What's In A Name?

How Canada and it's Provinces Came to be Named
Sources: The Macmillan book of Canadian Place Names
by William B. Hamilton (1978, Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, Ontario);
Naming Canada by Alan Rayburn (1994, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario)

Canada | Alberta | British Columbia | Labrador | Manitoba | New Brunswick
Newfoundland | Northwest Territories | Nova Scotia | Nunavut | Ontario
Prince Edward Island | Québec | Saskatchewan | Yukon
For 'Acadia', see Nova Scotia.

Canada

A number of names were suggested for the new Dominion of Canada. Among the more interesting and most repeated names were:

  • Acadia
  • Albertsland (after Prince Albert)
  • Albertoria (after Prince Albert and Queen Victoria)
  • Albionora
  • Albonia
  • Alexandria
  • Aquilonia
  • Borealia (after the aurora borealis, or northern lights)
  • Britannia
  • Britannica
  • Cabotia (after John Cabot)
  • Canadensia
  • Colonia
  • Efisga (acronym: England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and Aboriginal lands)
  • Hochelaga (original Native name for Montreal)
  • Laurentia
  • Mesopelagia
  • Niagarentia
  • New Albion
  • Norland
  • Superior
  • Transatlantica
  • Tuponia (acronym: The United Provinces of North America)
  • Ursalia
  • Vesperia
  • Victorialand
  • Victorialia

Fortunately for Canadians, on July 1, 1867, the provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were united as a Dominion under the name of 'Canada', but not before some debate, and none with more wit and humour and reasoning than Thomas D'Arcy McGee:

"I read in one newspaper not less than a dozen attempts to derive a new name. One individual chooses Tuponia and another Hochelaga as a suitable name for the new nationality. Now I ask any honourable member of this House how he would feel if he woke up some fine morning and found himself instead of a Canadian, a Tuponian or a Hochelagander." (February 9, 1865)

A number of theories have been proposed in explaning the derivation of the name 'Canada'. In 1698, Father Louis Hennepin first recorded the similarity of the Spanish 'aca nada', meaning 'here, nothing'. This refers to the derisive name applied to the region by the Spanish who had found no gold or riches in Canada. This is also similar to the Portuguese 'cà nada', also meaning 'here, nothing'.

The most commonly accepted version, however, derives from explorer Jacques Cartier in his writings in 1536. In the company of Taignoagny and Domagaya, sons of Iroquoian Chief Donnacona, Cartier was returning to Canada after having taken to boys to France as proof of the New World. As they approached the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the boys eagerly announced, "That's the way to Canada", referring to their 'kanata' (village) Stadacona (present-day Quebec City). Cartier learned that Chief Donnacona's territory extended over a number of 'kanatas' 50 kilometres beyond Stadacona.

In his journals, Cartier appended a list of local Iroquoian words, noting particularly that 'kanata' meant 'town' and that the lands ruled by Donnacona incorporated a series of 'kanatas'. André Thever, a contemporary explorer of Cartier, expanded this idea to mean that 'kanata' meant all the lands ruled by Donnacona instead of the individual villages.

With few exceptions, maps made in France following Cartier's 1536 expedition indicated Canada as being the vast territory north of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It seems, then, that Canada was named after the Iroquoian word for 'village'.

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Alberta

In 1882, the District of Alberta was created and was later enlarged on September 1, 1905, to become the province of Alberta.

'Alberta' was in honour of Her Royal Highness Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (daughter of Queen Victoria), the wife of Canadian Governor General the Marquess of Lorne (1878-1883).

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British Columbia

Originally, the province was to be called 'New Caledonia', but, since the name was already in use in the South Pacific, the name was discarded in favour of British Columbia.

'Columbia' derives from the Columbia River, named by American Captain Robert Gray for his ship the 'Columbia', and the name had been generally applied to the southern portion of the colony.

'British Columbia' appears to have originated with Queen Victoria. An official proclamation in 1858 designated the name.

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Labrador

The most generally-accepted version of the derivation of Labrador is that applied to João Fernandes, a Portuguese explorer. Fernandes was also a 'lavrador' (landholder) in the Azores. The name originally applied to a portion of modern-day Greenland, but the name was later transfered to the eastern coast of Canada by cartographers.

'Labrador' may well have come about as the result of a 'typo'. An inscription near Greenland on the 1530 Weimar map stated: "... And as the one who first gave notice of it was a labrador (sic) of the Azores (João Fernandes), they gave it the name." (The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 1.) The inscription could just as easily have indicated the east coast of Canada.

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Manitoba

Originally, the name was applied to Lake Manitoba and extended to the new province.

