Under Indigenous Language Influence: Canadian Location Names

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

On March 31 we recently celebrated the National Indigenous Language Day of Canada. Founded in 1993, the day is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the languages of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

There are over 70 distinct Indigenous languages spoken in Canada, and reportedly one in every eightIndigenous people is proficient enough to conduct a conversation in one of them. Due to the colonial past and the impact of English, French and other immigrant languages slowly eroding their language environment, all Indigenous languages are now considered at risk, and are classified as either vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered or critically endangered.

Although on the brink of extinction, Indigenous languages have provided and preserved invaluable knowledge about Canada’s geography, nature and climate. During the Language Advocacy Day 2024 webinar, our panelists introduced three in-use location names in Canada that came from Indigenous origins and influence; today, let’s explore some more of them.


Toronto Jan 2024 Skaters on the outdoor rink by the Toronto Sign and City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square

Toronto, or Tkaronto, as originally spelled in the Mohawk language, means “where there are trees standing in water.” It refers to the narrow stretch where Lake Simcoe meets Lake Couchiching, where Indigenous people used to trap and catch fish using weirs. Historically, the name has been spelled as Tarento, Tarontha,Taronto, Toranto, Torento and Toronton.


Large Ottawa sign in street at Byward market in Ottawa, Ontario

The name Ottawa came from the Algonquin word “adawe,” which means “to trade.” The city was named thanks to the Ottawa River, which was historically an important transportation and trade route for the First Nations. Before European settlement, First Nations people camped along the riverbank for over 6000 years.


Aerial of Downtown Saskatoon

Coming from the Cree word misâskwatômina, the name refers to “the fruit of the tree of many branches,” also known as the Saskatoon berry, the city’s local specialty. For the Cree people in the Prairies, Saskatoon berry is an important agricultural product that’s commonly used in teas, for medicinal purposes and in traditional dishes.


Square One Mall, Mississauga, ON, Canada, Aug 27, 2022. City Center and town hall.

Mississauga comes from an Anishinaabe word Misi-zaagiing, and translates as “River of the North of Many Mouths.” The land where the city of Mississauga is built upon has been inhabited by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Huron-Wendat, the Wyandot Nations, and their ancestors.


Drone shot of buildings and a light Christmas tree in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

Kelowna, in the Okanagan language, means “grizzly bear.” The naming, however, has nothing to do with the land’s shape or its local animals. According to an early settler’s story, when the local First Nations people mistook him for a brown bear, they called “Kim-ach-touch (brown bear in local language),” which he decided to use to name the city. Over time, the name evolved into “grizzly bear,” the word now the city is known as.


Winnipeg skyline

As the capital and largest city of Manitoba, Winnipeg was named after the Lake Winnipeg, which is about 40 miles to its north. The name came from a phrase “win-nippee” in the Cree language, which means “murky water” or “muddy water.” In modern Cree, the word is spelled as winipīhk.

Today’s modern metropolis in North America is built upon the homeland that once cradled thousands of years of culture and history of the Indigenous people. The land nurtured its predecessors through the last ice age and is still providing critical resources, shelter and nutrients for the humans who call it home today thousands of years later. On this special day, when we celebrate the diversity and richness of Indigenous languages, it’s the least we can do to address the pre-contact past and pay respect to this sentiment of attachment to the land; and, given the opportunity, take a leaf out of their books on how humans should treat the nature and coexist with all living beings in harmony.

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