Some thoughts on Indigenous toponymy (1999)

May 16, 1999

Some thoughts on Indigenous toponymy after reading University of Ottawa Professor André Lapierre’s 1999 article “Mapping linguistic realities: the case of aboriginal toponymy in Canada” The Canadian Vision/La vision canadienne

The opening paragraph in Lapierre’s paper on Indigenous toponymy links rather directly to University of Ottawa Professor Timothy Stanley’s 1998 paper “The Struggle for History: historical narratives and anti-racist pedagogy.” A recent newspaper article reveals a rather marked anti-native bias with such terms as the “Indian industry” and “racially based solutions.” In contrast to the negative stance of the media which seeks out the spectacular, Lapierre traces a quiet history of aboriginal toponyms. Early European explorers adopted many of the toponyms but through a process of adaptation, translation and substitution, many original aboriginal names were finally replaced. In spite of this, a significant proportion of the Canadian toponymy are aboriginal. In the late nineteenth century the Royal Canadian Society began to study the etymology of aboriginal names. In the early twentieth century the province of Québec replaced 15,000 aboriginal names on maps and survey plans. However, in 1979 the Commission de toponymie du Québec held the first workshop on the writing of aboriginal names. And in 1987 Muller-Wille’s published a comprehensive tri-lingual list of Nunavik names in Inuktitut, English and French which has become a model for subsequent studies.

The Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (CPCGN) (now Geographical Names Board of Canada)(initiated in 1887, is the federal body which coordinates all matters affecting geographical nomenclature in Canada. Its internet service provides information about the origins, meanings and histories of geographical names. The CPCGN consults with various organisations on various aspects of names in mapping. In 1987 the CPCGN endorsed recommendations put forward by the participants of the 1986 Symposium of Native Geographical Names. In this way the use and perpetuation of aboriginal geographical names is formally recognised as an integral part of Canada’s heritage. Most aboriginal languages in Canada are in danger of extinction. There is a growing awareness of the urgency of recording aboriginal geographical names in a written form. Another CPCGN initiative was the 1992 publication of The Practical Guide to the Field Collection of Native Geographical Names. This guide advocates the involvement of Native groups who carry out the field work in their own communities. The guide has been used not only in Canada, but in South Africa and Australia. The CPCGN also promotes scholarly research. In 1993 the CPCGN published an annotated bibliography of resources.

The varying linguistic traditions affect mapping. Some aboriginal languages have romanized alphabets as well as syllabaries such as Cree and Ojibway. However, the Athabaskan language does not have a standardized alphabet making it difficult to recognize. The question of representation on maps [was] still undecided in 1999. Since 1950 there has been a trend to use the original aboriginal name rather than its adapted European name. Pronunciation of aboriginal names can be challenging to someone outside a language group. Derogatory names have been removed from many Canadian maps. (In a quick search on the CPCGN site, I discovered that Squaw Point has been removed from the map of Prince Edward Island, for example. But there are still eleven places in Canada where the name is still in use.) Lapierre sees the work of the CPCGN as a positive indication of growing cooperation and understanding between First Nations and other linguistic groups in Canada.

This was a refreshing approach to the issue of language rights in Canada. However, there were still controversies in 1999 such as the naming of newly formed ‘islands’ in the flooded region of James Bay. Some felt it would have been more appropriate if the islands had been given aboriginal names. There was also question of authors’ names being given to geographical landmarks. Again there was question of aboriginal names as being more appropriate.

Contemporary artist, Faye HeavyShield of the Blood nation, in her “Untitled 1992” criticized the use of aboriginal names as found throughout the yellow pages advertising products and services that have no link to aboriginal people. She uses collage elements of words such as Red Skin and Mohawk from the yellow pages to cover the tip of a large three legged spear.

While it is reassuring that the CPCGN is working with aboriginal communities I would have liked to have read more about the aboriginal point of view in this article. For example in Valerie Alia’s 1994 book, Names, Numbers, and Northern Policy: Inuit, Project Surname and Politics of Identity, numerous quotations from Inuit participants enrich understanding of a unique approach to the use of names.

Canadian contemporary visual artist, Marlene Creates, has created a series ‘The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories, Labrador 1988‘ (a series of 18 assemblages). Several of the assemblages are currently on exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada. She incorporates photos, hand drawn memory maps made by participants in the project. For example the entry by and about an Innu woman from Labrador, Josephine Kalleo, includes a black & white photograph of Josephine, another of the land, a memory map drawn by Josephine Kalleo, a personal story by Josephine which intimately links her life to the place in which she lives (she connects her life story to details of the land which she names). The fourth element is an actual object from that part of Labrador:salt water grass from the shore. Creates presents a land that is considered by Canada’s Department of National Defence to be uninhabited. She introduces us to the individual residents of this land.


Alia, Valerie. January 1994. Names, Numbers, and Northern Policy: Inuit, Project Surname and Politics of Identity. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing. ISBN: 9781895686318. 118 Pages.

Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (CPCGN). 1992. The Practical Guide to the Field Collection of Native Geographical Names. Minister of Supply and Services, Canada. Catalogue No. M86-29/1992E ISBN 0-662-19196-X

Lapierre, André. c. 1999. “Mapping Linguistic Realities: The case of aboriginal toponymy in Canada”. The Canadian Vision/La vision canadienne. pp.141-153.

Lapierre, André. 2009. “A Mari usque ad Mare: Reflections on Canadian Toponymy: Réflexions sur la toponymie du Canada.” University of Ottawa.

Stanley, Timothy.  1998. “The Struggle for History: historical narratives and anti-racist pedagogy.” DiscourseStudies in the Cultural Politics of Education. Vol. 19. No. 1. April. pp. 41-52. https://doi.org/10.1080/0159630980190103

2 Responses to “Some thoughts on Indigenous toponymy (1999)”

  1. Ken Wallewein Says:

    You might be aware, or interested, that the Canadian “unofficial poet laureate” Al Purdy highlighted the importance of aboriginal place names in his poem “Say The Names”. See https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/say-the-names-by-al-purdy/article4161335/

    • Thanks Ken. This was obviously written 19 years ago but the topic still interests me. I found the old file on a CD while looking for something else. The poem is really touching. Kind regards, Maureen

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