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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 cultures.

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.

An Indigenous Place Names Handbook: Sharing the Gwich’in Experience in Canada

On behalf of the Geographical Names Board of Canada, Natural Resources Canada supported the Gwich’in Tribal Council in publishing their documentation and best practices as a handbook with the goal of helping other Indigenous communities repatriate their own place names. The handbook includes an abstract, Elder acknowledgements and biographies.

Access the Indigenous Place Names Handbook and Abstract (also available in Gwich’in).

Best Practices for Indigenous Geographical Names

The federal, provincial, and territorial naming authorities of the Geographical Names Board of Canada have developed draft Best Practices for Indigenous Place Naming intended to support naming authorities when naming or renaming geographical features. They provide a set of core principles to consider when addressing geographical names with origins in Indigenous languages, or determining if such names exist for a particular geographical feature or place. The members of the GNBC are seeking feedback from partners, advisory bodies and organizations on this draft document.

Learn more about the GNBC’s draft Best Practices on Indigenous Geographical Names.

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

Indigenous Geographical Names data

The Indigenous Geographical Names dataset contains over 20 000 official place names with origins in First Nations, Inuit and Métis worldviews. The dataset includes names of populated places, water features and many other terrain features in over 60 Indigenous languages.

Learn more and check out the dataset

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

Hundreds of geographical names are adopted or changed in Canada each year. Here are some examples of Indigenous names recently adopted by the Geographical Names Board of Canada:

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, including Weenipagamiksaguygun, the traditional Anishinaabe name used by the Poplar River First Nation for Lake Winnipeg.

In 2017, Nunavut approved 625 names in Inuktitut in the Cape Dorset area, including Tatsiumajukallak (ᑕᑦᓯᐅᒪᔪᑲᓪᓚᒃ) and Killapaarutait (ᑭᓪᓚᐹᕈᑕᐃᑦ).

In 2018, Pimachiowin Aki, on the border of Manitoba and Ontario, was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and Parks Canada. Pimachiowin Aki is Anishinaabemowin for ‘the land that gives life.’

Also in 2018, Saskatchewan changed a derogatory name to kikiskitotawânawak iskwêwak Lakes, which is Cree meaning, 'we remember the women lake.'

In 2019, the Northwest Territories changed the name of the settlement of Detah to Dettah, to reflect the proper spelling recognized by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

In 2020, Yukon changed the name of Mount Higgins to the traditional Tetlit Gwich'in name of Jùuk'an. Nunavut changed the names of the communities Hall Beach and Cape Dorset to their traditional Inuktitut names of Sanirajak and Kinngait.

Read more about Indigenous geographical names in this article published by the Translation Bureau, and consult the interactive map: Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada.

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