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First Nations Place Names Contribute to our Rich History

Place names are never just meaningless sounds. Rather, they embody stories about the places to which they are attached. They give us valuable insights into history and provide clues about the country’s cultural and social development. Looking at place names across the country, reveals the astounding diversity and depth of our peoples’ contributions to Canada.

Place names are never just meaningless sounds. Rather, they embody stories about the places to which they are attached. They give us valuable insights into history and provide clues about the country’s cultural and social development. Looking at place names across the country, reveals the astounding diversity and depth of our peoples’ contributions to Canada.

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, history and languages.  Before the arrival of Europeans, First Nations and Inuit peoples gave names to places throughout the country to identify the land they knew so well, and with which they had a strong spiritual connection. For centuries, these names that described the natural features of the land, the animals/birds found there, or commemorated significant historical events, passed from one generation to the next.

Many of these names still survive today. The representation of these names in European languages sometimes diminishes the lyrical sounds of the original names themselves. Nevertheless, the story of Indigenous place names goes back to the earliest remembered history of our country.

Many Canadian towns, cities, rivers and mountains also have names that come from First Nations sources. The following is a short list of some of Canada’s larger towns and cities whose names originate with First Nations or Inuit peoples.

Chilliwack (British Columbia) – is the name of the local tribe, ch.ihl-KWAY-uhk. This word is generally interpreted to mean “going back up.” It refers to the people’s return home after visiting the mouth of the Fraser River.

Kamloops (British Columbia) – is likely from the Shushwap word kahm-o-loops, which is usually translated as “the meeting of waters.” The name refers to the junction of the North and South Thompson rivers at Kamloops.

Penticton (British Columbia) – the name comes from an Okanagan word meaning “the always place,” in the sense of a permanent dwelling place.

Fort Chipewyan (Alberta) – the town was named for the Chipewyan people, and means “pointed skins,” a Cree reference to the way the Chipewyans prepared beaver pelts.

Medicine Hat (Alberta) – is a translation of the Blackfoot word, saamis, meaning “headdress of a medicine man.” According to one explanation, the word describes a fight between the Cree and Blackfoot when a Cree medicine man lost his plumed hat in the river.

Wetaskiwin (Alberta) – is an adaptation of the Cree word wi-ta-ski-oo cha-ka-tin-ow, which can be translated as “place of peace” or “hill of peace.”

Qu’Appelle (Saskatchewan) – the town name is from the river, known to the Cree as kab-tep-was. This means “the river that calls.” The legend associated with the name tells of a Cree man paddling to his wedding, when he heard his name called out. He recognized the voice of his bride, who was still many days travel away. He answered, “Who calls?” and a spirit mimicked him: “Who calls?” He then hurried home to find that his bride had died, uttering his name with her last breath. French settlers in Saskatchewan perpetuated the legend by naming the river Qu’Appelle, meaning “who calls?”

Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) – the name comes from an edible red berry native to the area, which the Cree called mis-sask-guah-too-min.

The Pas (Manitoba) – originated with the Cree opa, meaning “a narrow place” or opaskweow, “narrows between high banks.”

Winnipeg (Manitoba) – the name, from the Cree win-nipi, can be freely translated as “dirty water” or “murky water,” to describe the lake and river.

Mississauga (Ontario) – is named after the Mississauga people who live in the area, and describes the mouth of a river. Michi or missi means “many,” and saki, “outlet” a river having several outlets.

Oshawa (Ontario) – is a Seneca word that means “crossing of a stream” or “carrying place,” describing an old portage in the area.

Ottawa (Ontario) – the word comes from the Algonquin term adawe, “to trade.” This was the name given to the people who controlled the trade of the river.

Chicoutimi (Quebec) – this name of Montagnais origin comes from the word shkoutimeou, meaning “the end of the deep water.”

Gaspé (Quebec) – is a name believed to come from the Mi’kmaq word for “end” or “extremity,” referring to the northern limits of their territory.

Rimouski (Quebec) – is a word of Mi’kmaq or Maliseet origin, which has been translated as “land of moose” or “retreat of dogs,” perhaps referring to its fine hunting grounds.

Oromocto (New Brunswick) – is derived from the Maliseet word welamooktook, meaning “good river.”

