From Tobacco Plains to Yaqit ʔa·knuqti’it, Queen Charlotte to Daajing Giids, Squaw Island to Equay Miniss — the renaming of Canada’s geography to reflect Indigenous culture is underway
This summer, Lac Seul First Nation Chief Clifford Bull was joined by Doug Lawrance, mayor of Sioux Lookout, for a canoe paddle to a small island — round as a beach pebble — a kilometre offshore of the rugged northern Ontario community.
It was a celebration of reconciliation to raise awareness of a change to the island’s name.
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For years it had been called Squaw Island.
The derogatory term for an Indigenous woman was officially dropped in favour of Equay Miniss, Ojibwa for “woman’s island,” a nod to its history as a place where women and children hid when rival Sioux warriors were spotted on the river. Although the change came in 2016, the town felt it needed to boost broad public uptake. Similar scenes play out in other places.
Canada’s maps are changing.
Not in shape, but in the names.
Just like the small dot marking Equay Miniss, many other transformations — some much bigger, some even smaller — are retooling the nomenclature of Canada’s terrain from coast to coast to coast.
Placenames are buried and new ones established for many reasons, but none more prevalent and prominent right now than shedding colonial names and replacing them with Indigenous ones that embrace First Nations and Inuit languages and culture.
Last year’s spotlight on unmarked graves at former residential schools brought renewed energy to overt acts of reconciliation, accelerating the desire for, or at least acceptance of, changing our geographic nomenclature.
In many cases it means reverting placenames — both inside and outside of Indigenous lands — to traditional Indigenous ones, and in others it means stripping away derogatory names. It’s an imaginative reaction to the calamity of a school system built to erase Indigenous languages and culture.
This year, 24 First Nations bands officially had their names changed in Ottawa’s records. That’s the most in more than 20 years. There were just six changes in each of the previous four years, according to data from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. The peak over the past 37 years is 35 band names changed in 1997.
Some of the new changes are dramatically distinct from English or French, such as B.C.’s Tobacco Plains change to Yaqit ʔa·knuqti’it, and Soda Creek to Xatśūll First Nation. Pic Mobert First Nation in Ontario became Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg.
Some names remain essentially the same phonetically but are now spelled in traditional alphabets, such as B.C.’s Scowlitz First Nation which changed to Sq’éwlets, and Saskatchewan’s Sakimay First Nations to Zagimē Anishinabek.
It’s not just activist agitation sparking the renaming, though, it is an official process emerging over years with the support of government.
The Geographical Names Board of Canada, the national coordinating body on placenames, champions this evolution and links the revised naming to political and social outcomes.
“Through the reinstatement of traditional Indigenous names, cultural knowledge and language is revitalized by virtue of daily use, spiritual connections, and increased awareness of history,” the board said in a written statement.
The nation-building of Canada’s past typically overlooked or purposely suppressed Indigenous cultures. The land was treated as a blank canvas rather than one already explored and named over generations.
“More Indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns,” wrote U.S. geographer Bernard Nietschmann. “This assertion has its corollary,” he added. “More Indigenous territory can be defended and reclaimed by maps than by guns.”
Nietschmann, who died in 2000, said mapping was a marker of colonization and the start of creating political boundaries and ownership over the original inhabitants.
Sometimes colonial placenames sprung directly from the mouths of European monarchs, reflecting military and political leaders or explorers who were making the new land their own. Sometimes they came from land surveyors, some notorious for naming things after their children or pets.
Many official names have Indigenous roots, but usually anglicized or gallicized variations of words settlers heard spoken around them.
Such as Toronto, which comes from a Mohawk word for a specific fishing area that was to the north, according to Natural Resources Canada. The naming of Toronto captured some of the early tension.
Arriving from England in 1791, as the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe purposely removed names derived from Indigenous words, including changing Toronto to York. It was changed back after he left.
Ottawa, in a 2016 study, tallied 23,303 confirmed placenames originating from First Nations, Inuit and Métis culture, and another 6,272 probable Indigenous names. That includes towns, water features and other landmarks.
For years the Geographical Names Board of Canada has been working with Indigenous groups to restore traditional placenames, which includes replacing names of European origin and selecting names in Indigenous languages for unnamed features and places.