'Manitoba' most probably derives from the Cree word 'maniotwapow', which means 'the strait of the spirit or manitobau', in reference to the sound the water made on a beach on Manitoba Island in Lake Manitoba, giving rise to the Cree superstition of a manito (spirit) beating a drum. Manitoba was created in 1870 in order to settle the 'Red River Rebellion'.

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New Brunswick

Originally, New Brunswick was part of Acadia and Nova Scotia. However, following the American Revolution (1775-1783), a large number of United Empire Loyalists (colonists loyal to the Crown) were expelled from the new United States and moved north into the British colonies in Canada.

By 1784, as population grew to such a point that it was necessary to create a new and separate province. Two of the early potential names were 'New Ireland', which was suggested by William Knox, the Under Secretary of State, and 'Pittsylvania', named after the then British prime minister William Pitt.

On September 10, 1784, the official partition of Nova Scotia took place and New Brunswick was created.

'New Brunswick' was eventually agreed upon in honour of King George III who had descended from the House of Brunswick.

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Newfoundland

When John Cabot sailed to North American in 1497, he wrote about the 'new founde isle' (sic). By 1502, official English documents referred to Newfoundland as 'New found lande' (sic) and by 1510, French documents called it 'Terre Neuve' ('New Land'). In 1529, a map drawn by Giovanni da Verrazano used the name 'Terra Nova'.

'Newfoundland' had generally been accepted since its discovery in one form or another, and Newfoundland became the tenth and last province to join Confederation on March 31, 1949.

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Northwest Territories

Originally, the name loosely referred to the vast area north and west of Lake Superior. Through the years, it was divided into various districts, the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the territory of Yukon. Most recently, the Northwest Territories were further divided, a large portion of which became Nunavut in 1999.

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Nova Scotia

Until 1621, the area currently occupied by New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (including adjacent portions of Quebec and New England) was called Acadia. 'Acadia' most probably originated from the name 'Achadia' ('land of rustic peace') which had been assigned to the area by Giovanni da Verrazano.

A second possible derivation is from the Micmac word 'Quoddy' (or 'Cady') which simply meant 'a piece of land'. Although the French changed the word into 'Cadie', it is, in all probability, simply coincidental.

On September 29, 1621, Sir William Alexander received a grant of land which included all of the lands "lying between New England and Newfoundland . . . to be known as Nova Scotia, or New Scotland."

Eventually, the population of Nova Scotia had grow to such a point by 1784 that it was divided into 2 separate provinces: Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

'Nova Scotia' first appeared on maps following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

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Nunavut

Created as a new territory in 1993 and officially the newest part of Canada on April 1, 1999, Nunavut now comprises the entire former District of Keewatin, the northeastern portion of the District of Franklin, and portions of the Victoria and Melville islands.

'Nunavut' means 'our land' in the Inuktitut (Inuit) language.

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Ontario

Originally applied to the lake (Lake Ontario) in 1641, and later to the shoreline and finally to the province itself, the name has definite American Indian roots.

'Ontario' derives either from 'Onitariio', meaning 'beautiful lake', or 'Kanadario', meaning 'sparkling' or 'beautiful' water. Ontario was an original province in the new Dominion of Canada, July 1, 1867.

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Prince Edward Island

When the island was acquired by the British in 1759, it was named 'St. John's Island'. Earlier, Samuel de Champlain had written about 'L'île de Saint Jean' in 1604 and the name appeared on his map in 1632. ('Jean' is French for 'John'.) In 1769, St. John's Island became separate from Nova Scotia and the name 'St. John's Island' remained until it was changed to 'Prince Edward Island' in 1798.

'Prince Edward Island' was named in honour of Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent and father of Queen Victoria. At the time, Prince Edward was in command of the British forces in Halifax. Prince Edward Island entered Confederation on July 1, 1873.

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Québec

Although earlier spellings such as 'Quebecq', 'Kébec' and 'Quebec' vary slightly, the names all had the same derivation. Originally applied to the area surrounding early Ville de Québec (Quebec City), the name was eventually applied also to the province.

'Qué'bec' derives from the Algonquin word for 'narrow passage', which the Indians had applied to the portion of the St. Lawrence River where the river narrowed (at present-day Quebec City). The word, which was common to the Algonquin, Cree, and Micmac languages, signified the same thing in each language. Québec was one of the original provinces in the new Dominion of Canada, July 1, 1867.

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Saskatchewan

'Saskatchewan' derives originally from the Cree name applied to the Saskatchewan River: 'Kisiskatchwani Sipi', meaning 'swift-flowing river'. The name was first officially applied to the District of Saskatchewan when it was designated part of the North West Territories in 1882. Saskatchewan became a province in 1905.

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Yukon

The first historical notation of 'Yukon' was made by John Bell, an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1846, and applied to the Yukon River.

'Yukon' derives from the Indian word 'Yu-kun-ah', meaning 'great river'. The Yukon Territory was established on June 13, 1898.

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