Naming a nation is a significant undertaking that reflects its origin, the identity of its inhabitants, and its role in the world as envisioned by its founders.
With such lofty underpinnings, it should be no wonder that the process is rife with events, sometimes violent and at times humorous, but monumental. Like many other countries, the one we know as Canada is no exception to such events.
Let’s embark on the historical journey of Canada acquiring its name, which prominent figures were involved in, and the story that ensued.
1. The Indigenous Roots
The name Canada originates in the native tongue of indigenous tribes dwelling in the East Coast region. But it meant nothing close to what we know today. Over time, the name and the land took its current shape through the ebbs and flows of cultures and ideologies.
The story goes back to 1535 when the French explorer Jacques Cartier was on his second voyage to “New France,” the land along the Saint Lawrence River on the east coast of modern Canada.
While sailing up the river, there was a chance encounter with two Native Indian youths of Huron, who showed the explorer the way to “Kanata,” a word in the Iroquois language referring to a village named Stadacona. This would later become Quebec City.
What followed is Cartier morphed “Kanata,” which originally meant “village” or “settlement” into ‘Canada’ and used it not only for the village but the entire area ruled by the Huron tribe chief, Donnacona.
Interesting fact: Iberian origin theory, an alternate theory of the origin of the word Canada, proposes that it was derived from ‘cá nada’, or ‘nothing here’ in Portuguese, referring to the unavailability of gold or silver in the valley.
2. The Colonial Era
Among the main colonial settlers in the new land, the French and soon afterward, the British increasingly started controlling the land and established colonies. So did the naming of these places.
2.1. A French Colony Named ‘Canada’
Jacques Cartier had initially named the region “le pays des Canadas” in French, meaning ‘the country of villages.’ By 1545, European books and maps started mentioning ‘Canada’ as a greater region along the Saint Lawrence River.
As a part of New France in North America, the French established many colonies in the land adjacent to the Saint Lawrence River called ‘Canada‘. From mid-1500 till 1763, Canada was a colony under French rule.
2.2. British Control
The British followed the French into the new land, established its first colony at St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1583, and continued expanding.
Competing interests between the new colonizing nations over natural resources, beginning with tussles among the fur traders, soon turned into the Seven Years’ War. The battles concluded in 1763, with the British conquering French territories in the region.
2.2.1. From Colony to Province
With the British acquisition of New France, including the French colony called ‘Canada,’ further change ensued. It came to be known as the Province of Quebec.
However, after the American Revolution ended in 1783, the British loyalists moved north of the Great Lakes and into Central Canada. The Province of Quebec was partitioned into two colonies to accommodate their influx.
Under the Constitutional Act of 1791, also called the Canada Act, the French-speaking Lower Canada (later became Quebec) and the English-dominant Upper Canada (later became Ontario) were created. This act marks the first time when the name Canada was used officially.
Half a century later, in 1841, the Upper and Lower Canada were reunited under the Act of Union as the greater Province of Canada.
2.2.2. The Canadian Confederacy
Soon enough, the name ‘Canada’ incrementally started to define so much more! Following the London Conferences of 1866, the British North America Act (BNA) of 1867 officially proclaimed the Canadian Confederation on July 1st, 1867.
184.108.40.206. Choices in Names
In the London Conferences of 1866, many other names apart from’ Canada’ were proposed for the new confederacy. However, the latter was unanimously accepted thanks to the wits and reasoning of the Canadian statesman Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
Among the other names that were considered were Anglia (medieval Latin name for England), Hochelaga (old name for Montreal), Laurentia (name for a part of North America), and even Efisga (an acronym for the first letters of the countries England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, with the “A” for “Aboriginal“).
2.2.3. Fading British Influence
While the British North America Act (1867) was still in its draft stage, Canadian statesmen deliberated upon a suitable name for the growing nation. John A. Macdonald, who would be the first Prime Minister of the self-governing Canada, backed by his peers in Canada, suggested using the name “Kingdom of Canada” for the new country.
This indicated their intention to further the British Empire in the west rather than severing from it. Surprisingly, this proposition was somewhat thwarted by the Colonial Office in London.
