originally published June 21, 2014
What’s in a name? That which we call a prairie
By any other name would smell as grainy;
So Saskatchewan would, were it not Saskatchewan call’d,
Retain that weird insect surplus which it owes
Without that title.
So begins an unimpressively cutesy introduction to today’s discussion about the hallowed names that reach across my nation’s map. I’m aware, of course, that my American readers far outnumber my Canadian loyal, but in all fairness, covering the name origins to fifty states, a district, a country, and untold outlying territories would occupy much more real estate than my thousand words could afford.
And so I patriotically shmush my fingerprints against my keys and delve into the origin stories of my own origin story: Canada. Not her history itself – again, a thousand words only stretches so far across the table – but merely the names of the ten provinces and two territories I had to learn as a kid. There are three territories now, but I’ll happily include my Nunavutian brethren and sistren in today’s little missive.
That said, adhering to the proper essay format I spent the last eight years of my schooling attempting to shatter, we’ll open up big-picture-style: Why the fuck are we called Canada?
We have been known as ‘Canada’ since right around when the first European boot-heels clomped into the east coast mud in the 16th century and began to establish communities. It originates from Kanata, the Saint-Lawrence Iroquois’ word for ‘village’. Or possibly ‘settlement’. Or maybe it was ‘land’. I’m guessing some Iroquois folks made a sweeping gesture as they said the word and the settlers made their own call regarding the translation. That’s the official legend – however there are other theories out there.
The Iroquois word Kannata (which is pronounced ‘Cannada’) means ‘collection of huts’. Still pretty close to the original tale. But a much more intriguing notion was put forth that Portuguese and/or Spanish explorers explored the land first and jotted down acà nada or cà nada, meaning “nothing here” because they couldn’t find any gold or silver deposits worth exploiting. I like that – the land of Nothing Here. It lends a bit of mystery to our history.
The colony was split into Upper Canada and Lower Canada in 1791, but when it came time to fuse together and form an actual country in 1867, there was a smidgen of discussion over what to name the thing. Not much – we had been known to England as the Province of Canada for 25 years by then, so adding a couple more provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were our only other charter members) wasn’t going to shuffle the deck too much and require a new name. But other monikers were on the table, if only for a moment.
Laurentia was one – we now use that name to refer to the geological core of North America. A pretty name, and it gives some props to the Saint Lawrence River, which was the foundation of our early economy. Vesperia was also considered. I like that too – it sounds like it could be a region on Game of Thrones. Ursalia translates to “place of bears”, which is a somewhat pessimistic name. Going by that logic, Australia should have been named after whatever the Latin term for “place where every living creature wants to kill you” might be.
The proposed names get weirder. Hochelaga was a village in the area that eventually grew up to become Montreal, and it was also a proposed name for our country. It translates to “beaver dam”. I’m glad we don’t have to live down that cliché.
Mesopelagia means “land between the seas”, which would be accurate. It also could mean we have a “mess o’ Pelagias” – Pelagia being an uncommon Greek girl’s name. Transatlantica was another proposed name for our country, though it sounds like it’d make a better name for an airline. Some schmuck without imagination suggested we honor (sorry – honour) the queen by calling ourselves Victorialand.
Then we have the acronym set. Tuponia was suggested, a rough acronym of The United Provinces Of North America. If that isn’t weird enough, we could have adopted the name Efisga, which stands for English, French, Irish, Scottish, German, Aboriginal. What a beautifully inclusive (yet at the same time xenophobic toward everyone else) way to start up a nation.
The naming of our provinces and territories appears to have been a much less creative process. Nova Scotia is Latin for “New Scotland”; Charles I sent his crew there first so they got naming rights. New Brunswick got that name because of King George III’s ancestral home, Brunswick-Lüneberg. Newfoundland got its name from (maybe) João Vaz Corte-Real, the Portuguese explorer who popped over in 1472, though its Latin name – Terra Nova – is way cooler. Labrador is derived from another Portuguese adventurer, João Fernandes Lavrador. Prince Edward Island was named after the son of King George III and the lieutenant-general of the British Army in Canada: Prince Edward Island.
The Míkmaq word for ‘strait, narrows’ is kepék, which was Frenchified into Québec for our francophone province. Ontario is derived from a First Nations word (we’re not 100% sure which one), but the name was first ascribed to the Great Lake. When Upper Canada (the English-speaking one) was looking for a new name, they borrowed it from Lake Ontario.
Manitoba comes from the Cree word for ‘strait of the spirit’, probably because of the straits in Lake Manitoba. The word is manitowapow, which really makes me sad that they dropped the ‘pow’ from the end. I’d live anywhere that ends in ‘pow’. It would be fun to say.
The name Saskatchewan was also given first to a body of water, in this case the Saskatchewan River. This comes from the Cree word kisiskaciwani-sipiy, meaning ‘swift flowing river’. I’m glad they changed it. Alberta – my home and native slice of the country – was named for Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. The Princess (who also had the beautiful resort town of Lake Louise named in her honor – sorry, honour) spent a number of years in our little country, though from what I’ve read she was mostly unhappy here. I guess our name is… a consolation prize?
Our westernmost province was named British Columbia to distinguish it both from the nation of Colombia and from the US state Columbia, which was almost the name of what we now call Washington. That Columbia River had a lot of influence back in the day.
Lastly, a quick trip up north. The Yukon Territory is named after the Yukon River, a name which comes to us from the Gwich’in language, meaning ‘great river’. Nunavut, our newest territory, means ‘our land’ in Inuktitut, an Inuit language. I don’t think anyone’s going to fight them over that one.
Northwest Territories seems like an obvious name (though somewhat misleading since the Yukon is actually in the northwest corner of the country), but it used to refer to every scrap of land to the northwest of Lake Superior. That name plopped into our geographic lexicon long before all these upstart provinces started showing up.
There you go – today’s lesson in where we come from and where we are. It won’t rock your world, but if nothing else I’ve armed you with more than a dozen bits of trivia with which you can head out and bore the other patrons in line at Tim Hortons this morning. You’re welcome.