Aboriginal Place Names

Date: July 2001

Aboriginal place names contribute to a rich tapestry

Map of CanadaThe map of Canada is a rich tapestry of place names. These names reflect the diverse history and heritage of the nation. Many of the country's earliest place names draw on Aboriginal sources. Before the arrival of Europeans, First Nations and Inuit gave names to places throughout the country to identify the land they knew so well, and with which they had a strong spiritual connection. For centuries, these names that described the natural features of the land, or commemorated significant historical events, passed from one generation to the next.

Many of these names still survive today. The representation of these names in European languages sometimes diminishes the lyrical sounds of the original names themselves. Nevertheless, the story of Aboriginal place names goes back to the earliest remembered history of our country.

A sample of some Aboriginal place names

The name of Canada itself, and the names of some provinces and territories, come from place names in Aboriginal languages.

  • Canada: is from Kanata, meaning "settlement" or "village" in the language of the Huron.
  • Saskatchewan: the province got its name from the Saskatchewan River, which the Cree called Kisiskatchewani Sipi, meaning "swift-flowing river."
  • Manitoba: the likeliest source is the Cree maniot-wapow, "the strait of the spirit or manitobau." This name refers to the roaring sound produced by pebbles on a beach on Manitoba Island in Lake Manitoba. The Cree believed the noise sounded like a manito, a spirit, beating a drum. It has also been suggested that the name comes from the Assiniboine words mini and tobow, meaning "Lake of the Prairie."
  • Ontario: this Huron name, first applied to the lake, may be a corruption of onitariio, meaning "beautiful lake," or kanadario, which translates as "sparkling" or "beautiful" water.
  • Quebec: Aboriginal peoples first used the name kebek for the region around the city of Québec. It refers to the Algonquin word for "narrow passage" or "strait" to indicate the narrowing of the river at Cape Diamond.
  • Yukon: this name belonged originally to the river, and is from a Loucheux word, LoYu-kun-ah, meaning "great river."
  • Nunavut: the name of Canada's newest territory, which came into being on April 1, 1999, means "our land" in Inuktitut.

Many Canadian towns, cities, rivers and mountains also have names that come from Aboriginal sources. The following is a short list of some of Canada's larger towns and cities whose names originate with Aboriginal peoples.

