, were known as Canada East and Canada West, although Lower Canada and Upper Canada retained extensive usage.

Names of the Provinces

Besides Québec, three other provinces and two territories have names of Aboriginal origin. Ontario is often reported to mean "handsome lake," with the Huron word Ontare and Iroquois word Oniatare both meaning "lake," followed by “io,” suggesting "good" or "beautiful." The present spelling of the lake's name appeared on mid-17th-century maps.

Manitoba, first given to the lake, is said to be derived from the roaring noise ("strait of the spirit") at the narrows of Lake Manitoba. Saskatchewan comes from the Cree word for "swift flowing river." Yukon means "great river" in Gwich'in and was first noted (as "Youcon") by John Bell (1799-1868) in 1846. Nunavut means "our land" in Inuktitut.

Newfoundland may be the oldest European name for a Canadian place in continuous literary and cartographic use, dating from a letter from 1502. Nova Scotia could have come down in history as simply New Scotland, but the form in the Latin text of Sir William Alexander's grant of 1621 was preserved as a distinctive name. New Brunswick was chosen in 1784 to honour King George III (1760-1820), who was descended from the House of Brunswick.

Canada's smallest province was known as Isle de Saint Jean to the French, and then St John's Island from 1759 to 1798, when its present name — Prince Edward Island (for the Duke of Kent then in command of troops in Halifax) — was chosen to reduce the confusion among various places called St John's and Saint John. However, neither St John's, Newfoundland (possibly named on 24 June 1497), nor Saint John, New Brunswick (named by royal charter in 1785 after the river discovered by Pierre Du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain on 24 June 1604) has changed its name to resolve toponymic confusion.

The name British Columbia dates from 1858 when Queen Victoria selected it over New Caledonia. The Columbia River had been named in 1792 by the American explorer Robert Gray for his ship. The word "British" was added to distinguish the province from the South American country, Colombia. Queen Victoria's son-in-law, the marquess of Lorne, suggested Alberta in 1882 for a district of the then North-West Territories in honour of his wife, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. Lake Louise was also named for her.

Names of Aboriginal Origin

The names that are, on the whole, truly unique to Canada are those used by the Aboriginal people of Canada, who spoke a multitude of tongues, including Cree and Mi’kmaq in the east, Blackfoot and Haida in the west and Chipewyan and Inuktitut in the north. Most of their names describe an outstanding physical characteristic of each feature, while others reflect a significant incident, relate to an activity or denote a band or tribe. So rarely was a personal name applied that such names in the official records, for example, Muskoka and Donnacona, are probably company titles or designations given by European settlers.

In many instances meanings of names are unreliable, and frequently the language source is uncertain. Well-known names relating to physical characteristics include Niagara ("neck," in reference to the peninsula between the lakes), Restigouche ("fine river"), Gaspé ("end place"), Nepisiguit ("rough waters"), Mississauga ("large outlet"), Saguenay ( "water flows out"), Nipissing ("little body of water," in contrast to the Great Lakes), Chicoutimi ("end of deep water"), Timiskaming ("deep water"), Caughnawaga ("rapids"), Athabasca ("where there are reeds"), Kamloops ("meeting of the waters"), Keewatin ("north wind"), Minnedosa ("swift water") and Winnipeg ("murky water").

Names associated with occupancy or the tribes themselves include Ottawa ("traders"), Toronto ("trees standing in water," in reference to the appearance of fish weirs seen from a distance), Kitimat ("people of the snow"), Kootenay ("water people"), Penticton ("always place," i.e., permanently settled), Nanaimo ("big strong people") and Assiniboine ("cook by placing hot stones in water").

Kelowna means "grizzly bear," Aklavik, "place of bear" and Tuktoyaktuk, "reindeer that looks like caribou." Inuvik, "place of man," was assigned in 1958 to the new town set up to replace Aklavik. Saskatoon was named for a wild berry found in abundance by the first settlers in 1882.

