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Naming the Nation

For the Week of Monday, February 6, 2017

On February 9, 1865, two years before Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee made an impassioned speech recommending “Canada” as the name for the new union between Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

An oil painting from 1867 of Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1825-68), an author, early Canadian nationalist, and politician from Montréal
Denis Hurley © Library and Archives Canada / 1997-194-1, C-015369

Other names already proposed included Borealia, Hochelaga, and even Efisga – an acronym for England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and Aboriginal lands. Sir John A. Macdonald suggested the Kingdom of Canada. However, Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley’s “Dominion of Canada” was the name chosen. The new Dominion of Canada was established on July 1, 1867.

Naming places within the new Dominion was a kind of free-for-all. With changing borders, and new provinces and settlements, place names were constantly being created. Some names, like Manitoba, held local significance. Based on a Cree word meaning "the strait of the spirit," it referred originally to a waterway, now the Lake Manitoba Narrows, and was applied to the greater region by European settlers. Others were more random. The Marquess of Lorne (Governor General of Canada, 1878-83) suggested Alberta, in honour of his wife, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (who had spent almost no time in the west), for a new district created in 1882 (made a province in 1905).

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The establishment of the GBC facilitated the creation of accurate and complex federal maps like this: The Canadian Dominion Survey (1899)
Library and Archives Canada


It was difficult to create useful maps without a systematic approach to co-ordinate the choice and application of place names. Provinces had multiple towns with the same name, and some towns had different names depending on the map. The Geographic Board of Canada (GBC) was established in 1897 to standardize the spelling and application of place names throughout the country.

Today, the GBC is known as the Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC), and acts as a national co-ordinating body. It works with the provinces and territories to create standard policies regarding Canadian place names. It also promotes the use of official names in Canada and works in co-operation with the United Nations and other international naming bodies.

This year marks the 120th anniversary of the GNBC and Canada’s 150th anniversary. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley are Fathers of Confederation and designated national historic persons. To learn more see Murder on Sparks Street, Father to a Country, and Partners in Confederation in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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