Herewith Maclean’s begins a series of brief articles on the whys and wherefores of Canadian place names. We hope that you will find in the story of such names a running thread of interesting history that will serve to bring to mind other days and other ways.
THE PLACE names of a young country like Canada form a chronicle of the modes of thought and feeling of its people, of the pioneers who shaped its destiny, and of the progress of its national life.
What is in these names? The outpouring of the old world in the new—all the color, all the struggle, all the martyrdom, all the triumph and the grief . . . The great native personalities and their contemporaries, the early missionaries . . . The nostalgic harking back to old-loved scenes and friends. The ancestral feeling so apparent in our English and French names.
For example, some of the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River bear the names of gunboats which sailed those waters in the War of 1812, and the townships in Quebec are named after the officers in Montcalm’s regiments. We have London and York, and our greatest river is named for St. Lawrence. Within thememory of most of us is the naming of mountain peaks in the West in honor of Canadian military men, and of battles in which Canadians fought in the Great War. A British woman’s martyrdom is immortalized in the mountain peak, Edith Cavell.
Here and there in Canada are some few names that came through accident or whim. There is documentary evidence that a whim was responsible for the naming of three townships in Ontario--Tiny, Flos and Tay—after the poodle dogs of a lady of importance.
In new countries where names have been given and no records kept to give future generations the reason for the selection, names which are obviously commemorative sometimes fail to commemorate. The name Canada is a case in point. Yet perhaps in this series, we shall be able to capture the spirit of the names of our provinces and cities, if not the cold document.
The first name to be considered in the series is, of course, “Canada.”
The learned Dean of Westminster in his interesting and valuable work, “The Study of Words” writes: “The rise of some new words is mysterious; they appear, they are in everyone’s mouth, but yet nobody can tell about them . . . the circumstances of their origin are rapidly forgotten.” He adds: “One might suppose that a name like Canada, given, and within fresh, historic times, to a vast territory, would have been accounted for, but it is not.”
Various fanciful derivations have been suggested for the name. One, from the Algonquin Cantata, meaning “Welcome,” supposed to be the greeting the Indians gave Cartier—or did they welcome him? Another is from the Iroquois word Canatha, which means “a collection of huts,” which word the Indians applied to their chief town. A third is from the Spanish Aca Nada—Aca supposedly from Aqui, meaning “here” and Nada “nothing.” Legend has it that the Spaniards found our shores before the English or the French, while in search of their will-o’-thewisp, Eldorado, and said Aca Nada (“nothing here”) because they saw no sign of gold along the coast—which was not very bright of the Spaniards.
Legend relates further that the Red Men, hearing the oft-repeated Aca Nada, treasured the words in their retentive memories without knowing their meaning. When the English and French explorers arrived, the Indians repeated these words in the hope that the visitors would depart as had their Spanish predecessors. But the
words were mistaken for the name of the country.
It has also been suggested that the name possibly derives from the Basque or the Portuguese word Canada, meaning a narrow passage (which is used with similar meaning in both countries), and that this might have referred to the narrow part of the St. Lawrence near Quebec City.
Chief Tyendinagea, better known as Joseph Brant, in his translation of the Gospels, always used the word “Canada” to signify a town or city, and so have other Indian translators.
In his geography, published in 1760, Thomas Jeffreys has given the meaning Can—country, and ada—mouth, the mouth being the St. Lawrence which was called Canada by some early writers.
In general, the name is held to mean a town or village. In the narrative written by Jacques Cartier, he tells that he heard the Indians talking about their village of Stadacona as Canata: “Ils appelent une ville Canata.”
Canata to the Red Man meant, “Yonder are our wigwams, our homes.” But it would seem that the explorers thought it a geographical name for the new region which they were penetrating—and such it has become.
Time, which has a habit of passing, brought the British possessions in North America into considerable prominence, and in the year 1867 they consisted of Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec) and the independent provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. After much talk about it, the union of these several colonies was made possible through the British North America Act, and by the year 1873 Canada included the whole of British North America from ocean to ocean, with the exception of Newfoundland. which still remains an independent British possession.
The term “Dominion,” adopted to describe the changed status of Canada in the British Empire, was decided upon while the Canadian delegates were in London discussing the details of the British North America Act. Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of the Dominion, was in favor of the name “Kingdom of Canada,” but Lord Derby, the British Colonial Secretary, and others were of the opinion that the word “Kingdom” would not be popular in a new country, and also that it would not find favor among the people in the United States.
On the night following this discussion, Sir S. Leonard Tilley, the delegate from New Brunswick, was reading a chapter in the Bible, as was his custom, and came across a verse in the 72nd Psalm which reads: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” Sir Leonard regarded this as an answer to the name problem, and suggested to the meeting that the new federation should be called the Dominion of Canada, and this was agreed upon.
Some doubt has been cast upon this story because of the fact that “Dominion” had been used before on this continent, as the Colony of Virginia was at one time known as the “Old Dominion.” The story as related, however, has been generally accepted by historians, and the Arms of the Dominion of Canada add further credence to it by bearing the legend, “A mari usque ad mare”—“from sea to sea.”
Canada as a Dominion came into being on July, 1867, by Royal Proclamation, and a public holiday on that day marked the birthday of Confederation, which date continues to be celebrated annually.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.