Other place names are translations of Aboriginal designations, for example: Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, Yellowknife, Peace River, Qu'Appelle River, Swift Current, Thunder Bay, Battle River, Red Deer, Crowsnest Pass and Grand-Mère. Relatively recently, some Aboriginal communities with English or French names have had their Aboriginal designation recognized. In 1980, for example, Fort-Chimo, Québec, became Kuujjuaq; in 1987 Frobisher Bay, Northwest Territories, was changed to Iqaluit; and in 1996 Coppermine, Northwest Territories, was changed to Kugluktuk.

Names of Spanish Origin

Canada's relations with Spain date back several centuries to the voyages of the Basque fishermen to the Atlantic coast and to Spanish exploration of the Pacific coast. Basque expeditions are recalled in names such as Channel-Port aux Basques and Île aux Basques. Archaeologists have uncovered traces of a 16th-century Basque whaling station at Red Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador.

The numerous Spanish explorations on the Pacific coast between 1542 and 1792 are recalled in names such as Alberni, Laredo Strait, Carmelo Strait, Mazaredo Sound, Galiano Island, Juan de Fuca Strait, Tofino, Mount Bodega, Quadra Rocks and Narvaez Bay. At one time Vancouver Island was called Quadra and Vancouver's Island to commemorate the friendship between the Spanish navigator Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and English Captain George Vancouver.

Royal Names

Virtually every province has a city, town or village named after Queen Victoria. The most widely known, Victoria, British Columbia, was given in 1843 to the Hudson's Bay Company fort. In 1882, the marquess of Lorne gave the Queen's Latin title, Regina, to the capital of what was then the North-West Territories, replacing the Aboriginal name Wascana and its English derivative, Pile O'Bones. Prince Albert is named for Victoria's consort. Royalty is also reflected in names such as Queen Elizabeth Foreland — adjacent to Baffin Island and named for Elizabeth I — and the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Arctic Archipelago, named for Elizabeth II.

Annapolis Royal was named in 1710 for Queen Anne, replacing Port-Royal, established in the area in 1605 by Pierre Du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain. George III was honoured in Georgetown, Prince Edward Island; Prince George, British Columbia; and Kingston and Lancaster Township in Ontario. His wife, Charlotte, is named in the adjoining Charlottenburgh Township, and their children, beginning with the duke of Cornwall, in adjacent townships. Charlottetown was named for Queen Charlotte. Fredericton was named for their son in 1785. The city of Guelph was named by John Galt after the German ancestral family of George IV.

In 1906, the name of Prince Rupert (the first governor of the Hudson's Bay Company) was chosen after a national competition was sponsored by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The last major island in the Canadian Arctic was discovered in 1948, and named for the newly born Prince Charles. Non-British royalty honoured include King Christian of Denmark in the name of an island in the Arctic, Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden in a sea in the Arctic Ocean, and King Louis XIV of France in Louisbourg.

Names that Honour Politicians and Soldiers

Many of the same reasons for using royal names (e.g. respect, allegiance and hope for continued financial support) applied to the practice of honouring political leaders, government officials and military commanders, for example: Rivière Richelieu (duc de Richelieu, 1585-1642), Île d'Orléans (duc d'Orléans, son of François Ier) and Churchill River (duke of Marlborough, 1650-1722). Churchill Falls in Labrador was named for Winston Churchill. Perhaps regrettably, Hamilton River, named in the early 1800s for Sir Charles Hamilton, was changed to Churchill River by provincial legislation, meaning two major Canadian river systems have the same name.

Among British political leaders, the duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley), the earl of Chatham (William Pitt), the earl of Halifax (George Montagu Dunk) and the earl of Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli), have been honoured several times. Brandon derives its name from Brandon House, a Hudson's Bay Company post established in 1793 and named for the duke of Brandon, a company shareholder. There has been a trend away from honouring foreign leaders, one of the last being John F. Kennedy, whose name was assigned in 1964 to a mountain in the Yukon.

Great military leaders, for example, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and James Wolfe, had their names applied to a number of places; Robert Monckton was honoured in the name Moncton (efforts to respell it in the 1920s were sharply rejected); Jeffery Amherst, the victor at Louisbourg, in Amherst (Nova Scotia), and Amherstburg (Ontario); Isaac Brock, the hero of the War of 1812, in Brockville; Garnet Wolseley, leader of the Red River Expedition in 1870, in Wolseley (Saskatchewan); and Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, after whose death at sea in 1916 Berlin (the centre of German immigration in southwestern Ontario) was renamed Kitchener.

