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Canada's name

The name Canada has been in use since the earliest European settlement in Canada and originates from a First Nations word canada for "settlement", "village", or "land". Today, Canada is pronounced /ˈknədə/ in English and /kanada/ in French. In Inuktitut, one of the official languages of the territory of Nunavut, the First Nations word (pronounced /kanata/) is used, with the Inuktitut syllabics ᑲᓇᑕ.

The French colony of Canada, New France, was set up along the Saint Lawrence River and the northern shores of the Great Lakes. Later the area became two British colonies, called Upper Canada and Lower Canada until their union as the British Province of Canada in 1841. Upon Confederation in 1867, the name Canada was officially adopted for the new Dominion, which was commonly referred to as the Dominion of Canada until after World War II.

Name origin


A map of North America ca. 1566, one of the first to include the name "Canada" (top right).

The name Canada originated around 1535 from the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian word canada meaning "village", "settlement", or "collection of huts";  another contemporary translation was "land".  This Iroquoian language was spoken by the inhabitants of Stadacona and the neighbouring region near present-day Quebec City in the 16th century,  with words having similarities to those in related languages such as Mohawk (e.g., kan:ta, "town"). Jacques Cartier was first to use the word "canada" to refer not only to the village of Stadacona but also to the neighbouring region and to the Saint Lawrence River, which he called rivire de Canada. By 1545, European books and maps began referring to this region as Canada.

While the First Nations origin for the name Canada is now widely accepted, other possible explanations have been put forward in the past. One theory suggested that the name originated when Spanish explorers, not having explored the northern part of the continent, wrote ac nada ("nothing here") on that part of their maps.

After the conquest of New France

After the British conquest of New France (including ceding of the French colony, Canada) in 1763, the colony was renamed as the Province of Quebec. Despite this, in the American Revolution their Articles of Confederation (1777) included a clause pre-authorizing the admission of "Canada" as a new state if it wished to join the U.S.

Following the revolution and the influx of United Empire Loyalists into Quebec, the colony was split on 26 December 1791 into Upper and Lower Canada, sometime being collectively known as "The Canadas", the first time that the name "Canada" was used as the name of a colony. While Cartier used canadien to refer to the Iroquois residents of the colony, the term later came to be applied to French subjects born in Canada, and then to inhabitants of both colonies.

Upper and Lower Canada were merged into one colony, the Province of Canada, in 1841, based on the recommendations of the Durham Report. The former colonies were then known as Canada East and Canada West, and a single legislature was established with equal representation from each. Under populated Canada West opposed demands by Canada East for representation by population, but the roles reversed as Canada West's population surpassed the east's. The single colony remained governed in this way until 1 July 1867, often with coalition governments. A new capital city was being built at Ottawa, chosen in 1857 by Queen Victoria, and became a national capital.

Selection of the name Canada

At the conferences held in London to determine the form of confederation that would unite the Province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), the Province of New Brunswick and the Province of Nova Scotia, a delegate from either Nova Scotia or New Brunswick proposed the name Canada in February 1867, and it was unanimously accepted by the other delegates. There appears to have been little discussion though other names were suggested (see below).

Adoption of Dominion


Canadian post card from 1905.

During the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, John A. Macdonald, who later became the first Prime Minister of Canada, talked of "founding a great British monarchy", in connection with the British Empire. He advocated, in the fourth Canadian draft of the British North America Act, the name "Kingdom of Canada, in the text is said:

The word 'Parliament' shall mean the Legislature or Parliament of the Kingdom of Canada.

The word 'Kingdom' shall mean and comprehend the United Provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.

The words 'Privy Council' shall mean such persons as may from time to time be appointed, by the Governor General, and sworn to aid and advise in the Government of the Kingdom.

Canada's founders, led by Sir John A. Macdonald wished their new nation to be called the "Kingdom of Canada". The Governor General at the time, Viscount Monk, supported the move to designate Canada a kingdom, however, officials at the Colonial Office in London opposed this potentially "premature" and "pretentious" reference for a new country. They were also wary of antagonizing the United States, which had emerged from its Civil War as a formidable military power with unsettled grievances because of British support for the Confederate cause and thus opposed the use of terms such as kingdom or empire to describe the new country.

As a result the term dominion was chosen to indicate Canada's status as a self-governing colony of the British Empire, the first time it would be so used in reference to a country. This was an old British term for a type of government used in New England, and presumably resurrected for new purposes. It is reckoned that Sir Samuel Tilley suggested the term, inspired by Psalms 72:8 (from the King James Bible): "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. his is also echoed in Canada's motto: A mari usque ad mare (Latin for "from sea to sea").

In a letter to Queen Victoria, Lord Carnarvon stated, "The North American delegates are anxious that the United Provinces should be designated as the 'Dominion of Canada.' It is a new title, but intended on their part as a tribute to the Monarchical principle which they earnestly desire to uphold.

However, in a letter to Lord Knutsford on the topic of the loss of the use of the word kingdom, Macdonald said:

"A great opportunity was lost in 1867 when the Dominion was formed out of the several provinces.

