Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names

Written by: Ron Kelland, Geographical Names Program Coordinator

At an online event on March 8, 2020, Seamus O’Regan, the Minister of Natural Resources Canada launched Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names: Women on the Canadian Landscape. This interactive, digital map was developed by the Geographical names Board of Canada to highlight approximately 500 places and geographical features in Canada that are named for women.

Screenshot of the “Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names” Interactive map. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

March 8 was International Women’s Day; a day acknowledged around the world to raise awareness of issues facing women, such as gender equity, and to celebrate the social, cultural and political achievements that have been made by women to their communities, regions and nations. The map was launched on that day as part of those annual celebrations.

Through history, the recognition of women has tended to be forgotten. For generations, women have been largely voiceless in history; overlooked by default and design. The essential domestic role of settler women has not been discussed to the same extent as the work of their husbands, fathers and brothers breaking the land, even though these women toiled and suffered just as men had. Even women who were admitted to the professional, scientific or professional world have often seen their accomplishments ignored or downplayed in favour of those of their male colleagues. The same trends are found in the world of cartography and place naming.

Through history, mapping, and consequently the naming of places and geographical features, has been a predominantly male activity. In Canada, most early explorers were male, the land surveying parties that prepared the west for agricultural settlement and resource exploitation were male and the scientific, business and governmental authorities they represented were overwhelmingly male. Even after national and provincial authorities were established to regulate and standardize mapping and place naming, most of the people with authority to make place naming decisions tended to be men. Consequently, when places and features were named by men for commemorative purposes they tended to recognize their male colleagues, mentors and influential men throughout history.

The interactive map contains a sampling of approximately 500 places and features across Canada named for women, including approximately 60 in Alberta. The map does not contain every place or feature named for, or believed to be named for, women, but it is a sampling showing the diversity of place names inspired by women. The names were selected by the provincial and territorial members of the Geographic Names Board of Canada with assistance from some of the federal government departments and agencies represented on the board, such as Parks Canada Agency and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The Secretariat of the Geographical Names Board of Canada compiled and edited the suggested names and worked with the cartographers of Natural Resources Canada to create the map.  

Detail of the interactive map showing the Alberta places and names featured. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

The map displays the names in categories, including:

  • Names of Indigenous origin
  • Places named during the fur trade and homesteading period
  • Places named to commemorate the accomplishments of women in science and medicine, politics, community service and the arts
  • By or for early settlers
  • Women involved in politics
  • Places named for royalty and religious figures

The map also has a section on names that appear to be recognizing women or using names associated with the female gender but for which the origin is not known. There are a number of such places and features in Alberta, but none of these names were submitted for inclusion.  

Some examples of the Alberta names on the map are as follows:

Indigenous Names

Indigenous place names are often tied to traditions and origin stories. The stories and details of many of these names have been lost through generations of erasure and replacement by colonial names and the alienation of Indigenous people from the landscape of their traditional territories. But some names with a connection to traditional Indigenous names still remain, and some Indigenous people have been commemorated through place names.

Women’s Buffalo Jump
Located in Women’s Coulee west of Cayley, this buffalo jump is associated with Blackfoot origin stories about Napi and the first marriages between men and women. It was recorded as aki-piskun by George Mercer Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1885. It was known as Old Women’s Buffalo Jump until 2016 when it was renamed Women’s Buffalo Jump to better reflect the meaning of the Blackfoot name.

Leah Peak
Named by Mary Schäffer for Leah Beaver, a Stoney woman. Leah and her husband Samson Beaver assisted Schäffer during her explorations of the Maligne Lake (Chaba Imne) area in what is now Jasper National Park the early 1900s. 

Leah and Samson Beaver with their daughter Frances Louise, taken by Mary Schäffer in 1907. Source: Mary Warren Schäffer. Old Indian Trails (New York: G, P. Putman’s Sons, 1911). Photograph nor in the Public Domain and available from Wikimedia Commons.

Early Settlers and Pioneers

As exploration and settlement pushed across the country, maps were made and geographical features were named and new communities were established. Women had an essential role in this process, and, although often ignored by history, some of them are remembered through place names, such as Rebecca Caroline Langley and Elizabeth von Rummel.

Caroline
This town west of Red Deer was named for Rebecca Caroline Langley (1899-1981), the daughter of Harvey Langley, the community’s first postmaster. Later in life, she and her husband Sam Nelson worked for federal government undertaking geological surveying excursions.

