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Why is Canada Called Canada?

Before Europeans arrived, the land in North America that would come to make up what is today the second-largest country in the world had many names. Of course it did: it had many different peoples. These peoples lived from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic, and many of them didn’t have any practical way to interact with each other. When Jacques Cartier started exploring what would become Quebec in 1535, looking for a sea passage to China, there was no reason to think the land that got in his way had the potential to be one cohesive nation. In a few centuries it would become one, but it took some time.
It took a village. Specifically it took the village of Hochelaga to start the newcomers from Europe down the path to coming up with a name for the place. Hochelaga was a fortified Iroquois village that Cartier encountered on the St. Lawrence River. He and his party were greeted warmly by the Iroquois. Cartier named the nearby mountain Mount Royal, or Mont Réal. In later years, when French settlers moved to the area, Hochelaga would come to be called Montréal, which it is still called today. It’s not known for certain what the Iroquois actually called the village. The name Hochelaga is generally thought to be a French corruption of an Iroquois word. Just what word is open to debate. Some think it could be osekare, meaning “beaver path” or “beaver dam” or maybe osheaga, referring to the nearby big rapids. Some suggest that osheaga could also refer to shaking hands, a European custom that the Iroquois found to be a strange way to greet someone. This popular etymology is probably incorrect, since the word osheaga suggests shaking, but the French idiom is serrer les mains, which translates literally as to lock hands; the French find the English idiom to shake hands somewhat funny. It has also been suggested that osheaga could refer to Cartier’s men waving their arms from their boat in order to get the Iroquois’s attention.


Jacques Cartier meeting the Iroquois in Hochelaga, 1535 (photograph not available.  Image courtesy of the University of Manitoba.)


Whatever the origin, it’s unlikely that the Iroquois actually called their village Hochelaga. Cartier and his men couldn’t very well ask, since none of his men spoke Laurentian Iroquois, and none of the Iroquois spoke French. While listening to the Iroquois and trying to learn their language, Cartier started to understand some words, and frequently heard the word kanata, meaning “village”. Derived from this, Cartier started to use the word to mean all this new land he and his men had found, corrupting it slightly into Canada.


Left: Hochelaga as Cartier probably found it in 1535.  (Thanks to The Canadian Encyclopedia, thecanadianencyclopedia.ca.)
Right: Hochelaga today.  Still looks like a nice neighborhood.  (Thanks to urbanimmersive.com.)


King François I was happy to have the land added to his empire. While it was frequently referred to as Canada on a lot of maps, it was formally called New France. New France included all of the French claims in North America. This not only meant most of eastern Canada, but also parts of what would later be Midwestern Canada, the American Midwest, and land as far south as Texas and Louisiana. New France had a lot of people in it, but most of it didn’t have very many French people in it. A lot of place names in the former New France remind us that the French were there: St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Detroit, Sault Ste. Marie, Beaumont, Duquesne, Fort le Bœuf, St. Cloud, Eau Claire, Fond-du-Lac, Vincennes, Versailles, Michigan, Illinois, Arkansas… and this list is far from exhaustive.

New France, circa 1700.  Anything in green you could also refer to as “Canada”, if you wanted That's a pretty big village.  (Thanks to the Canadian Encyclopedia for the map - thecanadianencyclopedia.ca.)

Throughout the 17th and much of the 18th century, New France and Canada were used interchangeably.  You could be in Montréal or Fort Duquesne (modern Pittsburgh) or New Orleans and say you were in Canada.  But the French never officially called the region Canada.  Most of the land was lost to Great Britain in 1763 at the end of the French & Indian War (or, as it is known in Europe, the Seven Years’ War).  The only parts of New France that Great Britain did not take over were the Atlantic islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon, and the section of New France west of the Mississippi River, which was given to Spain.  (This land would change hands a couple more times.  In 1800, Spain would give the territory back to France, and the United States finally bought it in 1803 at the bargain price of about 7¢ an acre, in the famous land deal called the Louisiana Purchase.)

The first official use of the term Canada came in 1791, when Great Britain divided the Province of Quebec into two parts: Lower Canada (much of modern-day Quebec and Labrador) and Upper Canada (modern-day southern Ontario).  The two Canadas were united once again in 1840, when they became the Province of Canada.  The Province of Canada only existed for 27 years, when it was split into the provinces of Quebec and Ontario on July 1, 1867, when Great Britain passed the Constitution Act, which established the whole area as an independent dominion, and the name Canada was applied to the whole country.

But it wasn’t quite that simple.  Certainly Canada was the frontrunner for the official name for this new country right from the start, but there were other ideas for what to call it.  The names that were batted around by the nation’s founders were as follows.

  • Anglia.  This just means “England”.  French Candians would not have been too happy about that, to say nothing of the aboriginal populations.
  • Albionoria, or “Albion of the North”.  “Albion” is another, more poetic name for England.
  • Borealia.  This derives from the Latin borealis, meaning “north”.  Borealia would thus mean “Land of the North”, just like Australia means “Land of the South”.
  • Cabotia, honoring John Cabot, the Italian explorer who explored the east coast of Canada for England.  (Would this translate into French as Cartierie?)
  • Colonia.  Because it had been a colony.  This might not be something the people of this new nation with its own identity would want to be reminded too much.
  • Efisga.  This is an acronym for English, French, Irish, Scottish, German, Aboriginal.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
  • Hochelaga.  There’s that village again.  Happy Hochelaga Day!
  • Laurentia.  Derived from the St. Laurence River in Quebec, around which the first European settlements in the country were founded.
  • Mesopelagia.  From the Greek for “Between the Seas”.  The country is indeed surrounded by three oceans, but that name sounds like something someone who’s studied Greek more than human behavior would come up with.
  • New Albion.  Probably because the Americans were already using New England.
  • Norland.  Because it’s in the north. Obvs.
  • Superior.  Maybe named after one of the Great Lakes?  At any rate, this is the kind of name that gives a country’s people an obnoxious kind of cockiness.  Frankly, I think Canada dodged a bullet here.
  • Transatlantica.  Because it’s across the Atlantic.  Across the Atlantic from where?  Oh, yeah—England.  Why not just call it England Junior?
  • Tupona.  From The United Provinces Of North America.  Adorable, isn’t it?
  • Ursalia.  “Land of Bears”, because Canada does have a lot of bears.  Personally, this is my favorite, and I kind of wish they’d gone with this one.  Please don't send me hate mail, Canadians!
  • Vesperia.  “Land of the Evening Star”.  Honestly, I can’t find any association with Canada and the Evening Star.  It’s kind of pretty, though.
  • Victorialand.  After Queen Victoria, who was on the British throne at the time.


The name was debated among the founding Canadian statesmen, along with other weighty matters of founding a new nation.  Considering the list of potential new names, D’Arcy McGee, member of the Canadian Parliament, remarked, “One individual chooses Tupona, another chooses Hochelaga, as a suitable name for the new nationality.  Now I would ask any member of this House how he would feel if he woke up some fine morning and found himself, instead of a Canadian, a Tuponian or a Hochelagander.”  McGee’s mockery of the potential also-rans suggests that most people in the new nation were already leaning heavily toward calling it Canada, anyway.  And it stuck.

Ah, what could have been...

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