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Origin of the Name "Canada"

How did Canada get its name? It came borne on the wind. The word "Canada" was first heard off Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on August 13, 1535, during Jacques Cartier's second voyage of exploration. Jesuit Pierre-Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix, the great early historian of New France, says it derived from the word "Kanata," a Huron-Iroquois term for village or community.


Two Indigenous youths Cartier had brought to France from his first voyage the previous year recognized farniliar landmarks and poinred west across the waters, calling across the deck that this was the way to the chemin de kanata (route to the village). They were pointing in the direction of the St. Lawrence River, the route to the settlement of Stadacona.

Wooden sailing ships are noisy places. Timbers creak on the water, sails flap and rigging whines in the seabreezes. Even on an average day in August, land breezes at 13 km/h on the north shore of the Gulf are enough to extend light flags. Over open water, winds are stronger.

The boys' words reached Cartier's ears as chemin de Canada -- road to Canada.

On August 17, Cartier noted his entrance to the great river: "The aforesaid [Indigenous youth] have assured us that this is the way to and the beginning of ... the route to Canada." He later named the area controlled by Stadacona's chief, Donnacona, "the Province of Canada" and he called the St. Lawrence the "river of Canada." Stadacona was the site on which Quebec City would be built.

The name Canada first appeared on a map of the world about 1547, on land north of the great gulf and river. It became the popular name for the colony of New France among inhabitants, and in France, as well. Voltaire in his novel "Candide" and in his letters called the land Canada. He also called it "a few acres of snow." But the British in the 13 colonies to the south usually referred to Canada after its capital, Quebec. Following the British conquest, the English name for the colony became the "Province of Quebec." Many of the French inhabitants resisted the name Quebec. They preferred to be identified with the original name, Canada. Eventually, the British succumbed and adopted the name Canada officially in the Canada Act of 1791, which divided the crown colony into Upper and Lower Canada. In the Act of Union in 1841, the two were reunited as the "British Province of Canada." But, of course, given their celebrated Gaulish contrariness, the proud Canadiens at that point began to embrace the name Quebec for their beloved homeland.

When the British Colonies of North America discussed uniting, they needed a name for their new nation. There was Canada, the name of two of the colonies, of course. But the Fathers of Confederation figured Queen Victoria would like Albertsland, to honour her late husband.

Among other names they considered: Albionara; Borealia; Britannia; Cabotia; Efisga, an acronym for England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Aboriginal lands (they overlooked Wales); Mesoplagia; Norland; Superior; Transatlantia, and Victorialand, after the Queen herself.

Fortunately, they discarded that whole list. At Confederation in 1867, the united colonies became the Dominion of Canada, 332 years after Cartier heard the name on the wind.

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Copyright Craig I.W. Marlatt