  • Chilliwack (British Columbia) - is the name of the local tribe, ch.ihl-KWAY-uhk. This word is generally interpreted to mean "going back up." It refers to the people's return home after visiting the mouth of the Fraser River.
  • Coquitlam (British Columbia) -derived from the Salish tribal name Kawayquitlam, this word can be translated as "small red salmon." The name refers to the sockeye salmon common to the area.
  • Kamloops (British Columbia) - is likely from the Shushwap word kahm-o-loops, which is usually translated as "the meeting of waters." The name refers to the junction of the North and South Thompson rivers at Kamloops.
  • Penticton (British Columbia) - the name comes from an Okanagan word meaning "the always place," in the sense of a permanent dwelling place.
  • Fort Chipewyan (Alberta) - the town was named for the Chipewyan people, and means "pointed skins," a Cree reference to the way the Chipewyans prepared beaver pelts.
  • Medicine Hat (Alberta) - is a translation of the Blackfoot word, saamis, meaning "headdress of a medicine man." According to one explanation, the word describes a fight between the Cree and Blackfoot when a Cree medicine man lost his plumed hat in the river.
  • Wetaskiwin (Alberta) - is an adaptation of the Cree word wi-ta-ski-oo cha-ka-tin-ow, which can be translated as "place of peace" or "hill of peace."
  • Qu'Appelle (Saskatchewan) - the town name is from the river, known to the Cree as kab-tep-was. This means "the river that calls." The legend associated with the name tells of a Cree man paddling to his wedding, when he heard his name called out. He recognized the voice of his bride, who was still many days travel away. He answered, "Who calls?" and a spirit mimicked him: "Who calls?" He then hurried home to find that his bride had died, uttering his name with her last breath. French settlers in Saskatchewan perpetuated the legend by naming the river Qu'Appelle, meaning "who calls?"
  • Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) - the name comes from an edible red berry native to the area, which the Cree called mis-sask-guah-too-min.
  • Grand Rapids (Manitoba) - is a translation of the Cree word misepawistik, or "rushing rapids."
  • The Pas (Manitoba) - originated with the Cree opa, meaning "a narrow place" or opaskweow, "narrows between high banks."
  • Winnipeg (Manitoba) - the name, from the Cree win-nipi, can be freely translated as "dirty water" or "murky water," to describe the lake and river.
  • Etobicoke (Ontario) -comes from the Ojibway word wah-do-be-kaung, which means "the place where the alders grow."
  • Kapuskasing (Ontario) - is a Cree word meaning "the place where the river bends."
  • Mississauga (Ontario) - is named after the Mississauga people who live in the area, and describes the mouth of a river. Michi or missi means "many," and saki, "outlet" a river having several outlets.
  • Oshawa (Ontario) - is a Seneca word that means "crossing of a stream" or "carrying place," describing an old portage in the area.
  • Ottawa (Ontario) - the word comes from the Algonquin term adawe, "to trade." This was the name given to the people who controlled the trade of the river.
  • Chibougamau (Quebec) - is a Cree word that means "where the water is shut in," describing a narrow outlet of the lake.
  • Chicoutimi (Quebec) - this name of Montagnais origin comes from the word shkoutimeou, meaning "the end of the deep water."
  • Gaspé (Quebec) - is a name believed to come from the Mi'kmaq word for "end" or "extremity," referring to the northern limits of their territory.
  • Listiguj (Quebec) - comes from the Mi'kmaq lustagooch, likely meaning "river with five branches."
  • Rimouski (Quebec) - is a word of Mi'kmaq or Maliseet origin, which has been translated as "land of moose" or "retreat of dogs," perhaps referring to its fine hunting grounds.
  • Oromocto (New Brunswick) - is derived from the Maliseet word welamooktook, meaning "good river."
  • Baddeck (Nova Scotia) - is a possible version of the Mi'kmaq petekook, meaning "the place that lies on the backward turn." The word refers to Mi'kmaq travel on the river from Bras d'Or Lake.
  • Musquodobit (Nova Scotia) - comes from the Mi'kmaq mooskudoboogwek, which can be translated as "rolling out in foam" or "suddenly widening out after a narrow entrance at its mouth."
  • Shubenacadie (Nova Scotia) - is a name of Mi'kmaq origin that comes from the word segubunakadik, meaning "the place where groundnuts (Indian potatoes) grow."
  • Tuktoyaktuk (Northwest Territories) - is an Inuit name that can be translated tuktu, "caribou," yaktuk, "looks like," or "reindeer that looks like caribou."
  • Pangnirtung (Northwest Territories) - is an adaptation of the Inuktitut word said to mean "place of the bull caribou."
  • Inuvik (Northwest Territories) - comes from the Inuktitut word meaning "the place of man."

Place names reveal Aboriginal peoples' contributions

Place names are never just meaningless sounds. Rather, they embody stories about the places to which they are attached. They give us valuable insights into history and provide clues about the country's cultural and social development. A study of place names will always reveal the astounding diversity and depth of Aboriginal peoples' contributions to contemporary Canada.

Definitions

Aboriginal peoples:

The descendants of the original inhabitants of North America. The Canadian Constitution recognizes three groups of Aboriginal people - Indians, Métis people and Inuit. These are three separate peoples with unique heritages, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.

First Nation:

A term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word "Indian," which many people found offensive. Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition of it exists. Among its uses, the term "First Nations peoples" refers to the Indian people in Canada, both Status and Non-Status. Many Indian people have also adopted the term "First Nation" to replace the word "band" in the name of their community.

Inuit:

An Aboriginal people in northern Canada, who live above the tree line in the Northwest Territories, and in Northern Quebec and Labrador. The word means "people" in the Inuit language - Inuktitut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk.

Nunavut:

Canada's newest territory, created on April 1, 1999 when the Northwest Territories was divided in two. Nunavut means "our land" in Inuktitut. Inuit, whose ancestors inhabited these lands for thousands of years, make up 80 percent of the population of Nunavut. The new territory has its own public government.

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