"The declaration of all the B.N.A. provinces that they desired as one dominion to remain a portion of the Empire, showed what wise government and generous treatment would do, and should have been marked as an epoch in the history of England. This would probably have been the case had Lord Carnarvon, who, as colonial minister, had sat at the cradle of the new Dominion, remained in office. His ill-omened resignation was followed by the appointment of the late Duke of Buckingham, who had as his adviser the then Governor General, Lord Monck - both good men, certainly, but quite unable, from the constitution of their minds, to rise to the occasion. Had a different course been pursued, for instance, had united Canada been declared to be an auxiliary kingdom, as it was in the Canadian draft of the bill, I feel sure almost that the Australian colonies would, ere this, have been applying to be placed in the same rank as The Kingdom of Canada."

The impression that the change of title from Kingdom to Dominion was caused by the Duke of Buckingham. This is not so. It was made at the instance of Lord Derby, then foreign minister, who feared the first name would wound the sensibilities of the Yankees. I mentioned this incident in our history to Lord Beaconsfield at Hughenden in 1879, who said, 'I was not aware of the circumstance, but it is so like Derby, a very good fellow, but who lives in a region of perpetual funk.

Use of the term dominion was formalized in 1867 through Canadian Confederation. In the Constitution of Canada, namely the Constitution Act, 1867 (British North America Acts), the preamble of the Act indicates:

Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom...

and section 3 indicates that the provinces:

... shall form and be One Dominion under the Name of Canada; and on and after that Day those Three Provinces shall form and be One Dominion under that Name accordingly.

In J. S. Ewart's two volume work, The Kingdom Papers, it is noted that the following names were considered for the union of British North America: "The United Colony of Canada", "the United Provinces of Canada", and "the Federated Provinces of Canada Ewart was also an ardent advocate for the formation of "the Republic of Canada", a position which was rarely expressed in those times

French terms for Dominion

The French translation of the 1867 British North America Act translated "One Dominion under the Name of Canada" as "une seule et mme Puissance sous le nom de Canada" using Puissance (power) as a translation for dominion. Later the English loan-word dominion was also used in French.

The Fathers of Confederation met at the Quebec Conference of 1864 to discuss the terms of this new union. One issue on the agenda was to determine the Union's "feudal rank" (see Resolution 71 of the Quebec Conference, 1864). The candidates for the classification of this new union were: "the Kingdom of Canada" (le Royaume du Canada), "the Realm of Canada" (le Realme du Canada), "the Union of Canada" (l'Union du Canada), and "the Dominion of Canada" (le Dominion du Canada).

Use of Canada and Dominion of Canada

Neither the term Dominion of Canada nor Dominion government appear in the 1867 Act; however, the former appears in the Constitution Act, 1871 usage of which was "sanctioned and both appear in other texts of the period, as well as on numerous Canadian bills before 1967.

Until the 1950s, the term Dominion of Canada was commonly used to identify the country. As Canada increasingly acquired political authority and autonomy from the United Kingdom, the federal government increasingly began using simply Canada on state documents. The government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent enacted a formal policy of removing the word "dominion" from all updated bills and statutes.

The Canada Act 1982 refers only to Canada and, as such, it is currently the only legal (as well as bilingual) name. This was also reflected later in 1982 with the renaming of the national holiday from Dominion Day to Canada Day. Section 4 of the 1867 BNA Act declares that:

Unless it is otherwise expressed or implied, the Name Canada shall be taken to mean Canada as constituted under this Act.

and this has been interpreted to mean that the name of the country is simply Canada. No constitutional statute amends this name, and the subsequent Canada Act 1982 does not use the term dominion. However, the Canadian constitution includes the preceding BNA Acts, where the term is used; also, the Canada Act 1982 does not state that Canada is not a dominion. While no legal document ever says that the name of the country is anything other than Canada, Dominion and Dominion of Canada remain official titles of the country.

In recent years the terms Dominion of Canada and Dominion are occasionally used to distinguish modern (post-1867) Canada from either the earlier Province of Canada or from the even earlier The Canadas. The terms are also used to distinguish the federal government from the provinces, though in this usage "federal" has become more common than "dominion". Among those who lament disuse of the term was the late Eugene Forsey, in response to what he and other monarchists consider increasing republicanism. However, the federal government continues to produce publications and educational materials that specify the currency of these official titles.

Other proposed names

While the provinces' delegates spent little time, if any, in settling on 'Canada' as the name for the new country, others proposed a variety of other names

  • Albion

  • Albionoria "Albion of the north"

  • Borealia from 'borealis', the Latin word for 'northern'; compare with Australia

  • Cabotia in honour of Italian explorer John Cabot, who explored the eastern coast of Canada for England

  • Colonia

  • Efisga an acronym of "English, French, Irish, Scottish, German, Aboriginal"

  • Hochelaga an old name for Montreal

  • Laurentia

  • Mesopelagia "land between the seas"

  • Norland

  • Superior

  • Tuponia derived from 'The United Provinces of North America'

  • Transatlantica

  • Ursalia "place of bears"

  • Vesperia "land of the evening star"

  • Victorialand in honour of Queen Victoria

Walter Bagehot of The Economist newspaper in London argued that the new nation should be called 'Northland' or 'Anglia' instead of Canada . On these names, the statesman Thomas D'Arcy McGee commented, "Now I would ask any honourable member of the House how he would feel if he woke up some fine morning and found himself, instead of a Canadian, a Tuponian or a Hochelegander?

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