The British officials cited the intent as “pretentious” for a new nation. They especially wanted to avoid provoking the United States with a name that invokes colonial imagery, especially when the US had displayed its formidable military powers in the recent Civil War.
3. The ‘Dominion of Canada’
As an alternative, the then Premiere of New Brunswick, Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley proposed the term “Dominion,” taken from a Bible verse and later chosen as the Canadian motto “A Mari Usque Ad Mare” (Latin for ‘from sea to sea’).
The statesmen interpreted the word “Dominion” broadly as a “virtual synonym for a sovereign state,” a departure from its usual usage as a massive colonial possession.
Thereby, in the Canadian Confederation of 1867, the word “dominion” was formalized, referring to the federally united provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and the Province of Canada (present-day Ontario and Quebec) into “one Dominion under the name of Canada.”
The Dominion of Canada became the official title of this newly formed “dominion.” To commemorate the unification of provinces, July 1st continues to be celebrated as Canada Day, which had started as Dominion Day.
3.1. Use and Disuse of ‘Dominion’
Although the word dominion appears many times in the British North America Act (1867), the term “Dominion of Canada” does not appear anywhere in the document. However, the phrase appears in the Constitution Act of 1871 along with “Canada.”
Similar mentions are found in the United Kingdom Acts of Parliament and Canadian banknotes before 1935. The term “Dominion of Canada” was frequently used to refer to the country until the 1950s.
After World War II, the Canadian government started increasingly functioning independently of the United Kingdom. The federal government had begun using only the word Canada on official documents.
3.1.1. Upkeeps for ‘Dominion Day’
In 1879, a bill was passed in the Canadian parliament to make Dominion Day a public holiday. Over the years, till 1958, the state made efforts to officially celebrate the day every year, apparently as a token to remember Canada’s British legacy. It was also a measure to counteract the recent trend of phasing out the usage of the word Dominion.
3.1.2. Dominion Day Becomes Canada Day
Post World War II, following multiple accounts of displeasure with the word “dominion” within the Canadian provincial governments, there were numerous but failed attempts to change the name of Dominion Day.
However, in July 1982, a bill was quickly passed to change the name of Dominion Day to Canada Day, a decision backed by a whopping 70% of Canadians, according to a Gallup poll.
This historical tailoring happened parallel to another monumental event in Canada’s history, the formal repatriation of the Canadian constitution from the UK in the same year.
3.2. Patriation of the Canadian Constitution
In 1982, the Canada Act was created which resulted in the repatriation of the Canadian constitution from the UK. The act transferred the country’s highest law, the British North America Act, renamed the Constitution Act of 1867, from the British Parliament to the Government of Canada and provincial legislatures.
It also witnessed the formulation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, called the Charter, from the hard bargain between the federal and provincial governments.
It is a foundational bill of rights guaranteeing political rights to Canadian citizens and civil rights to anyone living in Canada, brought into effect by Queen Elizabeth II of Canada on April 17th, 1982.
The Charter itself is a part of the Constitution Act of 1982. This event marks the formal separation of the nation of Canada from its imperial British roots.
Like many other Commonwealth Nations, the Canadian government uses the Westminster model. The British Monarch also remains the head of state, represented nationally by the Governor General.
3.2.1. Canada, Just That
In the Constitution Act of 1982 and the accompanying Charter, the word Dominion does not appear at all. However, along with this newer Act, the BNA Act, now renamed the Constitution Act of 1867, remains a distinct and integral part of Canada’s broader constitution.
As a result, the title “Dominion of Canada” retains its place but only as a relic of what it was initially intended for. The term is rarely used in government circles or publicly. The current functional and official name, Canada, reflects just that.
How Canada Got Its Name? The Journey from Being a Village to a Nation
Canada, as a name, had humble beginnings and grand current standing. Canada has traversed everything from being used in its nascent meaning for indigenous villages to being referred to as a nation.
Being a modern, fully democratic country ranking high for good quality of life in many international indices, Canada occupies a large part of the northern half of the North American continent, boasts of having the 2nd most extensive total area in the world, and has the world’s longest coastline.
It would be necessary for Canadians and the rest of the world to remember the country’s checkered journey while enjoying these privileges in the 21st century and beyond.