Several supporters of early exploration have also been honoured. For example, Sir Felix Booth, a London distiller, in the name Boothia Peninsula, and Axel Heiberg and Amund and Ellef Ringnes, patrons of Otto Sverdrup's expedition at the turn of this century, in the names of islands adjacent to Ellesmere Island.

Cabot Strait, Mont Jacques-Cartier, Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Frobisher Bay, Hudson Bay, James Bay, Juan de Fuca Strait (British Columbia) and Vancouver Island recall the early explorers, although in Juan de Fuca’s case the voyage may be apocryphal. Labrador and Bras d'Or Lake can be traced to John Cabot's contemporary, the Portuguese explorer Joao Alvares Fagundes.

Some of those who first mapped and described the interior of the country are remembered in Lake Champlain (Samuel de Champlain), Mackenzie River (Alexander Mackenzie), Fraser River (Simon Fraser), Thompson River (David Thompson) and Dawson and Dawson Creek (George M. Dawson).

Prominent Canadian political leaders, statesmen, industrialists and scientists have often been honoured. Numerous features commemorate John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Robert Borden and Mackenzie King. In recent years the names Mount Louis St. Laurent and Mount Lester Pearson have been given to mountains in British Columbia's Premier Range, and Lake Diefenbaker has been assigned to a huge reservoir on the South Saskatchewan River.

The earl of Dalhousie, Sir Guy Carleton and Sir John Sherbrooke are among governors-in-chief honoured; since Confederation, numerous places and features have been named for their successors, from the earl of Dufferin and Earl Grey to Roland Michener. The official naming of Mount Michener in 1979 with Michener present was a rare event in Canada's toponymic history. Georges-Philéas Vanier is remembered in many features and places.

Names Honouring Community Founders

Personal names of local developers, community founders and settlement promoters have provided an extensive source for Canadian names. Hamilton was named for George Hamilton (1787-1835), Timmins for Noah Timmins, Lloydminster for Reverend (later Bishop) George Lloyd (1861-1940), Joliette for Barthélemy Joliette (1789-1850) and Lethbridge for William Lethbridge (1824-1901). Forenames as well as surnames have been used for place names, for example, Peterborough (Peter Robinson), Belleville (Arabella Wentworth Gore) and Orangeville (Orange Lawrence) in Ontario, Melville (Charles Melville Hays) in Saskatchewan, Raymond (Raymond Knight) in Alberta and Rossland (Ross Thompson) in British Columbia.

At one time the assigning of personal names was done quite liberally, for example, Kirkland Lake was named in 1907 after a secretary in the Ontario Department of Mines. In recent years the approval of personal names has been stringently controlled by the names authorities in all the provinces and territories.

Saints' Names

A distinctive characteristic of Canada's toponymy, especially in Québec, is the profusion of saints' names; the Québec toponymic records list over 2,200 of them. Many of the hagionyms not only recall specific saints but were also the forenames of certain community founders, missionaries and priests. They include St-Hyacinthe, for Hyacinthe Delorme who purchased the seigneury there in 1753, St-Lambert, for Raphael Lambert Closse, a 17th-century merchant in the Montréal area, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, for Jean Phélypeaux, a French minister of marine, and Ste-Thérèse, for Thérèse de Blainville.

Others across Canada include St Albert (Alberta) for Father Albert Lacombe; St Thomas for Thomas Talbot, who developed a large part of southwestern Ontario; St Marys (Ontario) for Mary Strachan Jones, daughter of Bishop John Strachan; and St Catharines (Ontario) first known as St Catherines after Catherine Hamilton (née Askin), the mother of Hamilton's founder, and respelled in 1849 after Catharine Prendergast, wife of postmaster William Hamilton Merritt. Religious naming extends to Île Jésus, and Maniwaki, or "place of Mary", (Québec), Trinity Bay and Conception Bay (Newfoundland) and Bay of Gods Mercy (Northwest Territories).