Rummel Creek
This creek in the Kananaskis region is named for Baroness Elizabeth von Rummel (1897-1980). On an extended family trip to Canada, her family was not able to return to Germany due to the First World War, so, they began operating a ranch in the Millarville area. In the late 1930s, Elizabeth began working as a hostess and guide for lodges throughout the national parks, purchasing her own lodge in 1950 and running it until 1970. In her retirement she became a noted heritage preservationist and oral history interviewer. She was named to the Order of Canada in 1979.

Elizabeth von Rummel at Skoki Lodge, Banff National Park, 1944. Source: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, na66-1109.

Science, Politics, Community Service and the Arts

Women contribute to every aspect of our society. The map includes place named for women that have made notable achievements in the arts, science, politics and community service such as Norma Piper and Dr. Barbara Ann Burrows.

Norma Piper beside a poster advertising her performance in the opera La Sonnambula, Italy, ca. 1936/37. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-695-88.

Piper Creek
This creek in Kananaskis is named for Norma Piper (1898-1983), an opera singer under the stage name Norma San Giorgio. Norma Piper, the daughter of a Canadian dentist, was studying singing in Italy in 1934 when she met legendary mountain man and rancher George Pocaterra, who had just sold his Alberta ranch.  The two wed in Milan in 1936 and Pocaterra became Piper’s manager on a European tour. In 1941, the two settled along the Ghost River Alberta west of Calgary.

Barbara Creek
This creek near Hinton is named for Barbara Ann Burrows (1922-2007), a noted musician, teacher and critic. Born at Entrance, near Hinton, Burrows was blind since childhood. She studied piano at the Royal College of Music in London and Indiana University. She was a music critic for the CBC and Edmonton Journal. She also worked on behalf of visually impaired people her entire life, developing a music program for the blind, writing the ground-breaking book Music Through Braille. She also established a charitable foundation for the development of young musicians.

Royalty and Religious Figures

Being part of the Commonwealth and having Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State, it is not surprising to find that a number of places and geographical features in Alberta are named for members of the Royal Family, with numerous places named for Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. However, there are places named for other members of the Royal Family and royalty from other nations.

Mount Queen Elizabeth
While most assume that it is named for the current Queen Elizabeth II or perhaps even Queen Elizabeth of the 1600s, it is in fact named for Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria (1876-1965), Queen of the Belgians and consort of King Albert I of Belgium. Following the invasion of Belgium by Germany during the First World War, Albert and Elisabeth served at and near the front lines; Albert personally led soldiers at the front and Elisabeth served as a nurse. In recognition of their wartime service, Canada named Mount King Albert and Mount Queen Elizabeth (complete with spelling mistake) for the Belgian King and Queen in 1918.   

Elisabeth of Bavaria, Queen of Belgium, 1920. Source: Kronprinsessan Astrid. (Stockholm: Âhlén & Âkerlunds, 1926). The image is in the Public Domain and available from Wikimedia Commons. 

Duchess
This village, southeast of Calgary near Brooks, is named for Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia, Duchess of Connaught (1860-1917). She was married to Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, seventh child of Queen Victoria and Governor General of Canada from 1911-1916. Princess Louise accompanied her husband on numerous visits to Alberta, including appearing at the inaugural Calgary Stampede in 1912 and the opening of the Alberta Legislature Building in 1913. During the First World War she personally sponsored Red Cross hospitals in Europe to care for wounded Canadian soldiers. The village of Patricia further to the east is named for her daughter Princess Patricia of Connaught, who also lent her named to the Canadian infantry Regiment, Princes Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. 

These are just a few of the Alberta place names featured on the Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names interactive map. Hopefully the map will grow as research is completed on other extant names to confirm that they are recognizing women in history, and as other place names are adopted to commemorate women and their accomplishments.

Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names is the third map in a series of interactive maps being developed by the Geographical Names Board of Canada and its members. The goal of these maps is to build more awareness amongst Canadians about place names and their important cultural role. The other maps currently available are Stories from the Land: Indigenous Place Names in Canada and Canada’s Commemorative Map: Remembering with Geographical Names. Additional map are under development.   

Sources

Alberta. Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women. Alberta Geographical Names Database. [Non-published].

Canada. Environment and Natural Resources. Geographical Names Board of Canada. Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names: Women on the Canadian Landscape. (Ottawa, ON), 2020. https://maps.canada.ca/journal/content-en.html?lang=en&appid=2b110593983a45159b839e28a8b5d839&appidalt=0a2ad7222d6a4b98a3beb7c651821b3e&utm_campaign=nrcan-rncan-womens-map&utm_medium=vurl&utm_source=canada-ca-womens-map

International Women’s Day. https://www.internationalwomensday.com/

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