Indigenous Place Names

In Canada close to 30 000 official place names are of Indigenous origin, and efforts are ongoing to restore traditional names to reflect Indigenous culture.

As the original occupants of the land now known as Canada, Indigenous Peoples named the land and the features around them. As Europeans settled in Canada, they introduced names that reflected their own culture and history. Indigenous heritage is reflected in many place names where European settlers tried to transpose the words they were hearing into either English or French.

Today, efforts are underway to restore traditional names to reflect the Indigenous culture wherever possible.

Diversity of Indigenous place names in Canada

In 2016, there were:

  • 23 303 confirmed Indigenous names
  • 6272 probable Indigenous names
  • 84 Indigenous languages or dialects represented in these names

Preserving and strengthening Indigenous culture

Indigenous place names contribute to the preservation, revitalization and strengthening of Indigenous histories, languages and cultures. In recent years, the Geographical Names Board of Canada has worked with Indigenous groups to restore traditional place names to reflect the culture of the original inhabitants of the territory. Some names of European origin have been replaced by traditional Indigenous names, and some unnamed physical features and populated places have been given names in Indigenous languages. 

Each jurisdiction’s approach is different, reflecting its particular geography, history and circumstances. This long-term work is still evolving as a means of representing the coexistence of all the cultures that have built our past and our present history.

Examples of the adoption of traditional Indigenous place names

In 2015, the Northwest Territories approved five names for the Mackenzie River in the language of the people who live along Canada’s longest river system:

In 2016, Manitoba approved 117 Indigenous place names. One of them was the new name Weenipagamiksaguygun for Lake Winnipeg, the traditional Anishinabe name used by the Poplar River First Nation.

In 2017, Nunavut approved 625 new names in Inuktitut, in the Cape Dorset area.

Examples of official Indigenous place names

 
Portion of a map showing the place name Łiidlaı̨ı̨. The language is Gwich'in and the meaning is where two rivers come together.

Łiidlaı̨ı̨, Northwest Territories

 
Portion of a map showing the place name Gitwinksihlkw. The language is Nisga’a, and the meaning is People of the lizard's habitat.

Gitwinksihlkw, British Columbia