Shubenacadie (Nova Scotia) – is a name of Mi’kmaq origin that comes from the word segubunakadik, meaning “the place where groundnuts (Indian potatoes) grow.”

Inuvik (Northwest Territories) – comes from the Inuktitut word meaning “the place of man.”

Many of our communities have attempted to spell the traditional name as it would sound in English. The problem is that one individual’s or organization’s approach may differ from another individual’s or organization’s perspective. For example, the spelling of the Ojibway community of Sagkeeng exists in contrast to the spelling Zaaging to identify. Through consultations with community members in this study, the Sagkeeng spelling was more prevalent. Patricia Ningewance, in her book “Talking Gookum’s Language” Learning Ojibwe spelled the name as Zaagiing. 

Anishinaabe Communities (30)
Amino-ziibiing (Lake Manitoba) Ah-meeno Zee-bing Dog Creek or Dog River
Ataagewininiing (Gamblers) Ata-gwa-ni-ning Gambling Man Place
Azaadiwi-ziibiing (Poplar River) Aza-dwi-zi-bing Poplar River Place
Baaskaandibewi-ziibiing (Brokenhead River) Pash-kanda-bay-zee-bing Brokenhead River
Bigwan Shkoo Ziibi (Roseau River) Peeg-wa Shkoo Zii-bee Rag Weed River
Ditibineya-ziibiing (Rolling River) Dit–i-binay-zee-bing Rolling River Place
Gaa-biskigamaag (Swan Lake) Gaa-bisk-i-ga-mahg The lake (Swan Lake) that is curved
Gaa-ginooshkodeyaag (Long Plain) Gaa-gino-shko-day-ag Place of the long plain
Gaa-wiikwedaawangaag (Sandy Bay) Gaa-week-wa-dang-gak Along the sandy shore
Ishkwaawinaaning (Skownan) Ish-kwa-wee-naa-ning At the edge of the land before the next place.
Isickachewanoong (Dauphin River) Ijee-ka-che-wa-noong Where the river empties into the lake
Kaakiiskakamigaag (Little Saskatchewan) Ka-kiska-kam-i-gaag It describes the shoreline where the community is
Ka ka kwe ke je ong (Ebb and Flow) Kaka-kway-kuh-jeong Water that flows back and forth
Keeseekoowenin Keesj-ko-weh-nin Sky man
Kinonjeoshtegon (Jackhead) Gino-juzs-ta-gon Jackhead Place
Makadewaagamijiwanoonsing (Black River) Maka-day-waga-matji-wa-noo-sing Liitle Black Flowing Water
Mememwi-ziibiing (Berens River) O-may-mee-wih-zee-peeng Pigeon River
Minegoziibe (Pine Creek) Mi-nay-go-zi-bee Pine Creek
Mishi-baawitigong (Little Grand Rapids) Mish-i-bow-ti-gong Large Rapids Place
Miskoseepi (Bloodvein) Misko-zee-bee Blood River
Neyaashing (Buffalo Point) Nay-a-shing The point by the water
Obashkodeyaang (Lake St. Martin) O-bash-ko-day-ang High bluff
O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi (Crane River) O-chee-chak-ko-zih-bee Crane River
Peguis (Oshki-ishkonigan) Peg-wiss Little chip. Peguis is also named after Chief Peguis.
Pauingassi (Sandy Narrows) Pau-in-ga-see Sandy Narrows
Pinaymootang (Fairford) Pin-ay-moo-tang Partridge Crop Place
Tootinaowaziibeeng Toot-naw-wa-zee-beeng Valley River
Wanipigow (Hollow Water) Wa-nee-paw-gow Hole in the water (river)
Waywayseecappo Way-way-see-cappp Standing at attention.
Sagkeeng (Firt Alexander) Sah-geeng At the mouth of the river place.

By sharing this blog on ‘Traditional Names’, my hope is that it will help educate our communities of the fact that there are 5 distinct language groups in Manitoba and the First Nation people did historically refer to their homelands in their own language. I expect that as we move to self-governance,  that these names will become part of the mainstream vocabulary when the communities are identified in print, in the media and in the mindset of the general public. This is just one of many ways that First Nation’s leadership can assert their sovereignty.

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