Until the 1980s, Indigenous names were rejected or simplified if they were deemed difficult to pronounce or spell by Europeans.
The broad categories of the board’s work include correcting misspelled Indigenous words in names, restoring traditional names that were replaced during colonization, and replacing names that are grossly derogatory.
Placenames in Canada are such that the Canadian Geographical Names Database starts with a content advisory: It contains “racist, offensive and derogatory” terminology.
Saskatchewan was home to Killsquaw Lake until 2018, for instance, when it was changed to Kikiskitotawânawak Iskêwak, a Cree name meaning “we remember the women.”
In the Northwest Territories, a small First Nation community on the shores of Trout Lake changed its name. It wasn’t the meaning of the name that was the problem, just the language it was written in. After a vote, Trout Lake First Nation became Sambaa K’e First Nation in 2016.
In Alberta, the community of Hobbema, south of Edmonton, was named by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1891 after a Dutch painter, which offers little connection to the largely First Nations people living in and around it. It reverted to its old name of Maskwacis, meaning “bear hills,” in 2014, with the approval of the province and county governments.
British Columbia has been particularly active renaming things.
Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago off the northern Pacific coast, were renamed Haida Gwaii in 2010 and the province saw its first municipality change its name to an Indigenous name in July, when what had been called the village of Queen Charlotte since 1891, after the ship of a British sea captain, was renamed Daajing Giids, its ancestral Haida name, which refers to a cedar dance hat.
The change was supported by 60 per cent and opposed by 36 per cent of residents who answered a municipal survey.
Some people have even larger aims, including renaming the province of British Columbia itself, which bears both the name of a colonial nation and the explorer who ushered in European colonization.
Last summer, a poll found 60 per cent of respondents in the province opposed renaming B.C. to acknowledge its Indigenous heritage; 26 per cent supported a change and 14 per cent were undecided.
Some changes come drop by drop, others in a flood.
In 2000, the federal and provincial government’s treaty with the Nisga’a specified 37 names for towns, rivers, creeks, land plots, and mountains to be changed to the Nisga’a language. Canyon City became Gitwinksihlkw, and Greenville became Lax̱g̱altsʼap.
In 2020, Nunavut’s territorial government changed Cape Dorset to its traditional Inuktitut name of Kinngait, meaning “where the hills are,” and Hall Beach to Sanirajak, meaning “the shoreline,” after local voting supported the changes. It is part of a territorial initiative.
“Inuit are the majority population in Nunavut and Inuktut is the majority language spoken in Nunavut. As Inuit, it is important for us to see ourselves and our language reflected in all aspects of our lives,” said Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik, the legal representative of the Inuit for treaty rights and negotiations.
She campaigned on the issues of Inuit language, identity, and empowerment during her successful election in 2016. Afterwards, she wrote a letter to each Nunavut community encouraging mayors and councils to consider changing their community’s official name to their Inuktut names.
“I thought this would be a symbolically important way of reclaiming our names,” Kotierk told National Post. “It is important for Inuit to see and use our language. As I see it, Inuktut is not only a vehicle for us to express our worldviews but also a way in which we express our understanding of how we fit into the world.”
Federally, it’s easy for a First Nation to change the name of their own band, community or reserve. Ottawa asks only for a band council resolution. There is no public consultation.
“There are no expected impacts on Canadians in general, international trade, investment or business,” the government says of such changes. “These changes are administrative in nature.”
As for changing the name of geographical features, such as lakes, rivers and mountains, the government leaves that up to band councils as well — as long as the thing is entirely within a reserve’s boundaries.
For features partially on reserve land, such as a river flowing through it or a mountain straddling its boundaries, renaming is more complicated. These proposals can come from any community or group, but authorities on both sides of the boundary must agree on the change.
It is outside First Nations land, of course, where opposition grows.
Doug Lawrance, Sioux Lookout’s mayor, said changing Squaw Lake’s name met no opposition in town. He said the offensive name made it obvious to all.
“It’d be quite difficult to oppose that one,” he said, but he did meet opposition to a suggestion to rename a downtown park from Centennial Park to honour the area’s Indigenous heritage.
“The pushback from that — now, its probably loud from few — but it was tremendous. People are attached to it. There’s racism, I guess.”
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