Where do all those Place Names come from?


Part 1: Geographical Naming in Canada 

The geographical names we are familiar with today have come from many sources. Some are aboriginal names, but most are names that were given to features by explorers, fur traders, land surveyors, settlers and government officials. Many names throughout North America, particularly the western regions, developed on an almost ad hoc basis, with no overall guiding framework. Many features soon came to have numerous names and many different spellings and variations. Governments began to see the importance of establishing guidelines to ensure that consistent and reliable maps could be produced.

Oddly, the official naming of geographical features in Canada began in the United States with the establishment of the United States Board on Geographic Names in 1890. The board began making naming decisions for features located in Canada. As the names adopted by American government officials were accepted by other countries, Canadian government officials saw the need to exert Canada’s sovereignty over place names within its territories. In 1897, the Geographic Board of Canada (GBC) was established and given the authority to make naming decisions for geographical features within Canada. This board would go through periodic name changes – to the Canadian Board on Geographic Names in 1948, the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names in 1961, and the Geographical Names Board of Canada in 2001.

Starting in 1897, the federal government held complete authority over naming decisions in Canada. As years passed, the provinces began to gradually play a larger role in these decisions. In 1899, the existing seven provinces and the North West Territories were permitted to appoint a representative to the GBC. These provincial and territorial representatives could present the opinions of their respective jurisdictions on the appropriateness and spelling of names. In 1961, jurisdiction over naming was almost completely transferred to the provinces, but the federal government retained control over naming on federally controlled lands – National Parks, Indian reserves, military bases and in the territories. In 1979, geographical naming on federal lands became joint decisions between the province and the relevant federal department or agency. The territories did not gain the authority to name their own geographical features until 1984.

Today each province and territory has the authority to make its own geographical naming decisions. The Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC) still exists, but its mandate has changed. Today it serves mainly as a supporting body that aids the provincial and territorial programs. It does so by serving as a liaison between the provincial programs and federal departments, it co-ordinates policy regarding nomenclature and procedures, it advises on research, it promotes the use of official names through information-sharing, it represents Canada at international naming conferences and on naming bodies, such as the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names and it maintains the Canadian Geographical Names Database, which is a registry of all official geographical names in Canada.

To be continued with “Part 2: Geographical Naming in Alberta.”

Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographical Names Program Coordinator

3 thoughts on “Where do all those Place Names come from?

  • 1.What is the name of the Commissioner, who represents the federal government in Ontario?
    2.What is the name of the territorial represantative of Central Canada?
    Please reply as soon as possible. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your questions.

      The Geographical Names Board of Canada serves as a liaison between the provincial and territorial naming programs and relevant federal and international naming bodies. However, each province and territory has full authority over its own geographical naming decisions, except in regions under federal control (National parks, Indian Reserves and Canadian Forces Bases). Contact information for the geographical names programs for each province and all three territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) can be accessed on the webpage of the GNBC – http://geonames.nrcan.gc.ca/info/memb_e.php.

      I hope that information you are seeking can be found here.


      Ronald Kelland
      Alberta Geographical Names Program

  • May I have premission to publish the small GNB photograph on this site? Our e-zine is writing a story about how names can be changed and I need some illustrations.

    Susan Smith, Thousand Islands Life. com

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