Names of Anglo-Celtic Origin

From the Avalon Peninsula in the east to New Westminster in the west, Canada's linguistic mosaic preponderantly reflects Anglo-Celtic influences. Calgary traces its roots to the Isle of Mull in Scotland and Edmonton to the suburbs of London. Ontario has a multitude of Anglo-Celtic names, for example, Renfrew, Pembroke, Sudbury, Windsor, Woodstock, Dublin, Listowel, Stratford, Brampton; as does Québec, for example, Hull, Windsor, Thetford Mines, Thurso, Armagh, Bedford, Buckingham; and the Atlantic provinces, for example, Truro, Windsor, Perth-Andover, Newcastle and Kensington.

Evidence of the French as the first Europeans to occupy large parts of Canada is not only revealed in Québec, where 80 per cent of the names are of French origin, but in every one of the provinces and territories — Rideau River, Point Pelée, Lake Superior and Sault Ste Marie (Ontario), Portage la Prairie (Manitoba), Lac la Ronge (Saskatchewan), Lac La Biche (Alberta), Cariboo (British Columbia), Liard River (British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories), Bay of Fundy (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia), Minas Basin and Cape Breton (Nova Scotia); and in Newfoundland, Port aux Basques, Notre Dame Bay, Strait of Belle Isle. Montréal is generally accepted to be a variant of Jacques Cartier's "Mont Roiall," or Mount Royal, for that city's most distinctive feature.

Names transferred from other countries include Dresden and New Hamburg (Germany), Gimli (Iceland), Delhi and Lucknow (India), Zurich (Switzerland), Florence (Italy), Brussels (Belgium), Copenhagen (Denmark), Odessa (Ukraine), Moscow (Russia), Ladysmith (South Africa) and Corunna (Spain). The personal names of settlers and early postmasters from European countries provide a fascinating array of community names from languages other than English and French, but few of them are widely known beyond their own immediate regions.

Classical and Descriptive Names

Several of Canada's names reflect classical origins, for example, Acadia, given by Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524, suggests a land of rustic peace; Avalon Peninsula, assigned by Sir George Calvert in the early 1600s; Sarnia, given by Sir John Colborne in 1839 for the Roman name of Guernsey; and Athens, named in 1888 to replace the prosaic Farmersville.

Perhaps the most common type of name in Canada is descriptive, either of physical characteristics or of fauna, flora or minerals. Examples are Percé, Trois-Rivières, Rivière-du-Loup, Glace Bay, Midland, North Bay, Sturgeon Falls, Broadview, Grande Prairie, Cobalt, Asbestos, Petrolia, Val-d'Or, Gypsumville, Coppermine River, Whitehorse (referring to rapids in the Yukon River resembling a horse's mane) and Old Man on His Back Plateau, Rivière Qui-Mène-du-Train, Pinchgut Tickle, Cape Gargantua and Giants Castle.

Newfoundland's share of unusual names includes Joe Batt's Arm, Tickle Bay, Blow Me Down Bluff, Come By Chance, Little Seldom, Happy Valley, Pick Eyes, Bareneed, Hearts Delight, Bay d'Espoir (meaning "hope" but pronounced "despair") and Lushes Bight. Ecum Secum is in Nova Scotia and Peekaboo Corner is in New Brunswick. In Québec there is Saint-Louis-du-Ha!Ha!, the expression "ha ha" implying "dead end" or "one way." Punkeydoodles Corners near Kitchener, Ontario, presumably derives from a German farmer who raised only pumpkins. Flin Flon is derived from a character in the novel The Sunless City named Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin.

Saskatchewan has Eyebrow and Elbow; Alberta, Hairy Hill and Pincher Creek; British Columbia has Kleena Kleene, Bella Bella, Horsefly. Snafu Creek in the Yukon recalls an indelicate Second World War expression assigned by army engineers who also baptized Tarfu Creek. “SNAFU” stood for “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up,” while “TARFU” stood for “Things Are Really Fouled Up.” Old Lady's Ghost Creek and Man Drowned Himself Lake are in the Northwest Territories; and Nunavut has Sons of the Clergy Islands. Some names have resulted from a single incident or unusual circumstance. Lachine, Québec, dates from 1688 when Cavelier de La Salle failed to reach China.

