Origin of the names of Canada and its provinces and territories

Canada

The name “Canada” likely comes from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement.” In 1535, two Aboriginal youths told French explorer Jacques Cartier about the route to kanata; they were actually referring to the village of Stadacona, the site of the present-day City of Québec. For lack of another name, Cartier used the word “Canada” to describe not only the village, but the entire area controlled by its chief, Donnacona.

The name was soon applied to a much larger area; maps in 1547 designated everything north of the St. Lawrence River as Canada. Cartier also called the St. Lawrence River the “rivière du Canada,” a name used until the early 1600s. By 1616, although the entire region was known as New France, the area along the great river of Canada and the Gulf of St. Lawrence was still called Canada.

Soon explorers and fur traders opened up territory to the west and to the south, and the area known as Canada grew. In the early 1700s, the name referred to all French lands in what is now the American Midwest and as far south as present-day Louisiana.

The first use of Canada as an official name came in 1791, when the Province of Quebec was divided into the colonies of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. In 1841, the two colonies were united under one name, the Province of Canada.

(Source: Government of Canada)

Newfoundland and Labrador

King Henry VII of England referred to the land discovered by John Cabot in 1497 as the “New Found Launde.”  It’s likely that name Labrador came from Joas Fernandez, the Azorean known as “El llavorador”, an explorer on the Corte-Real’s expedition in 1500. The area of Labrador includes all the northern islands in the region. The province officially became Newfoundland and Labrador in December 2001 when an amendment was made to the Constitution of Canada. (Sources: Government of Canada, Canadian Geographical Names Data Base)

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Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia is Latin for “New Scotland”. The province was named by Sir William Alexander who was given the land by King James VI of Scotland in 1621. Prior to its official naming, the First Nations knew it as “Mi’kma’ki”, the French called it “Acadia”, and the British were already familiar with calling the land “New Scotland”.

(Sources: Government of Canada, Tourism Nova Scotia)

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New Brunswick

This province was originally included in the area that made up Nova Scotia. It was later separated and established as a province in 1784. The name “New Brunswick” was given to the area in honour of King George III who also held the title of Duke of Brunswick, an area in Germany.

(Sources: Government of Canada, Government of New Brunswick)

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Prince Edward Island

The province’s earliest documented name was “Abeqweit” which was given to the area by the Mi’kmaq and meant “cradled in the waves”. It later became Ile Saint-Jean which was used by the original French settlers, the Acadians. After the Treaty of Paris ceded the island to the British in 1763, it was renamed St. John’s Island. In 1799 the English declared that the island would be called Prince Edward Island in honour of the Duke of Kent and Strathearn, Prince Edward. (Sources: Government of Canada, Government of Prince Edward Island)

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Quebec

The name “Quebec” comes from the Algonquin word for “narrow passage” or “strait”. It was first used to describe the narrowing of the St. Lawrence River near what is now the City of Québec. Quebec has had several names throughout its history: Canada, New France, Lower Canada and Canada East.  

(Source: Government of Canada)

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Ontario

Ontario acquired its name from the Iroquois word “kanadario”, which translates into “sparkling” water. The earliest recording of the name Ontario was in 1641 where it was used to describe a mass of land on the north shore of the easternmost part of the Great Lakes. The British settlers had originally called the land that covered Quebec, Ontario, and part of the United States all as Quebec. It wasn’t until the British enacted the Constitutional Act in 1791 that Ontario would be known as the land upstream from the St. Lawrence River, or Upper Canada, and Quebec considered the land downstream from the St. Lawrence River, known as Lower Canada. In 1867, Ontario and Quebec officially became separate provinces.

(Sources: Government of Canada, Government of Ontario)

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Manitoba

The name is believed to have originated with Cree term "Man-into-wahpaow", meaning “the narrows of the Great Spirit”, which describes Lake Manitoba and how it narrows significantly at the centre. The province entered confederation in 1870 following the Manitoba Act. Sir John A. Macdonald announced that the province’s name, suggested by Métis leader Louis Riel, was selected for its pleasant sound and its associations with the original inhabitants of the area.

(Sources: Government of Canada, Government of Manitoba)

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Saskatchewan

The name of the province comes from the Cree name for the Saskatchewan River, “Kisiskatchewanisipi” or “swift-flowing river.” The modern spelling was adopted in 1882 when the area became a district of the North West Territories (it would later become a province in 1905).

(Source: Canadian Geographical Names Data Base)

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Alberta

This province was named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. Alberta was originally established as a provisional district of the North West Territories in 1882. The name was maintained when Alberta officially became a province in 1905.

(Source: Government of Canada)

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British Columbia

The southern part of the area now known as British Columbia was called “Columbia”, after the Columbia River. The central region was given the name of “New Caledonia” by explorer Simon Fraser. To avoid confusion with Colombia in South America and the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean, Queen Victoria named the area British Columbia when it became a colony in 1858.

(Source: Government of Canada)

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Nunavut

In the Inuit language of Inuktitut, Nunavut means “our land”. Nunavut became Canada’s third territory when it was officially separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999.

(Sources: Government of Canada, Canadian Geographical Names Data Base)

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Northwest Territories

Prior to 1870, it was known as the North-Western Territory. The name has always been a description of the location of the territory.

(Source: Government of Canada)

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Yukon

The territory’s name probably comes from the word “Yu-kun-ah” meaning “great river.” In 1846, chief trader John Bell of the Hudson’s Bay Company canoed down the Porcupine River to where it meets the Yukon River. There, he met natives who told him that the name of the big river was the “youcon”. It was named “Yukon Territory” in 1898, and became “Yukon” under the Yukon Act in 2003.

(Source: Government of Canada, Canadian Geographical Names Data Base)

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Geographical names search results: Yukon