The GNBC and the various provincial and territorial names authorities rarely initiate the naming of geographical features. Almost all names are submitted by the public or have been gathered through field survey programmes.
In 1898, a primary task for the Geographic Board of Canada was to set up standards and guidelines. Originally the Board approved a set of 13 rules of nomenclature. Changing attitudes and perceptions, in particular concerning translation, name duplication, language treatment and the handling of Native names, have led to periodic revisions and updates of the principles.
The GNBC now bases its work on a number of guiding principles. In summary, they are :
- Names created by legislation are accepted.
- Priority is given to names well established in local use.
- Names used by postal, transportation and major utilities are accepted, if in keeping with other principles.
- Specific limits of features must be recorded. Use of the same generic for part of a named feature as for the whole feature should be avoided.
- Personal names are not accepted, unless exceptional circumstances exist.
- Preferred sources of new names (i.e. where no local names are in use) are appropriate descriptive words, names of pioneers, explorers and historical events connected with the area, names from Native languages identified with the general area, and names of persons who died during war service.
- Names should be euphonious and in good taste.
- A name is usually approved in a single language form in the Roman alphabet. Other forms may be sanctioned by the appropriate names authority. Names from languages other than English or French should be written in the best recognized orthography. Names for some selected features of pan-Canadian significance are recognized in both English and French for use on federal maps and texts.
- The spelling and accenting of names follow the rules of the language in which they are written.
- Names of service facilities (e.g. post offices) in a community should conform with the official name of the community. Names with the same specific applied to associated features should agree in form and spelling.
- Duplication of names should be avoided if confusion may result.
- The generic term should be appropriate to the nature of the feature. It is recorded in either English or French by the names authority concerned.
- Qualifying words (e.g. "upper", "west branch", "nouveau") may be used to distinguish two or more features with identical specific forms.
- The adoption of a name of a minor feature is guided by the relative significance of the feature, familiarity with the name, and the scale of mapping available.