In New Brunswick, when land grants laid out across a lake in 1784 were considered as impossible to attain as the perfection ascribed to Utopia, the lake was appropriately named Lake Utopia. Kicking Horse Pass in the Rockies was named for an 1858 incident when James Hector was kicked by one of his packhorses. Lindsay, Ontario, may have been named for an assistant surveyor who died after being accidentally shot while doing a street survey there in 1834.

In 1905, the adjoining places of Keewatin, Norman and Rat Portage provided initial letters for Kenora. Arvida, now part of the city of Jonquière, Québec, was bestowed in honour of Arthur Vining Davis, an official of the Aluminum Company of Canada. Noranda, Québec, was derived from "North Canada," the name of the mining company established there in 1922. In Saskatchewan, Robert Kerr, a Canadian Pacific Railway traffic manager, is remembered in Kerrobert. Castlegar, British Columbia, is derived from Castle Gardens, a former immigration centre in New York; the community's railway station reminded the namer of the New York structure.

National and international literary figures have been commemorated in a number of place names, from Shakespeare and Haliburton in Ontario to Carlyle and Lampman in Saskatchewan. In the Yukon, Stephen Leacock and Robert Service have been memorialized in the names of mountains. Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Nokomis are derived from literary references.

Duplicate and Controversial Names

The problem of duplication of names, for example, Trout River, Wolf Lake and Mud Lake, has frequently bothered map users. Although some efforts have been made to change some of the more common names and to discourage the use of such names in the future, arbitrary substitution by authorities has usually not been successful, especially when local people have been ignored in the process. The best-known example was the change of Castle Mountain to Mount Eisenhower in 1946. During the following 30 years, several efforts were made to reverse this decision. Late in 1979, the federal and Alberta authorities agreed to restore Castle Mountain, and assigned the name Eisenhower Peak to its most prominent summit.

Attempts to change names considered by authorities to be repugnant have usually not been supported locally. In 1826, there was an effort to replace Pugwash (Nova Scotia) with Waterford, but the former, of Mi’kmaq origin, was retained. In Ontario, the residents of Swastika, in the town of Kirkland Lake, have resisted attempts to change their name, given in 1906 in reference to a good luck charm. Residents of Strassburg, Saskatchewan, and Berlin, Ontario, were given little choice in being assigned the new names Strasbourg and Kitchener. In 1986, the Ontario Legislature replaced the name of Stalin Township with Hansen Township, for "man-in-motion" Rick Hansen.

In recent years, Galt, Hespeler and Preston have had the common name Cambridge, Ontario, superimposed, and Fort William and Port Arthur have been amalgamated to form Thunder Bay. The derivation or meanings of some names in Canada are disputed, for example, Gaspé (Québec), The Pas (Manitoba) and Mount Robson (British Columbia), and in many cases the records are not clear.

Spellings and Pronunciations

Almost every place name has a single correct form, but several are commonly misspelled. St Catharines (Ontario) is frequently written St Catherines, Edmundston (New Brunswick) is often written Edmunston and Athabasca River (Alberta) is sometimes spelled Athabaska River. Some names of features crossing provincial or international boundaries have more than one spelling. One often sees Temiskaming, but this is not one of the three official forms of the name; the regional county in Québec is Témiscamingue, the town in Québec is Témiscaming, the district in Ontario is Timiskaming. The Kootenay River in British Columbia becomes Kootenai River in the US.

Hyphens are used in all populated place names of Québec with two or more words of French origin, thus Ste-Marthe-du-Cap-de-la-Madeleine, although names with initial articles do not have hypens, for example, La Décharge, Le Grand-Village. Hyphens are not used in Québec names of non-French origin, for example, Campbell's Bay, Ayer's Cliff.

There are no fixed rules for name pronunciation. Some names like Toronto and Calgary seem to allow for more than one suitable pronunciation. Others often receive pronunciations not used by the people who live there, for example, Newfoundland, Elginburg (Ontario), Gleichen (Alberta) and Maugerville (New Brunswick). Some names receive different pronunciations when they occur in different locations, for example, Dalhousie (New Brunswick, Ontario) and Souris (Prince Edward Island, Manitoba).

See also Geographical Names Board of Canada; Mineral Naming.

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